Last November, when the American Academy of Pediatrics announced that breast milk is the best milk for babies, Marian Tompson might justifiably have said, "I told you so." Instead, this attractive, red-haired woman simply went about her daily business of being a wife, a mother to seven children, a grandmother to four and president of La Leche League International.
Twenty-nine years ago, in 1950, Marian Tompson didn't have the pediatricians on her side. In fact, few in the medical establishment or outside it supported the young mother-to-be who instinctively felt that breast-feeding was the best way to nurture a child. Pediatricians from Dr. Spock on down authoritiatively asserted that bottle-feeding was just as good as breast-feeding. Information on how to nurse a baby successfully, once handed down from generation to generation, had become as obsolete as the dodo bird.
"Breast-feeding just seemed the natural thing to do," Tompson recalls. "I think I had seen an aunt breast-feed once, but I'm not sure. I had a friend who had nursed, but she never talked about it. Even my mother who had nursed me never talked about it."
Despite both the lack of information and the lack of help from doctors and hospital nurses during her deliveries, Marian perservered. "The nurses were embarrassed! Nobody said a word to me. My breast became swollen! Nobody helped. I stopped breast-feeding my first child at six months, never realizing that I'd have milk for as long as I wanted to nurse. And any time I had a problem with my first three children, the doctor would say, 'Put the baby on a bottle.'"
To say that she succeeded would be a massive understatement. By the time she had four children, she considered herself successful in her personal attempts to breast-feed. "I always used to wonder, what if I were a pioneer woman out on the prairie without any modern conveniences? Would my children die? Then, I nursed my fourth child for 14 months, I realized I didn't have to rely on others. I've since seen so many women mature through the breast-feeding experience -- for the first time in their lives, they realize that they and they alone can take care of someone else."
And as the years went on, she translated her own personal success into an organization that has helped millions of other women. "In 1956, I was at a church picnic with Dr. Gregory White and his wife, Mary. Some women we knew came up to us and told us about the problems they had had in breast-feeding their children. So I said to Mary, why don't we start having meetings for our friends who want to nurse? We started out in Franklin Park, talking about our experiences and reading aloud whatever little we could find on the subject. I had four small children and I was busy with them, but I felt that by helping women, we were helping families. From then on, it was like having a tiger by the tail. Seven of us decided we'd have regular meetings once a month. Soon, a lot of women we didn't know started coming to our meetings. We learned there were a lot of women who really wanted to nurse."
Out of those meetings in suburban Franklin Park have grown 4,200 La Leche League groups in countries all over the world. Millions of women worldwide have been affected by one woman's desire to share her knowledge with others. "Our meetings have a regular format, but perhaps the most important thing is that young women who are expecting babies see other women nursing their babies. They can learn by observation as well as by the materials we provide.
"Fifty-three percent of the women in the United States are now breast-feeding. What we offer these women is a supportive subculture. It's not enough that just a woman's doctors and nurses know about breast-feeding -- her mother, her best friend, her next-door neighbor, and society itself has to be supportive of it.
"My greatest personal satisfaction is that my own children are now being helped by an organization I helped found. My daughters now go to the League meetings, and the League members have become their friends."
The League's newsletter reaches 60,000 people every other month. Still based in Franklin Park, the international office with its 52 paid employes prints and distributes pamphlets, books, and articles of interest to both parents and medical professionals with titles such as "Breast-feeding and Drugs in Human Milk" and "Breast-feeding and the Oral Contraceptive Pill." Information on any aspect of breast-feeding is available from the league's reference library.
Next May, Tompson will travel to Japan on a trip co-sponsored by that country's largest newspaper. In previous years, with the stay-at-home help of an enormously supportive husband, she has taken La Leche League's information through-out much of the world. "I was invited to speak in Vienna this year, but I couldn't go because my daughter, Melanie, was about to give birth to twins. But the talk I was supposed to give is being published in the "Austrian Medical Journal.'"
For most people having an article published in a medical journal that usually limits itself to writings by doctors would head their list of this month's most meaningful experiences. But not for Marian Tompson: "Do you know that the best part of having twins is that the grandmother always gets to hold one?"