How La Leche League saved me

When I got to a La Leche League meeting and one mom offered to hold my baby and yet another offered me a “lactation cookie,” I started to bawl.

Photo: iStock Photo

When my first son was born, I cried every day, several times a day, for weeks. He was a much-wanted baby who had come into this world beautifully, naturally and on his due date, but somehow, as much as I loved the creature in front of me, motherhood just didn’t feel right.

In his earliest days, I ached badly from delivery. I knew that childbirth would be painful, but I was under the illusion that the pain would end when the baby arrived. But the fast delivery of my nine-pound, nine-ounce boy caused vaginal tearing that left me unable to stand, sit or even lie down without suffering. I felt frustrated that I wasn’t able to move and focus on my boy. When my stitches became infected, I took the prescribed antibiotics but stubbornly refused pain medication, worried that it wouldn’t be safe to breastfeed (which isn’t the case).

A woman breastfeeding her baby while sitting in bed 10 ways to prevent and treat sore nipplesIn those very early days, I also struggled with breastfeeding. My milk came in quickly and with abundance, and my son nursed around the clock. Still, I was engorged, and he was lethargic and dropping weight quickly.

When my baby was five days old, he was admitted to a children’s hospital with severe jaundice. Throughout his stay, I wept: for the mother I wanted to be but wasn’t, for how hard everything was, and for how deeply I just wanted him to be back in my belly, safe, quiet and peaceful.

My son spent four long days under the blue lights in the hospital and, before my husband and I took him home, the lactation consultant told me that I should visit a local La Leche League meeting. I nodded my head in silence, not wanting to disagree with her but certain that those women from La Leche League wouldn’t want anything to do with me—a mom who was already “failing” less than two weeks into motherhood.

I’d first learned about La Leche League and its rich history when I was a graduate student studying maternal and child health. I knew that it was an international non-profit group and that its mission was simple: to support nursing mothers. I’d also heard second- and third-time mothers in my birth class and on my hospital tour rave about the wonderful peer-to-peer support they had received in the monthly meetings. These volunteer women seemed like true earth mothers, while I felt insecure about how hard being a new mom was for me and how easily it seemed to come to others. I was afraid I just wouldn’t fit in at La Leche League.

Mom kissing little baby

Photo: Julia Pelly

At home, my son kept crying and I kept struggling. I desperately wanted to nurse, but the pain of a bad latch and the exhaustion of an up-all-night newborn were becoming overwhelming. After reaching out to a Facebook group for nursing moms, I was again encouraged to go to La Leche League. That night, during one of my son’s pre-dawn feedings, I started Googling and discovered that there were five active groups in my city. Each group held free monthly meetings and, according to their website, all were welcome. As I scanned the upcoming meeting dates, I realized that there was a group meeting for muffins and support in just a few hours. After desperately trying to snag a couple more hours of sleep and overcoming my fears of anyone discovering just how bad this “mom” thing was for me, I got both my son and I dressed. When we pulled out of the driveway, I realized that it was the first time we’d ever left the house together on our own.

The whole way there, I was worried that I wouldn’t fit in or that the women in attendance would be smarter, skinnier and more put together than me. I planned to go in, ask how to make nursing work and race home as quickly as possible.

When I walked through the door, 15 minutes late and with my son crying in his carrier, my eyes were already brimming with tears. As the leader welcomed me—and oohed and aahed at my son’s slate-blue eyes—the tears began to trickle. When another mom offered to hold my baby while I got settled and yet another offered me a “lactation cookie,” I started to cry in earnest.

Immediately, these women, all strangers, welcomed me in into their fold and started to share stories of their first weeks of motherhood. There were tales of exhaustion, tears and fights with partners, of pain and soreness, of wondering if motherhood would ever feel normal. They held my baby, showed me how to position him for a pain-free latch and told me that it was OK to cry and that this part would pass.

As the informal meeting progressed, the group leader talked casually through some common breastfeeding challenges and asked the women there to share how they had overcome them. The technical expertise of the leader was helpful—she could answer just about any question that came her way—but the collective wisdom of the group was even more powerful. For each question I asked and each worry I expressed, there were 10 women with a range of experiences and ideas, all willing to share and listen.

These moms didn’t care that I was wearing grubby maternity leggings or cringe when I shared that my stitches still hadn’t healed. They didn’t mind when my baby blew out his diaper halfway through the meeting or when my milk squirted inadvertently into the carpet we were sitting around. They were calm and gentle and soothed me as if I was theirs to take care of.

When I left a few hours later, something had changed in me, just a little bit. Their support was simple, but it meant so, so much to me.  I stumbled in on the unsteady fawn legs of motherhood and, with a lactation cookie and a spit-up-stained shoulder to cry on, they steadied me.

Four years later, I now attend meetings with my second son. And, though I still ask for support around specific challenges, I also find myself in a position to offer the sort of support I once needed. When I bundle up my son and head to the monthly meetings, I often hope that there’s a new mother there—one that I can help support as I was once steadied.

These days, I feel confident as a mother. I know how to swaddle and nurse and what to do when my baby has gas. I know that everything is temporary and that even the longest nights end. But I also vividly remember when I didn’t know these things and the world of motherhood was unfamiliar, murky and terrifying.

If that’s you right now, struggling with the hardest, earliest days of motherhood, I have one bit of advice: Go to a La Leche League meeting. And if you’re a woman who has been down the road of motherhood before and who knows just how hard it can be, you might consider going to La Leche League, too—chances are, there’s a new mom there who could use your support.

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