Arts & Culture » Calendar

Chi Lives: Marian Thompson, nurturer of nursing mothers



It's eight in the morning, Mother's Day, and Marian Tompson finally has a chance to talk. The last few weeks have been tough for her, a widow shuffling between her Evanston apartment, the toy store she manages, and her ill mother's home in Franklin Park.

But if there's one thing Tompson--one of the seven founders of La Leche League International--knows, it's how to nurture. When she was born, 60 years ago, her father was in the delivery room, and she was breast-fed on demand and slept with her parents all through her very colicky start in life. She has raised seven children, ages 26 to 40, who have given her 12 grandchildren and no trouble. And there are a few million babies around the world who might never have tasted their own mothers' milk if nurturing hadn't been such a high priority for her.

"I love being a mother," says Tompson. "I wish I could have had more than seven children. But today my grandchildren keep my love juices flowing. Love just courses through me."

Tompson was recently honored on Night of 100 Stars III, taped at Radio City Music Hall. But at the last minute, Walter Cronkite refused to confer the award on her--Leslie Stahl had to do it. Cronkite just couldn't bring himself to say that word--the "B" word. "Breast-feeding." He was too shy.

In 1956 Marian Tompson was on child number four. Nursing the first three kids hadn't gone well. She knew nothing about the supply and demand of the breast-feeding process, nothing about taking care of sore nipples. Her doctor told her that mothers with small kids around the house were apt to lose their milk for the new infant, and encouraged her to keep plenty of formula and sterilizing equipment on hand. Still, Tompson wanted to nurse.

The nursing was going better with this baby because she'd found a knowledgeable, supportive doctor who believed in nursing on demand until a child weaned herself--not in a four- to six-hour schedule, with early weaning to provide independence for baby and freedom for mom. She and her friend Mary White, her doctor's wife and a woman who was nursing her sixth child, once snuck away from a church picnic to feed their babies. A couple of other moms noticed and began asking questions.

"These women came up and told us how they wanted so much to breast-feed, but they just didn't know how and no one could help them," says Tompson. "A lot of women then wanted support and information about breast-feeding. We decided that we would meet with other mothers in the neighborhood who needed this information. We knew most women would breast-feed if they could learn how. Even me--I knew only one girlfriend who nursed her baby when I began my family, and she was so uptight about it. If her husband was in the room, she wouldn't let me nurse."

The interest these mothers expressed eventually produced a global mother-to-mother support group, based in Franklin Park. The La Leche League was named for the oldest U.S. shrine, Our Lady of the Happy Delivery and Plentiful Milk, in Saint Augustine, Florida. The only qualification for being one of its "leaders" is to have breast-fed your babies, and any woman who wants information or support can get it free of charge.

"We didn't mean to start an organization. We just wanted to help our friends," says Tompson. "Of course, we had to name our group because it was the organized American way to do things, but we couldn't have a name that had the word 'breast' or 'breast-feeding' in it."

Two years later, after several magazines and newspapers had written about these earth mothers, hundreds of groups had sprung up in living rooms around the country and the world. In order to respond to the torrential mail, Tompson, White, and five other mothers, who had 33 children between them, wrote one of the major best-sellers of all time, The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding. It has sold 3 million copies, in 43 countries and 27 languages.

The very first printing of the La Leche League manual was 33 pages long and paper-clipped together; it sold for a dollar. Dr. Spock sent a note with his dollar: "I've heard about your book from my patients, who say it has been more helpful with breast-feeding than mine. Please send me a copy."

Tompson stuck with LLLI work and related projects for the next 32 years. She was president for 24 years, and has done fund-raising and lobbying and written columns about breast-feeding.

"I used to go to the league office--always after the kids were in school, and I'd leave before they came home--to do my work, and I'd look at the filing cabinets and the office work and think how unlike the image of myself "working' was," says Tompson. "I always put my family first, and told them if they didn't want me to go on a trip to let me know. The only trip I ever gave up was when a speaking engagement for pediatricians in Austria conflicted with the birth of my twin grandchildren. I was glad I stayed home for that. I sent a leader in my place who read my speech to them in German--more than I could have done."

Tompson always believed her league work was important, however. "The human race never could have survived if women couldn't breast-feed their babies," says Tompson. "Breast milk is brain food. It's essential for brain development and in creating humane, centered, and loving persons of benefit to the planet."

The La Leche philosophy centers on how often and how well mothers and babies relate. The more milk the baby sucks, the more milk is produced. The mother's separation from the baby (read: mom going to work) leads to a reduction in the milk supply, which leads to more separation.

Oxytocin, Tompson explains, is the hormone responsible for "mother-infant bonding and free-flowing milk." In a breast-feeding mother, the oxytocin level rises all the time, but once a mother and baby start accepting bottles, there can be a quick end to breast-feeding. "There is not the same drive biologically for closeness," says Tompson. "As I nursed each subsequent child, the motherliness that I was feeling so intensely due to the hormones I was secreting made me more motherly to my whole family."

Tompson says pediatricians have undermined women's desire for a natural breast-feeding experience, though recently many doctors have been more supportive than they used to be. But, as Tompson says, "now they act as though breast-feeding is too important to be left to mothers." Or to the 8,000 current and 27,000 retired LLLI leaders, who have helped anyone in need--day or night--whenever they're asked.

And despite doctors' use now of lactation consultants, Tompson points out that "the League has a proven track record of helping others breast-feed, of giving practical information on how to fit breast-feeding into a life. Paying money for breast-feeding helps take away the naturalness."

Tompson adds that she isn't fooled by formula companies acting as if they believe in breast-feeding. "Gerber looks good by associating itself with breast-feeding," she says. "They wanted our leaders to man their 'breast-feeding hotline' for them, but we felt our credibility would be compromised by associating with a formula company.

"There is, of course, the subtle assumption in everything they do and say that at some point a woman will want to use a bottle. But that's definitely not true."

The late Grace Kelly was one of Tompson's close friends and a strong supporter of LLLI. She told Tompson years ago, "My babies' needs always came first--before the needs of state."

For information on La Leche League meetings in your area, or for a La Leche League leader to help with breast-feeding, call (708) 455-7730 or 800-LA LECHE.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

Add a comment