Around the turn of the 20th century, a small group of Baltimore-area mothers gathered to learn more about a wondrous and mystifying subject: Their children.
Their group became the Maryland branch of the Child Study Association of America, bringing parents together with experts in child development. Their ranks grew and changed with the times.
In the 1940s, the group sponsored day-care centers for the women who went off to work, in war plants, for the first time. In the '60s, they learned how to talk to their children about sex. In the '70s, there were programs on women's depression, toy safety and weight watching for children and parents. The group kept going, even as the national association folded.
Next Sunday, though, the 80-year-old Maryland group will disband with a celebration at the Maryland Historical Society, to which they will donate their archived records.
The association, which had 1,500 members around the Baltimore region as recently as 1985, had dwindled to a tenth of that two years ago, when officers made the decision to shut down.
It became clear that the dynamics of parenting had changed. Mothers working full-time didn't have time to volunteer. Hospitals, community centers and schools were sponsoring parenting workshops and speakers. Parenting books had mushroomed, and online chat groups and Web sites offered both information and virtual support at any hour of the day.
Margie Warres, who has been active in the group since the 1940s, said the new access to information is good for parents. But they may miss out on the kinds of relationships that formed in a group like hers.
"We made lifetime friendships," said the Northwest Baltimore woman. "I know that all of us learned so much. It was a pivotal thing in our lives."
The association brought child-development gurus like T. Berry Brazelton and Joyce Brothers to town, along with local experts. It sponsored children's performances of ballet and opera. It lobbied for preschool and public television. For several years in the '40s, it had a radio show. Members raised money for children's charities, helped build playgrounds and sponsored car-seat safety checks.
Brad Sachs, a Columbia psychologist and author of parenting books such as The Good Enough Teen (Perennial Currents, 2005, $14.95), spoke frequently to members of the group. He said that as new parents had children while living farther away from their own families, the Child Study Association offered surrogate support.
Sachs said the group had a common-sense, developmental approach to questions about children that is becoming increasingly rare. "One of the things I think the Child Study Association helped parents to do is broaden the notion of what is normal and acceptable," he said.
Darlene Siegel, the daughter of a Child Study member, joined soon after her oldest child was born in 1985. The baby had colic and cried constantly. Siegel and another mother from the group who also had a colicky baby called each other 10 times some days just for support.
As her children grew and she learned more about them, Siegel stayed involved in the group to help new parents.
"I felt it was so important to give back what I had gotten," the Reisterstown mother said. "I used to start new chapters and look around at these women with the same look on their faces, like 'Am I doing it right?' It's a never-ending process learning about your kids."
A few chapters of the Maryland group, such as president Amy Bober-Schenerman's in the Pikesville area, will continue to get together informally. But longtime members are still in mourning.
"I'm very, very upset to think that if my daughter marries and becomes a mother here in Baltimore that the Child Study Association won't be there for her," Bober-Schenerman said.
The Child Study Association will hold a final event for members past and present at 6 p.m. Sunday, April 10, at the Maryland Historical Society, 201 W. Monument St., Baltimore. Admission: $15. Reservations are required. Call: 410-335-6797 (evenings) or 410-526-2723.