I have been single for every Valentine’s Day of my life except for five, and I’m soon to be 40. I’m married, now, and with a baby, but for the other 30-something Valentine’s Days of my life, I don’t remember feeling the depression, dread, or anger that single women are expected to feel on this holiday.
It’s a cliché of sitcoms, romantic comedies, and bad stand-up that single women harangue on Valentine’s Day, making the same speech about greeting card companies and conspiracies to commercialize feelings. I don’t know that I’ve ever had that impulse. I have always loved Valentine’s Day and never thought of it as an occasion for romantic dates. It still has the meaning it did in elementary school—the fragile resilience and battered hopefulness of a cardboard heart.
This approach came from my mother. She is big on rituals and the celebration of holidays, not for what you can get or what you can buy, but as a way to set the rhythm of the year. After my parents divorced, life became more unpredictable. We frequently moved, and always to smaller and dingier apartments. There were job losses, and we lost some of our friends and support networks, too. In that instability, the tempo of holidays took on a new importance. They were something I could count on to remain consistent.
Before all of that, when I was very young, my mother marked Valentine’s Day by giving small gifts to me and my sisters. One of my earliest memories, one of the best of childhood, is of my mother letting me go to daycare a little bit later one Valentine’s Day. This was rare—I am the youngest of my sisters, and childhood was a blur of rushing to one or another of their music lessons or gymnastic practices. It was rare for my mother and me to be completely alone together at home. But that morning, we were, and she presented me with a box wrapped in red paper, topped with a white bow. When I opened it, inside was a stuffed polar bear cub—a toy that immediately took on a grave significance. I looked at it as if she’d given me a child to look after.
“He’s yours,” she told me, and the specialty of the gift—a Valentine to care for—made this one of the most cherished toys of my childhood. I still have him—he sits now, ragged, on top of the dresser in my daughter’s bedroom, overlooking her growing library of picture books.
Valentine’s Day became associated with that present, the way my mother presented it to me, and what the present meant. As a little girl, I associated Valentine’s Day with showing appreciation for the people in your life—your siblings, your mother, your friends, your classmates. My mother turned making and buying valentines for classmates into its own activity every year, and so growing up, my focus was usually on the fun of crafting cards and less on counting how many I received—the idea that receiving one from a classmate would mean anything romantic was alien, something reserved for girls on TV, I thought. Here in the real world, it was much better. You gave cards to show you cared about the people around you and they did the same.
In college, it was a little bit harder to maintain such a Polly-anna-ish attitude towards the holiday, but by then it had become a reliable excuse for parties. I remember becoming obsessed with finding a heart-shaped cookie cutter so I could make red Jell-o hearts. It was a way to bring my mother’s ethos about Valentine’s Day to campus, though, in typical college student fashion, I impulsively drenched the whole thing in irony. My roommates and I threw an annual party. I could not imagine then (and maybe still don’t believe?) that a one-on-one date with a boy could ever be as joyous as dancing with abandon in the cramped and sweaty living room of some wood-frame house, OutKast’s “Happy Valentine’s Day” blaring. I was away from my mother, trying to break from her ideas, but this one—that Valentine’s Day was not a day to mourn or be angry at the conflict between romantic desires and capitalism—endured.