The Children's Hour

Between the dark and the daylight,
When the night is beginning to lower,
Comes a pause in the day’s occupations,
That is known as the Children’s Hour

(From 'The Children’s Hour' by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)

‘They’re only little for such a short time.’

‘Blink, and they’ll be grown up with children of their own.’

‘Make the most of it; it will all be over soon, they’re not little for long.’

These are words you hear from your aunts, from friends of your mother, from so many of the women who have weathered the age-old task of raising children. As they hold your own off-spring in their capable arms these words are uttered wistfully, having been summoned from the place of hidden memories, back when the world was a different place.

And you think, yeah, right, it’ll all be over soon – the nappies, the sleep-deprivation, the endless and sometimes thankless hours of self-sacrifice. Oh, you know it’s all worth it – you only have to see a cheeky, toothless grin or feel two soft, squishy little arms grasping your neck to know that. But the last thing you can imagine at this point in your life is that it will ever be over, let alone, over soon.

But heed the words of the wise women, I say. For it’s true, it’s over so quickly and when it’s over, it’s over. There’s no going back.

I discovered this for myself only recently, as I stood on a balcony one cold winter evening, watching the full moon rise over the River Derwent, an ephemeral, yet perennial, moment of beauty. I knew the moment would soon pass, but with the good fortune of fine weather, would come again. As I stood there my eyes welled up with tears, for I knew also, that the same could not be said of my children, my three beautiful children, aged eleven, nine, and seven. As I looked at the transient beauty of moonlight on water, I knew the time of innocence for my family had passed. And that they had, indeed, been little for such a short time.

But they are still only little, I hear you say. And while that may be true, it is also true that we are no longer our own little universe, complete in ourselves, that we once were. Since my youngest was born I have, of necessity, had to take my children out on weekends. In summer we would go to the swimming pool, to the beach, to the park. I would buy ice-creams at the wharf and then anxiously trail along behind the children as they raced along the pier comparing racing yachts and fishing trawlers. In winter we might head up Mount Wellington to play in the snow. Equipped with hats, gloves and plastic bags for sleds we would frolic until our fingers and toes froze.

I remind myself now and then that if things had been different, I may have spent this time very differently. I may have been plastering, painting, renovating for a grand life ahead. I may have been working long hours to pay for someone else to do all this for me. I may have turned around and realized that my children had been little for only such a very short time. And I’d missed it.

But you can still do those things together, I hear you say. And yes, that’s true. But it’s not the same any more. I find that now all family outings are subject to questioning, interrogation even. The Why? When? The I Don’t Want To. The Can’t We Instead …? The Do We Have To? The humouring of Mum and Dad.

And I think now that this is what the older ladies were talking about. The time when you and your children form an amorphous wholesome whole, with no fragmentation around the edges, no strong little developing personalities pulling one way, as other, equally strong individuals, pull another. In January our family went camping to one of my husband’s favourite fishing haunts at Lake Pedder. We took our new aluminium dinghy and lots of nice food. The children cooked pancakes, sat up late around the campfire, formed fond friendships with the native wildlife.

One evening they watched their father fly-fishing for trout from the high wall of a hydroelectric dam. At that ancient time of day when all is quiet, when time stands still before the soft pinks and mauves of evening deepen, and night steals over the remains of the day … the Children’s Hour … our children sat motionless, entranced by the hypnotic casting of the fly line, mesmerised by the small concentric circles popping up over the glassy surface of the dam.

Their father had explained to them that these circles were made by the larval form of the mayfly rising to the surface of the dam to shed its skin and transform from aquatic nymph to delicately-winged insect. He told them he was using an imitation of a mud eye, another aquatic nymph, this time the larval form of the dragonfly, to trick the trout into taking the line. He explained that while a small circle on the water signified the metamorphosis of the mayfly, a big circle, perhaps accompanied by a small splash, indicated the presence of the elusive trout. Their father would cast in the direction of these circles, the fly line whipping gracefully through the air in a perfect blend of skill and seductiveness. But the trout were too cunning or too full to be fooled that evening. We missed out on the treat of fresh trout for breakfast the next morning.

Back at home, the camping equipment packed away until next time, I – always in need of affirmation that I’m not alone in enjoying these family excursions – asked my middle child what she had liked best about our camping trip. My little girl had been quick to reply: The yummy food! The pancakes! And watching daddy fly fish!

These words warmed my heart although I could not be sure of their meaning. Was my daughter acknowledging, in her own way, how wonderful it was to see her father at peace with himself and the world around him? Or was she acknowledging that consummate experience of having been at one with the world herself; to have been lost in that moment when time stands still, and there is only now, only here and now, and it is pink and mauve and flutters through the air like a fledgling dragonfly, slips unseen along silent waterways like the elusive trout?

Who knows? But whatever was behind my daughter’s remark, I somehow doubt that I would hear those same words if we were to go camping again next year.

A year has almost passed and our family has grown up. It is very piquant this knowledge that my family was little for only such a short time, and I am ever so thankful that I did not spend this precious time wall-papering and re-plastering. There is plenty of life left over for that.

I think of this time as my "Children’s Hour". An hour in a day, or a few precious years of a lifetime.

My sister is bringing her three month-old daughter to visit us soon. As I cuddle that sweet-smelling bundle of joy I might just offer up a heart-felt message. I might whisper to my sister that they are only little for such a short time.

Blink, and you might miss it.