When you are a child, Valentine’s Day is so simple. You check all of the names of your classmates off of a list, carefully selecting who gets which card (the boys always got the generic messages), and making the appropriate box for collecting all of the disposable candy and messages that come home after a sugar-fused class party.
Then boys and girls start to be more interesting. Suddenly every card’s message has to be carefully analyzed for how it will be understood by the recipient. People start giving “special” gifts to their crushes, days-long “relationships” blooming all around, reminding the giftless that they are somehow deficient in the area of love.
During most of my adolescence, Valentine’s Day was the worst day of the year.
I was boy crazy all through elementary, middle, and high school. I easily developed friendships with boys and while I could hold my own with my male classmates, my insides turned to mush as my heart got crushed by one boy after another who saw me as a good friend and nothing more. Every year I longed for a special message from one of those many boys, and every year my crushes lived up to the name.
And the few exceptions to that rule came from unexpected (and undesired) places.
There was my sixth grade year when the class “dork” gave me a special Valentine and professed that he liked me. A nearly friendless transfer student, I was both flattered and repulsed because that was not how I wanted to finally be recognized by my peers. I wilted as I realized that my crush, the boy who I thought was the cutest in the class, was one of those encouraging the boy’s advances.
There was high school when a boy who was totally off of my radar approached me in class with candy and a stuffed animal. While he didn’t ask me out he had definitely made his intentions clear and I spent the next several months navigating the messiness of trying to make it clear in the nicest and politest way possible that I wasn’t interested in dating him.
But for the most part, my boy-crazy self spent my adolescent Valentine’s Days lonely and disappointed in my inability to attract the attention of a boy I was actually interested in.
That all changed my freshman year of college.
I left for college with a plan. I was going 600 miles from home, I was going to meet a boy at school (just like nearly every member of my family had done), I was going to get a degree, and then I was going to get married immediately after graduation to the boy that I met in some random class my freshman year of college.
But the summer before I left for college I met a boy. He took me on a date to watch fireworks along the shores of Lake Michigan and in the weeks that followed we spent every moment we could together. He was fun. I liked him. But he didn’t fit in the plan.
So despite the constant emails, occasional phone calls, and a return to a rhythm of going on dates but not dating when I came home for both Thanksgiving and Christmas, I wasn’t going to date him. I wasn’t going to fall in love with him. And I most certainly would not ever, ever, ever consider marrying him.
I returned to school with a resolve that I had no interest in dating a boy 700 miles away. Then on Valentine’s Day my roommate and I were awakened by a phone call announcing a delivery. I carried a dozen roses into our dorm room, looked at the note, and freaked out. We weren’t dating. I didn’t want to be in love with him. I had other plans.
Over the next 10 months we were the epitome of teenage stupidity. Let’s just say we were the perfect example of how not to cultivate a healthy young adult relationship.
By the next year, we had at least figured out that we were willing to try a long-distance relationship, which meant that I was no longer single on the most dreaded day of the year.
The only problem was my boyfriend was several states away and he had to somehow top the dozen roses that he had sent me before we were even dating.
He drove through the night across the cold and snowy midwest to surprise me the following morning. Lonely and a little depressed the night before, I had tried to call him just to talk, only to be told by his less-than-observant roommate, “He’s on his way to Nebraska to see his girlfriend.” Apparently I hadn’t had enough phone interaction with this particular roommate for him to know that I was the girlfriend he was coming to visit.
We didn’t have cell phones. I couldn’t verify whether he really was on his way. I had no idea where on I-80 my boyfriend was. I had no way to gauge how far away he was or when he would arrive. I would just have to wait for him to call so that my roommate and I could sneak him up to our dorm room during morning non-visiting hours.
While our Valentine’s history got an awkward start, for the next three Valentine’s Days his gift was his presence, for two years a drive and for the final year a flight into Omaha, so that I didn’t have to spend the weekend closest to Valentine’s Day alone.
By the time we got married and shared a bank account, the day was just another day. Jeff ordered me flowers once, early in our marriage, and when I saw how much it cost and looked at our nearly bare bank account I quickly assured him that while I greatly appreciated the gesture, I didn’t need anything special ever again. And I meant it.
That’s not to say that we haven’t done things for each other on the holiest of card holidays (like last year’s flowers because he was trying to make up for being out of town while I was suffering from the flu), but we stopped going out of our way to make the day special.
Because we don’t need Halmark’s permission to do something special for each other or prove the lasting intensity of our love story. Our kids see us professing our love for each other every day through our words, our insistence of leaving them with a sitter for dates, and “ewe” inducing displays of affection. We’ve worked hard to show them the importance of pursuing a love that is about more than just a day.
I know that it’s easy to say that now that I’m a happily married woman. After 22 Valentine’s Days with the same guy, it seems trite to tell those lonely in singlehood, “Don’t worry about it. It’s not that big of a deal.” I know that someday soon it won’t matter what I say to my daughter as she watches her peers exchange gifts and treasures. A couple years after that we will have to deal with a boy navigating the same waters.
But it really is just a day.
We’ll probably order pizza and snuggle up on the couch with the kids and a movie. They will go to bed and as soon as I’m comfortably settled back onto the couch, I will be lucky to make it through a single episode of whatever show we select. We won’t fight the crowds trying to squeeze in their “special” dinner surrounded by everyone else in the city lucky enough to get a table. We will be heading out on a date the following afternoon, but only because we were lucky enough to find a babysitter to watch the kids while we go to the Houston camper and RV show, which happens to be the same weekend as Valentine’s Day. I will probably pick up a special treat for both kids on my way home from school because I’ve always gotten them something for Valentine’s Day to remind them that they have two people who love them unconditionally. And then I’ll eat some of the Garrett’s popcorn that Jeff brought home from his business trip, not because it is my Valentine’s Day present but because he always treats me with Garrett’s when he is lucky enough to fly through Chicago.
I don’t want my husband to buy me something expensive because someone many years ago decided that there should be one day a year to shower your significant other with adoration. I don’t want to feel obligated to go out on a date with my husband, especially if it means fighting crowds (our least favorite thing). I don’t want my son to believe that showing he loves someone is dependent on the kind of gift he gives a girl on one specific day of the year. I don’t want my daughter’s self-worth to be tied up in what she does (or does not) receive on February 14.
So for us, it’s just a day. And I’m ok with that. I promise.