10/31/2014 12:07 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Waiting for the Bat Signal: The Passing of a Parenting Legend

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Mary Ann Cahill died several days ago. Her name turns up few Google hits. No major news outlets lament her passing; her 11 children and 17 grandchildren mourn her loss in relative privacy. But if you're a parent, and especially an attachment parent, you owe her a great debt. In 1956, along with six other women, Cahill helped found the advocacy and support group that became La Leche League International.


Your town have a Wal-Mart? You probably have a La League group. That group's trained, educated leaders provide breastfeeding help to all and sundry, by phone or in person -- for free. Seriously -- these women are like Batman waiting for the bat signal. I called a leader when my 9-month-old chipped a tooth and nursing felt like a shark attack; Robin told me to get his tooth filed, then found a pediatric dentist to do at 4:00 p.m. on a Friday. I called a leader when nursing my 2 day old hurt so badly I'd resorted to oragel on my nipples; Jen agreed he probably had a tongue tie and told me which local doctor could fix it. Quite literally, La Leche League saved the tatas.

But Cahill, along with the other founders, envisaged not just a boob-help-hotline, but a community of mothers guiding and nurturing each other through their parenting journeys. I've called LLL twice. But I've asked average LLL mamas innumerable questions, at meetings and on Facebook, about everything from reflux to tandem nursing to co-sleeping. I've helped other members in turn. And more importantly, I've had the bone-deep relief of other mothers sitting where I sit, struggling where I struggle, women who have kept and keep company in the sleep-deprived shellshock of new motherhood.

Ideally, we'd give birth into a culture where breastfeeding is valued, where new mothers find themselves shepherded gently into a supportive community of parenthood. Instead, most postpartum women struggle with isolation. Few mamas go home to an adequate support network, especially if they parent outside the mainstream. Cahill and the founders recognized those needs in the science-worshipping postwar era, when society saw engineered, measurable formula as best for babies, and the rise of Levittowns heralded a breakdown of traditional community. These seven women from Elmhurst, IL imagined a local group that offered breastfeeding support. Almost 60 years later, LLL International has chapters all over the world, all coordinated exclusively by volunteers.

Not a week passes that a breastfeeding mother is asked to cover up, take it to the bathroom, or leave a store entirely. But La Leche League is still normalizing nursing, still supporting breastfeeding rights. Today, Alyssa Milano is posting nursing pics on Instagram. Breastfeeding photography has become a lucrative niche. And millions of women are meeting their personal nursing goals -- which may not be exclusive breastfeeding, or may include drying up their supply. All thanks to seven woman at a church picnic.

When I talk to new mamas, I always give the same advice: at the first sign of trouble -- sore nipples, sleepy baby, fast letdown -- call your local LLL leader. Barring that, find her online. If you need a lactation consultant, your leader will know the best in town. And if you're a lonely new mama, check out a meeting. Yes, someone will breastfeed their 3-year-old. Yes, you'll see a lot of unabashed, unashamed bare boob. At first, it might scare you. I once side-eyed the bare-chested woman with a toddler on one breast and a newborn on the other. I get it. But slowly, it'll become inspiring, and maybe one day, you'll be the mom nursing a toddler, the one assuring new mamas: look, I didn't plan to go this long either. And you don't have to it. It's all okay. We're here to support you and your goals, whatever they may be.

That's what Mary Ann Cahill and her friends wanted. Women needed support. They created it. Their small group ballooned into an organization that supports scientific research, sells accessible nursing wear, maintains online forums, and helps millions of parents in over 60 countries. Godspeed, Mary Ann. May we all learn from your example: it only takes a few to make a village. And from that village, we can recreate the world.