Some parents call it the Arsenic Hour.
Others know it by the antidote -- the Scotch Hour or, more civilly perhaps, the Sherry Hour.
None, however, confuses it with Happy Hour, a time of lying back and letting go. That is but a vague memory of another life for most parents.
The Arsenic Hour comes in late afternoon or early evening -- before dinner and evening routines. The origin of the term is vague, though parents almost universally grasp its message.
"It's a poisonous hour, a ghastly hour," says Marguerite Kelly, who referred to it in rhyme in "The Mother's Almanac I," the book she wrote in 1975 with Elia Parsons:
Between the nap and the twilight
When blood sugar is becoming lower,
Comes a pause in the day's occupations,
That is known as Arsenic Hour.
Mrs. Kelly, a mother and grandmother, picked up the term from a former neighbor in Washington, D.C., she says.
For parents who work outside the home, the Arsenic Hour is the time when the family gets back together and when parents start their hard jobs. For parents who stay at home, it's not a party either.
"I think working mothers tend to take every possible problem and feel guilty about it, but this is not a new thing," says Mrs. Kelly, who also writes the syndicated column, "Family Almanac," which appears Thursdays in The Evening Sun.
The Arsenic Hour comes on about 5 and wears off around 7, and is, unfortunately, not limited to 60 minutes. It is marked by confusion, irritability, whining and wailing -- not all perpetrated by the youngsters in the family.
"It's the worst time of day," says Sandy Guthorn, an attorney for the State of Maryland and the mother of three children, ages 10, 5 and 3. "Everybody wants something from you at this moment."
The stresses of this time of day are partly due to physical needs -- for food and rest -- and partly to emotional ones -- such as attention and comfort.
These needs go both ways, as children aren't the only ones who are tired and hungry or looking for a soft shoulder.
"There is a lot of tension because the mother is so tired," says Mrs. Kelly. Fathers, too. The Arsenic Hour is usually the most difficult for whichever parent arrives home first or picks the children up from school or day care.
"Parents hold together emotionally at work. Children hold together emotionally at day care. Everybody has held in the hurts or the perceived hurts," and they are ready to let go as soon as they get home, explains Carol Seefeldt, a professor of child development at the University of Maryland at College Park.
There are also expectations that add to the confusion. These, too, go both ways.
For instance, a parent who can't wait to see her child is disappointed when her preschooler shows more interest in the sandbox than in mom or when her 2-year-old resists leaving day care and cries all the way home.
Likewise, a third-grader might be bursting to tell dad all about his field trip or spelling test only to find him preoccupied with office politics or the nightly news.
"Everybody wants to be selfish -- just for a short period of time," says Susan White, the working mother of a 3-year-old daughter.
Mrs. Kelly believes the secret to a calm homecoming begins with basics -- food, first, and then a bit of rest. "I think food is about the biggest thing to help it," she says, suggesting that both parents and children eat a high-protein snack in late afternoon. This keeps hunger down and energy up, she adds.
"A half-glass of milk and a hard-boiled egg is better than a cup of coffee," she suggests. "Go slow on sugar."
"This is the time when you pay for any imbalance accumulated from the day's diet," Mrs. Kelly writes in her book. "An overdose of carbohydrates and sugar -- of cookies or alcohol or the caffeine in sodas, tea and chocolate, as well as in coffee -- drop the blood sugar level. This causes fatigue and bad temper."
There's another aspect of food that helps to ease the stress. That is simply knowing what's for dinner and that the food is in the house, if not partially prepared, says Frances Bond, associate dean of education at Towson State University and the mother of four sons.
It's best if dinner plans can be made a day ahead or in the morning, but the parent who cooks should at least make some mental menu notes while driving home, she adds.
And now for that rest.
"What I try to do is get 10 minutes. Fifteen minutes to me is like a lifesaver," says Ms. Guthorn, explaining that her children are old enough to understand that mom isn't available from the time the big hand is on the 12 until it's on the 3, for instance.
Young children can often be coaxed into a little rest with mom -- again, just 15 minutes -- in a dark room, says Mrs. Kelly. "This gives mother enough energy to turn around supper."
This type of break is essential to the coming-home parent, and to parent-child communication, agrees Ms. Bond. Children often want to share what's happened to them during the day, but they are reluctant to if mom or dad seems preoccupied.
Once physical equilibrium is restored, it's good for parents and children to spend a few uninterrupted minutes just getting back together. This can be a quiet time sitting together, looking at a book or listening to music or taking a quick walk. Then everyone can get on with the business of the evening -- dinner, homework, outside obligations.
There seems to be little reluctance, among experts, to letting children watch television during this time before dinner -- to help the child unwind, to give the parent some time in the kitchen or to let both parents have some adult conversation. With videos and VCRs, it's possible for parents to more easily control what the kids are watching.
Parents can even "serialize" long movies, allowing their children to watch 20 minutes per night, suggests Mrs. Kelly. Give them some raw vegetables and let them veg out -- literally -- in front of the TV for a few minutes, she adds.
Stay-at-home parents can employ these tactics, too, especially those pertaining to food, says Mrs. Kelly. And these parents often have an advantage. They can bathe children, which relaxes them, or, in this weather, go to a park or pool, which relaxes and tires them, before starting dinner.
Two Baltimore County mothers have developed their own antidote to the Arsenic Hour, at least on Fridays. Joanne Hale and Ann Simanski and their five children get together every Friday afternoon for "Therapy Night." They have pizzas for the youngsters and "a couple of glasses of wine" for the mothers, says Mrs. Simanski, the mother of three youngsters.
The kids play; the women talk, she says. "We remember when we worked in offices and went to Happy Hour."
Here are some suggestions for making the first hour at home a little easier for the whole family:
* Take a break. Ten or 15 minutes of peace can give you enough energy to prepare dinner and meet the children's demands. If your children are young, encourage them to rest with you in a dimly lit room; if they're older, explain that you need a few minutes to look at the mail, change your clothes and collect your thoughts. If need be, sit in the car an extra 10 minutes before going in the house.
* Don't come home hungry. A high-protein snack at 3 or 4 o'clock will give you enough energy for what's ahead at 5 or 6.
* Plan dinner ahead. Know what you are going to serve and, if possible, do some advance preparation. There is virtue in cooking in big batches, in using crockpots and, of course, in frequenting the neighborhood carry-out.
* Gather together. This is easier with young children than with older ones, but give it a try. When everyone gets home, sit on the floor together for a few minutes -- or around the kitchen table -- and talk briefly about your days and what's happened to each of you.
* Schedule family time. If dinner together is more and more an impossibility, plan a couple of nights each week when you will eat together, and make this a command-performance for everyone. This keeps communication going between family members.