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1999 LLLI Conference Sessions:
Mothering the Breastfed Baby Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

By Sharon Young
Dixon, MT USA
From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 16 No. 6, November-December 1999, pp. 206-207

Wisdom of the past... gold standard for the future. The theme of the 1999 LLLI Conference certainly describes the content of this session. Imagine a hotel conference room filled with mothers and babies gathered for a discussion of breastfeeding with the seven Founders of La Leche League. As Marian Tompson took the microphone, a hush settled over the room, punctuated only by the coos of babies and whispered responses of mothers. All attention focused on the seven women who gave La Leche League its start 43 years ago. Let's listen to their comments.

On Beginnings

The discussion began with comments from each of the Founders on the early days of La Leche League and their own early mothering experiences. Marian Tompson told of the beginning of La Leche League at that now famous picnic in Franklin Park, Illinois. Marian, at the time, was the mother of four.

Mary White attended that first LLL meeting as the mother of six children, pregnant with her seventh. During her second pregnancy, Mary had read Grantly Dick-Read's book, Childbirth without Fear, and prepared for an awake and aware childbirth experience. With her third and subsequent babies, Mary was in the care of Dr. Ratner. The fourth and all the rest of the Whites' eleven children were born at home.

Mary Ann Kerwin told how in 1956, her sister-in-law Mary White invited her to the first LLL meeting. At the time, Mary Ann had one child and was pregnant. She also had read Dr. Dick-Read's book. Her first baby had been weaned at nine months, a long time to nurse a baby in those days.

Betty Wagner Spandikow recalled having been invited to the first LLL meeting by Mary Ann Cahill. Betty's first child was born in 1943, and she was the only breastfeeding mother in her doctor's practice at the time.

Why did these women start an organization for breastfeeding mothers? "I knew what it had meant to me to be able to share my feelings with another mother," Edwina Froehlich explained. Edwina recounted for us the details of her early involvement. She was a patient of Mary White's husband, Dr. Gregory White. Edwina's three babies were born at home when she was between 36 and 42 years old. She remembered being very lonely, since she knew no other breastfeeding mothers. She was "very euphoric, with no one to share it with." So, Edwina called Dr. White, and his wife Mary answered. Mary recalls inviting Edwina to the first LLL meeting.

Mary Ann Cahill's interest in breastfeeding went back to her mother's stories of breastfeeding. "This was what mothering was all about," she told us. Mary Ann read Grantly Dick-Read's book in preparation for childbirth. During her first labor, Mary Ann received a spinal anesthetic and did not breastfeed. When she moved to Franklin Park, she met Mary White and Betty Wagner. When Mary Ann had her second baby, she wanted to breastfeed.

Viola Lennon insists that La Leche League started at a meeting at Mary White's house, and not at the picnic because she wasn't there! Viola was also a patient of Dr. White. She became a good friend of Edwina Froehlich. Edwina invited Viola to a meeting to discuss breastfeeding and mothering.

At the time, Viola says, she had three children and was not sure what mothering was all about! She had heard that Mary White had nursed a baby for fourteen months. Viola had nursed for nine months and wasn't sure she wanted to meet Mary White! Viola invited the wife of a friend from work to that first meeting, but the woman's husband was transferred to New York before the meeting was held.

Marian also recalled inviting Edwina to the first LLL meeting. As I listened to Marian's account of having read an article about Grantly Dick-Rick while she was in high school, it dawned on me how much I owed to these outstanding women. I recalled how, twenty-three years ago, as a young bride, I had taken the very practical approach of reading up on mothering as I dreamed of the day we would start a family of our own. My research led me to Grantly Dick-Read's Childbirth Without Fear, which in turn led me to THE WOMANLY ART OF BREASTFEEDING. The ideas contained in these two books formed the firm foundation from which our parenting would develop. As I listened to these remarkable women's stories, I was overwhelmed by feelings of deep appreciation for all they had given to provide a support system that would allow me to follow my heart in raising my own family.

