Merritt: Perceptions of maternal responsibilities have changed over four generations, love hasn't

When Sen. Tammy Duckworth brought her newborn infant to the chamber floor — a history-making event that enables Senate mothers to bring their babies to work so they can vote on various legislation — I thought about motherhood and how the passage of time, spanning four generations in my family, has changed our perceptions of the maternal caregiver.

As a young woman, my grandmother spent her days cleaning, cooking and taking care of five daughters and one son. She took her place among most women at that time whose primary role was to raise their children while their husbands provided the income.


According to my mom, my sweet “Mee-Maw” showed little affection during the Depression when there was no money to be spent on toys and no patience to deal with six squabbling siblings. Times were hard during those early years of living in Baltimore city. Urban blue-collar life consisted of outdoor toilets, cooking on a cast-iron stove and coal furnaces that never provided enough heat to reach the second-floor bedrooms.

Ultimately, my grandmother reaped the benefits of having raised six productive children who became parents themselves. I’ll never imagine her as a strict disciplinarian since I had the luxury of basking in her love during the next phase of her life when she could reap the benefits of an easier time — devoid of the responsibilities of raising a family — with modern plumbing, appliances, and a little more money.

My mother, on the other hand, was employed during the 1950s when all of my friends had stay-at-home moms. After all, she had worked during World War II in a factory to help with the family income while my father was serving overseas in the military.

She continued to bring home a paycheck when my father was discharged and, at first, unable to find employment.

As an employee of the A&P grocery store chain, my mother seemed to enjoy her occupation but she always expressed her guilt about leaving me, an only child, even though I was well cared for. (While my parents worked, I never needed a babysitter because I stayed at my grandparents’ house which was around the corner from where I lived.) Still, as a small child I felt sad whenever my mother left for her eight-hour day.

I never remember my mother not having a job.

When I became a mother of two, I considered myself lucky to stay at home to raise my family and I also enjoyed a social circle of neighbors who were stay-at-home moms as well. With the onslaught of the feminist movement, however, I began defending my role, despite the fact that the crusade was for equality of women. While I believed in the cause, it instilled some self-doubt and whenever I attended my husband’s work-oriented social gatherings, I began to dread the too-often-asked question, “What do you do?”

With the busyness of my family, those feelings soon ebbed, along with the fervor of the movement, and I never regretted staying home. Were things perfect? Absolutely not. As we all know, parenting isn’t easy and there are a few stories I could tell but won’t. (Besides, my children might tell on me.)

Our daughter Kelly, part of the fourth generation, is the mother of our 17-year-old grandson, Ben. She has a career that she loves and has always worked. Her peers also have careers and have enjoyed the advantages of child care, though it can be expensive and for some women unattainable.

I’m amazed at the small conveniences that never existed during the years of raising my children, such as grocery stores providing kid-friendly carts that look like cars; shopping malls hosting activities for children, and some workplaces that provide child care for their employees. In addition, moms can work out at the gym while their children are being entertained and pediatricians’ offices sometimes have a play area to keep their young patients busy before their appointments. And let’s not forget the diaper changing areas available in restrooms. They never existed for me and my babies.

Best of all, when families pile into the car for a trip longer than 15-minutes, parents will no longer hear the constant refrain of, “Are we there yet?” With a push of a button, kids can watch their favorite movie while in the back seat. How great is that? Of course, there’s also the myriad portable electronic games available that will keep a child busy. (Do kids still color in restaurants while waiting for their food?)

We’ve come a long way as we weave through the ups and downs of stay-at-home moms, working moms and even Senator moms. But one thing remains the same — our love for our children. It’s the common thread that binds us. And that will never change.