Yesterday, for the first time ever, I made my wife a Valentine’s Day card. Or at least I started to — I cut a heart shape out of green construction paper, showing my son Felix how to do it. Later this afternoon, we’ll decorate the shapes with glitter and stickers.
My wife and I have been married for almost six years and living together for about 13. We’ve known one another since college. And yet we’ve never gone on a Valentine’s Day date, or exchanged sweet notes of love, bottles of wine, boxes of chocolate, or — heaven forbid — flowers. (My wife hates store bought flowers.) We don’t wear wedding rings for the same reason: we hate being told what to do. We need to feel personally invested in symbols, rituals, and traditions, and in the case of Valentine’s Day (and many holidays, really) the pressures to conform come mostly from advertisers and corporations who want you to buy their products. Commercials and advertisements (and the people who have internalized their messages) make it sound like if you don’t shower your lover with gifts on February 14, then you’re not expressing your love on this, the most important of all dates for couples, aside from an anniversary (which we don’t really celebrate either). Because, hey, isn’t that how we show our affections? Through presents and things and monetary gifts?
No, we’ve wanted none of that. No presents, and no dates. Why eat out on a night when you know that you’re going to get horrible service and be stacked like sardines next to a ton of other couples? Better to go out some other night when you can have a quiet dinner without being rushed.
As far as I can remember, I’ve always felt this way. In middle school, Valentine’s Day raised my anxiety. Every year, there would be a cardboard mailbox in the classroom, and my classmates would buzz about in the days leading up to the 14th, dropping piles of store bought cards through the slot. A few lucky people — always girls, in my memory — would hand out the cards the day of, and students would stack up their booty and keep tallies of who got what and how many. There’d be parties, none of which I was ever invited too. This “celebration of love” turned into a popularity contest, and even then I sensed a phoniness to the whole enterprise, something rotten behind the cloying scent of roses.
Felix is only four, so he doesn’t have these experiences yet, and who knows, maybe he won’t ever. (I hope he doesn’t ever.) He’s just excited to get things in the mail, and he wants to make some cards for the small constellation of stars in his universe — me and my wife, and his grandparents. That’s sweet and heartening (pun intended), but he also seems to know that the whole holiday is a game. Why does he want to send Valentine’s to his grandparents? Because they might send him packages, or perhaps a check. Similarly, he wants to have his friends across the street over for a party — but only because last year we all made chocolate heart-shaped cookies and pizza, and then they were allowed to watch TV. The message clearly isn’t about love, it’s about things and treats. And while this seems age appropriate for a 4-year-old, who is narcissistic and somewhat limited in his ability to appreciate abstract concepts — saying I love you is alright, but he likes getting presents! — it doesn’t feel at odds with the holiday as a whole in our culture. He already gets how Valentines’ Day works.
In our house, my wife and I talk about love and expressing affection with our son all the time. Just this morning, he asked for extra time cuddling in bed with me, while his mom took a shower. We administer hugs and kisses frequently and sometimes randomly. We say “I love you” several times a day, and often he’ll space out for a second and then look up at me, his hazel eyes wide and true, and say “I love you, Daddy,” in this wonderful, whispery, sweet little voice. This is what love’s about. Not the pomp and circumstance of one day, when you’re supposed to trot out your affection for everyone to see, but in small daily acts of warmth and caring.
We often hear about how our culture values youth too much, that our country is in a state of arrested development, so I guess it isn’t surprising that we acknowledge our closest relationships the way children do, through gifts. I wish we didn’t celebrate Valentine’s Day on February 14th, I wish we let our kids and ourselves experience a direct, outpouring of love and affection every day. One that is less attached to stuff and more about looks, words, and actions.