By Vincent O’Keefe
A parent’s face is a constant mix of past and future, which leads to the tendency to forget the present moment right before one’s nose.
Face it, parents: You’re two-faced. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, since parenthood naturally has a Janus face. Janus was the Roman god of transitions who had two faces—one looking toward the future and one toward the past.
My most memorable Janus-faced moments seem to occur while I’m driving. For example, recently I sat at a red light with my oldest daughter, Lauren, who was fourteen at the time. The license plate on the car in front of us read “LIL LAUR.” I smiled to myself and assumed the car’s driver was a parent who probably reveled in the joy of having a baby daughter named Lauren. Memories of my own baby Lauren’s voluminous curls and ocean-blue eyes danced through my mind.
When I told fourteen-year-old Lauren my warm theory about the license plate, however, she replied coldly from the passenger seat: “No Dad. I think the person driving nicknamed the car ‘Lil Laur’ because she loves it so much. I wish I had a car too.” While I faced the past, she faced the future.
It was a moment fit for one of those “Janus words,” or contranyms, that convey contradictory meanings depending on their context—e.g. to weather can mean endure or erode, to sanction can mean endorse or penalize, or to dust can mean apply or remove (dust). My favorite Janus word in relation to parenting has always been “to cleave,” which can mean to cling to or separate from something (or someone). The parent-child relationship often features one person clinging to the other and one person trying to separate from the other, though each person’s role changes according to context. At that red light, I was cleaving to family while she was cleaving from family.
The moment reminded me of a bookend from thirteen years ago that also occurred in a car. When Lauren was just seven months old, my wife and I moved to an Orlando, Florida hotel for two months while my wife completed a medical rotation at a cancer hospital. Yes, that’s correct: I was a stay-in-hotel-room father to an infant for two full months. Let’s just say the Comfort Inn became a misnomer in a hurry. In addition, Lauren had just started sleeping through the night, but that ended in the hotel’s rickety crib. The result? Sheer exhaustion.
The point-of-two-faces happened one afternoon when baby Lauren and I were speeding around town in our tiny rental car. After she fell asleep in her car seat behind me, I parked and tried to work on a book review in the front seat. I had not yet accepted that my becoming an at-home parent with a wife who worked long hours would seriously curtail my production as a writer, at least for a few years.
Shortly into my writing session, Lauren started crying. It was incredibly frustrating, but I knew I had reached a limit. Tired beyond words, I looked back at my crying baby in her car seat, and it seemed fitting that she was facing backwards and I was facing forwards. Together we made a Janus face, though one that demanded adjustment. Obviously, I needed to be more in sync with her needs, to welcome her inevitable clinging and cease trying to separate from it. So I stopped writing for a time, and in the process became a better father.
Ironically, I started appreciating those moments with my child that become the cherished memories a parent clings to at red lights when his child is a teenager longing to drive away into the sunset. I realized a parent’s face is a constant mix of past and future, which leads to the tendency to forget the present moment right before one’s nose. In other words, parents are tweens too.
Thanks to these bookends, I can imagine the not-so-distant future when Lauren will have migrated from the car seat to the passenger seat to the driver’s seat. Little did I know, however, that as we switch places, we also switch faces. Talk about a Father-Daughter Dance.
Vincent O’Keefe is a writer and stay-at-home father with a Ph.D. in American literature. He is writing a memoir on gender and parenting. His writing has appeared at The New York Times “Motherlode” and The Washington Post “On Parenting” (among other venues), and he has been featured at CNN Parents. Visit him at www.vincentokeefe.com or on Twitter @VincentAOKeefe or Facebook at Vincent O’Keefe.