I learned to love Valentine’s Day when I had children, ending my fitful relationship with the annual day for love.
Maybe Cupid’s arrow missed me before I became Mom. Maybe Cupid is a really bad shot and misses most people. It took being a Mom for me to finally learn to love Valentine’s Day.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m the first person to celebrate just about anything secular. I loved learning about the seven principles of Kwanzaa. Invite me to your Chinese New Year potluck and I will cheerfully plan my crockpot contribution around recipes with round foods (a cultural tradition that brings good luck). I’ll add my most soulful voice to the chorus of namaste uttered at the close of yoga class. I’m the first person to celebrate just about anything secular – except Valentine’s Day.
The dark side of Valentine’s Day
Our friend Cupid has a dark side. Yes, he shoots golden arrows of love. Did you know he also has a second set of arrows? If you’re pierced by his lead-tipped arrow, you fall out of love on the spot. Sometimes, you even have an irrational desire to flee, as the story goes. Just to add insult to injury, the lead-tipped arrow is blunt, so you will not only have a pressing need to get away, but your open wound is bound to impede your escape.
Talk about a dark side! Even as a kid, Valentine’s Day was not much fun for me. In fact, I’ve dreaded Valentine’s Day for as long as I can remember. Back in Center School Elementary, each year I hoped for a little punch-out greeting card from my special crush, only to find that someone else received it. Then there were the kids who amassed piles of cards, cut awkwardly around mini crop marks with caricatures of animals, hippos and horses and puppies and kittens, surrounded by hearts springing into backgrounds of hideous pink and cherry red, with phrases that sang, “I Woof You.” Even at age 10, I found it odd that this rather bizarre holiday for love disappointed more than it thrilled.
My friend’s school in rural Vermont took another, similarly dissatisfying approach. All kids were corralled into the art room with the task of making one Valentine for everyone else in the class. Construction paper and doilies, markers and stickers later, and everyone had a battalion of reluctant Valentines. I’m not sure how Cabot School c.1975 saw this as teaching the expression of authentic love, either.
The irony of Valentine’s Day followed me to Mount Holyoke College, where I learned that in 1847 the idea of mass-produced Valentines was the brainchild of much-celebrated alumna Esther Howland, whose efforts earned her the title of “The Mother of the American Valentine.” The year she graduated, Esther received a loving note in the shape of a heart from her father’s business associate in Europe. Esther remembered college life where students exchanged intricate notes with poems. An astute businesswoman, she leveraged her resources to design, market, and sell Valentines, employing women on an assembly line in Worcester, Massachusetts. (In perhaps an early expression of feminism, Esther also hired women to work from home.) Now 174 years later, graduates of Mount Holyoke College proudly remember our sister, Esther, who forged the road to make Valentine’s Day a Hallmark holiday – although it seems that Esther was on the right track at first in remembering dorm life and cards that were given in friendship, for friendship.
We’re grown up now, and for adults, there’s a lot of romantic pressure associated with the traditional view of Valentine’s Day. If you are in a relationship, you somehow have to make this cold, mid-winter day more special than others. If you are not in a relationship, you somehow have to hope that you are more likely than any other day to find romance. And if you’re in a wonderful relationship and your Valentine’s Day is enchanted, maybe you step back from the passion for long enough to appreciate your good fortune and feel compassion for all the other people.
Coupled, uncoupled, or decoupled – it’s nearly impossible to love Valentine’s Day. And the holiday comes every year. One year is just enough time for a person to be able to move past the disappointments of the previous year and foster a budding hope that this year would be different. But Valentine’s Day was the same, and it was unfair – year after year.
My kids taught me to love Valentine’s Day
As an adult, I’ve unexpectedly come around to having a more optimistic view of Valentine’s Day. One of the best parts of being a mother is the opportunity to love a kid like no other. (I think that’s a Whitney Houston song, but it feels very real to me). My 17-year-old son and 14 year-old-daughter have helped me expand my idea of love, even Valentine’s Day love. In our family, we celebrate the love between all of us. I give gifts to them, and my children give gifts to me. There are no expectations, no pressure to find that one true romance – it’s just a day to show our appreciation for each other. And maybe eat a little chocolate.
My Mom view of Valentine’s Day has helped me relax my romantic expectations, as well as open my heart. My kids taught me how to love Valentine’s Day with a new approach that leaves behind the drama and focuses on the kind of forever-love that matters.
I also give Valentine’s Day gifts to friends (no romance required!), and always take time to appreciate the acts of kindness around me. In this realm, holding the door is as good (and more sustainable!) as a three-hour dinner date. I see more and more that others are also taking this day to honor the friendships and contributions of all their dear friends and neighbors. And I love it!
Spreading the love
This year, the Milton Artists’ Guild is preparing motivational messages written on hearts and handing them out to strangers. Creator Valerie LeClair is inviting others to join in, encouraging neighbors and strangers alike to show unity and send “warm thoughts.”
Meanwhile, the Waterbury Rotary Club is organizing “Show Your Heart Waterbury” with a call for homemade hearts to make people feel appreciated. Volunteers will collect the hearts and hang them for display at the gazebo in the park.
And of course, for decades now, residents of the Capital City have woken up to hundreds of quirky red hearts wallpapering the downtown, placed by the mysterious Montpelier Valentine Phantom to spread love to all who pass by.
These public initiatives to spread love give me hope that, at least these days, our family’s style of love appreciation and celebration is not that unusual after all. My kids taught me how to love Valentine’s Day. Our way is accessible to everyone. The organizers of these public initiatives set another example for a Valentine’s Day that can be loved by all.
There’s a palpable undercurrent of hope that the general sense of Valentine’s Day is changing. We were raised in the last century, of course, but things are different now.
While some of us may be hugging someone on February 14, here in Vermont, most of us embrace the non-traditional. Here’s to many Valentines for all of us. How will you celebrate?