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Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Ripples on a Pond Mothers' Stories
Kathy Dettwyler, Newark, Delaware, USA


In October last, one of the Founders of La Leche League died at the age of 87. Mary Ann Cahill was one of the original seven women who nearly six decades ago were sitting around in Franklin Park, Illinois, talking about how to support each other in their mothering journey through breastfeeding and how to extend that support to other women. Today, La Leche League International is a vibrant organization with information and support available for women all over the world, in many languages, and through many different media. I have only had the good fortune to meet two of the Founders in person, Edwina Froehlich and Marian Tompson, but the importance of all seven of these women to my life—both my career as an anthropologist and my experiences as a mother—cannot be overstated. I owe them a debt of gratitude that I can never repay directly: I can only try to pay it forward, extending the ripples they started on a pond when I was just a nursing infant myself.

Growing up, I was the youngest of three girls. I had only babysat for other people on a handful of occasions, and neither of my older sisters had children. I had never given a moment’s thought to having children, or to how I would feed them, how I would care for them, or where they would sleep. I had no knowledge, and no opinions, about child care. Fortunately for me, Martha Toomey came into my life in 1977, when I left California and headed off to graduate school. Along with her husband Ron, and my soon-to-be-husband Steven, Martha had moved to Bloomington, Indiana, and had given birth to her son Brian in the summer of 1979. My own journey as a mother began on a fall day that year. I had just found out I was pregnant, and after telling the father-to-be, I next went to see my friend Martha, who had a four-month-old son. When I told her the good news, she gave me a hug and said, “Oh, that’s great! You’ll have to come to a La Leche League meeting with me.” I responded, “What’s La Leche League?” And the rest, as they say, is history.

As I had more children, and my career unfolded, I pursued various avenues of research related to breastfeeding and weaning, and the impact of La Leche League has only grown.

La Leche League philosophies of mothering through breastfeeding, along with baby wearing and co-sleeping, just made sense to me. I met a variety of women from all walks of life who were truly enjoying their infants and toddlers, and who were friendly, supportive, and just all-round wonderful people. I embraced LLL and never looked back. My daughter Miranda was born in 1980 and we nursed without any problems. When she was ten months old, we traveled with her throughout Europe, and then to Egypt. Eventually we ended up in Mali, when she was 15 months old, and I devoted my ethnographic field research to breastfeeding, weaning beliefs and practices and the growth and health of children among the Bambara people of Mali. I wasn’t really surprised to note how much of Bambara child-rearing philosophy reflected what I had learned in LLL meetings. I was pleasantly surprised to spend two years in a culture where everyone breastfed for several years, where nursing problems were virtually unknown, and where children seldom cried or fussed. It was, of course, sobering to see children who were malnourished, or who suffered from polio, or who died from measles, diphtheria, and malaria. Why couldn’t we create a world where all children got to breastfeed for several years, where every mother knew how to prevent or solve common problems, but also where vaccines, antibiotics and sufficient high-quality foods were available to all?

As I had more children, and my career unfolded, I pursued various avenues of research related to breastfeeding and weaning, and the impact of La Leche League has only grown. Through my writings (books, scholarly articles, popular articles, and website), my lectures at conferences (for physicians, lactation consultants, health departments, and LLL groups), and my university classroom teaching (I manage to work this material into every class, no matter what the official topic might be), I have been able to pass along the lessons I learned from LLL to thousands of people, who in turn have passed them along. My daughter Miranda has continued the legacy, giving talks on breastfeeding to a variety of groups and through the example of her own mothering of my two breastfed grandchildren, Henry and Eleanor. I expect my son Alexander and his wife Shenin to continue the legacy in the years to come.

The seven founding mothers of La Leche League sent out the first ripples in a tiny pond. Those ripples have reached far beyond their wildest imaginings. I am honored to have served as an amplifier of their original ripples, which continue on into the future, indefinitely.

Dr. Katherine A. Dettwyler is an anthropology professor at the University of Delaware, Newark, DE. She is the author of Dancing Skeletons: Life and Death in West Africa 1993, and the co-editor of Breastfeeding: Biocultural Perspectives (1995), which includes her chapters “Beauty and the Breast: The Cultural Context of Breastfeeding in the United States,” and “A Time to Wean: The Hominid Blueprint for a Natural Age of Weaning in Modern Human Populations.” See some of her scholarly peer reviewed publications.

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