For parents, children mark the passage of time in a way that’s inescapable. A child, Sarah Hampson writes, is a physical truth that cannot be denied
A little truth about how children are the ones who mark the passage of time for us came home to me a month ago.
I was at a party in one of those beloved places where time seems to stand still. In the summer months, many of us escape to such places – by a sea, by a river, a lake, up in the mountains. And often, a lot of effort is put into keeping these places the same as they have been for generations, not just for the sake of tradition, but in service to the longing for nostalgia.
It’s a comfort to know some things don’t change, but that’s not the only reason. In preserving a place the way we first experienced it, we remain young. Or think we do, anyway. If the physical environment is the same, there’s no external cue to remind us that time has passed (aside from looking in a mirror, of course). And we all know how hard many people work on outwitting that annoying little reality check.
But there’s no denying the physical truth of a child. He is yours. You are his parent. He is not a baby; not any longer, anyway. And the reality of that is all there, right in your face: the 6-foot-5 bearded presence of him, glass of wine in hand, giving you that calm, knowing look of connection, love and familiarity that often passes between parent and child.
A child’s maturation into adulthood is every parent’s personal physical manifestation of that abstract thing many of us would like to deny and sometimes think we don’t have to obey. He is time incarnate. And that’s why a friend of mine, whom I have known since I was about 14, looked across the room of this particular party at my youngest son, whom I had pointed out, and said, “I feel like I’m in a time warp.” Not a time warp back, but forward, he meant. This friend has never married, never had children. He doesn’t have the benefit of offspring as markers of time. For him, it could still be the summer of 1971 if it weren’t for the grown children of his contemporaries to prove it isn’t.
Now, with another summer coming to an end and a new school year starting, children move up one more notch on the maturation scale. School is the wall against which you measure their growth. Sure, birthdays tell us they’re older. But there’s nothing like a new school year to remind us that they’re zooming through childhood.
When my three boys were in elementary and high school, I often treated summer as a fleeting infatuation. I would be eager for it to arrive, to release us all from school-related schedules and projects, and equally eager for it to go away after I’d had enough of it.
But there were some years when I wished to hang onto it a little longer, to stay in its embrace. It had been so good, so much fun that I wasn’t ready to leave it behind.
But now I think that part of that sad leave-taking of summer, when I felt it, was because I knew that when school started up again, my children would seem to have magically leap-frogged ahead in time, closer to that day when they wouldn’t need me so much. One minute, your child needs you to help tie his shoelaces, and the next he’s learning algebra equations you no longer know how to solve.
The children feel the graduation too, of course. That’s why they’ll drop your hand, which they’ve been holding firmly, when the two of you come within sight of the school gate on that first day of Grade 1.
The brilliance of Richard Linklater’s ground-breaking film Boyhood is in this truth about children and time. During the 12 years of filming, we see the boy, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) grow up before our eyes. The parents, played by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, change and age, too. They get a little heavier sometimes, a little more wrinkled, greyer. But it is the transformation of the children, and especially of Mason, from innocent boy to young man, that is so moving.
“The days are long but the years are short,” Gretchen Rubin, the happiness guru and author, has written about parenthood. To have a movie make 12 years into 165 minutes, to have that crucial passage of a boy’s and his parents’ lives captured and told in one sitting, was startling and instructive. For one thing, the movie is an affirmation for parents everywhere that no family is perfect, and need not be for the children to be okay. Mason’s parents are divorced, and his mother goes through two subsequent relationships that don’t end well.
But the thing with the most impact was realizing that the process of growing up is really just a series of moments – between siblings, between child and parent, between a boy and his friends, his teacher and the people who happen to come into his life and make a difference. Some moments are tender, some are ordinary, some are dull. They’re not big moments, but little ones, the side moments to the predictable ones of birthdays, losing one’s virginity and having that first drink or toke.
And the message of the film seems to simply be that time passes, that the sum of those moments is greater than any of them seemed to be at the time, that the children grow up through their own actions, and that it’s our job as parents just to weather the difficult or uncertain moments, to be calm, to keep on loving them no matter what. The movie is a perfect counterbalance to the prevailing parenting culture that insists upon perfection and constant intervention in order for the children to become functioning adults.
In his memoir, Love Life, actor Rob Lowe writes movingly about his son going off to college, how happy and sad it is all at the same time. “We put in this time together; we built this thing we have of comfort and love,” he writes.
That’s what parenthood is all about: putting in the time to see them over that jagged path to maturity. It is rarely smooth. I don’t think it’s meant to be. When Mason goes off to college at the end of the movie, entering his dorm room, I cried. I wasn’t expecting to. But Linklater’s genius is in making the audience feel like Mason’s parents, having seen him grow up. And you think, well, he’s on his own now. His mom did her best. His dad did, too. Day after day. Year after year. It’s a period of time you can’t recreate or make up for once it has passed. You’re just in it, fully, until you’re not.