On Mothering...and Grandmothering

Marian Tompson shared this bit of wisdom with us: "The best gift you can give your grandchildren is mothering your children."

Three births brought Viola Lennon to the idea of a home birth. During her sixth pregnancy, Viola was dragging. She'd had pneumonia early on and ended up in the hospital. Dr. White gave her the news that there was nothing wrong - she was going to have twins! This announcement brought Viola certain concerns and fears at the thought of breastfeeding twins, but "sixteen bottles in the fridge was a scary idea," so she decided to give breastfeeding a try. Her conclusion: "Over the long run, it was easier."

Mary Ann Cahill shared the story of one of her grandchildren. The baby was not sucking and had no wet diapers. The baby's tongue curled back during attempts at breastfeeding, and Mary Ann's daughter was in tears. She called Dr. White who recommended feeding the baby using an eye dropper while training the baby to suck. Mary Ann's grandbaby learned to breastfeed. Of helping her daughter she says, "It was very rewarding." Mary Ann shared pictures of her precious new granddaughter, Margaret Mary.

Edwina told us that she'd had no problems nursing her three sons. As they were growing up, however, she wondered how she would bear up if her sons should marry women who didn't want to breastfeed. Edwina says, "The prayers worked." When the time came for the birth of their first child, her daughter-in-law and son moved into Edwina's house. This was Edwina's first experience witnessing birth. Two of her grandchildren were born at Edwina 's home. Another was born at home. All of her grandchildren have been breastfed.

Betty Wagner Spandikow told of her family, which included seven children: five girls and two boys. She now has 24 grandchildren, including a set of twins who were born at home unexpectedly. Betty was with her daughter at the time and caught the two babies. Betty also has six great-grandchildren with three more on the way.

In 1956, Mary Ann Kerwin gave birth to her first baby, under the care of Dr. White. She had six sons and three daughters. Her third son died of SIDS. She remembers feeling very uncomfortable outside of her "cocoon " of support. She felt very fragile.

The first of Mary Ann Kerwin 's ten grandchildren was a preemie born two months early, on Christmas Day. He weighed four pounds, 10 ounces, and in a month he was breastfeeding. His mother had pumped her milk to maintain a supply. Mary Ann has enjoyed helping her daughters and daughters-in-law with breastfeeding.

Mary White's wisdom for the day was, "Out of tragedy comes good." She shared her belief that tragedies inspire us to try to do good, to turn things around. "People are starting to wake up and realize: parents, especially mothers, belong at home."

And from Marian Tompson came these words of wisdom for us: "The world is better off when mothers are allowed to take care of their own children." She referred to pumps as a transitional tool until we as a culture come to our senses. Mary Ann Kerwin and Mary White had the largest babies of the Founders' children. Mary Ann Kerwin 's weighed in at nine pounds, 12 ounces; Mary White's at nine pounds, 15 ounces.

The last portion of the session allowed time for questions and comments from the audience. One attendee commented, "When you ladies talk, you always talk about people, not things."

When asked, "Why did you decide to include mothering in your discussions about breastfeeding?" Mary White shared that Dr. Ratner clarified the matter. "You can 't talk about the one without the other." Marian Tompson remembered a comment of a mother at one of the early meetings, "You women seem to like mothering." On the subject of husbands, Marian Tompson shared that her husband was an enthusiastic supporter of breastfeeding. She also said that the first LLL series had a father's meeting as #5.

Those interested in learning more about the beginnings of La Leche League will be pleased to learn that Mary Ann Cahill is working on a book titled Seven Voices... One Dream, from taped interviews with the Founders.

Wisdom of the Past.. Gold Standard for the Future

Why was La Leche League started back in 1956? In the words of one of the Founders, "Women were ready to take charge of their own bodies. There was a need." The seven Founders set into motion a network of mother-to-mother support which reaches out into the future. To quote Viola Lennon, "You all are the ones who continue it."

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