It is that time of year again where we tell our loved ones how much we care.
An opportunity to practice gratitude for people who show up for us, and particularly the romantic ones.
Or so it could be.
As my daughter’s nursery informs me to please dress her in red or pink and get ready for the annual Valentine’s ball, I do catch myself getting excited about her excitement. Any reason to dress up in highly flammable polyester is a great cause for animated star jumps. And so I drop her off with her dubious red tutu and a little chocolate gift for her teachers.
It’s innocent and lovely, although the cynical part of me does wonder whether this “Moulin Rouge” type outfit choice is in fact slightly inappropriate.
“I put a spare outfit in her rucksack,” I shout remorsefully as I wave goodbye.
I log on to start my work day but not without the usual addictive detour to Facebook to see what beaches my peers flash in my face, whilst I am staring out of the rainy window of my suburban flat onto the untamed, muddy garden.
“I can’t believe it’s been 19 years since I met the love of my life, and he still makes me laugh like no one else,” one of my yoga teachers declares above a picture of her kissing the supposed love interest of said 19 years. They look happy, at ease, and connected.
I lean back on my swivel chair, relaxing my shoulders, which I noticed have tightened up.
“Is my husband still making me laugh like no one else?” I wonder.
I don’t think there was ever a time when I would have said he makes me laugh like no other as memories of loud laughter worthy of crossed legs with my best friends would flash up. I have of course laughed with my husband as well, but not in the way I have laughed with my girlfriends. And frankly, I have trouble reminding myself of the specific time we last laughed wholeheartedly with each other.
Nope, still can’t say.
But we have had moments where we both found the comical side in things simultaneously, and I got that hit of “Yes, we still have moments where we feel connected in that way.”
Nonetheless, I feel inadequate about my own relationship. We got up this morning, and whilst my husband did make me a coffee in an unusual move of pre-7 a.m. charm, I probably did not award this gesture the recognition it deserved. Does this count for a “Happy Valentine’s Day” token? At a stretch perhaps if you imagine some winking or an air-kiss gesture, which, however, did not really take place.
Cynicism aside, looking at these posts, I do get overwhelmed by a sense of failure.
Not the one that has been dissected and rationalized, but just this gut feeling of not getting it right in comparison to my Facebook peers.
I scroll down to the next red collage of pictures of a lady whose children play with mine at the local playground. It is a rendition of photographs that seems to suggest a life in the Caribbean and at Lego Land with their little sons, a world of smiles and joy and cookie baking, with the caption: “I could not have chosen a better guy for the wild ride that this life is.”
Just as I am starting to compare how my own “wild life” stacks up to the zip-wiring pictures of this very happy power couple and getting that sinking feeling of knowing I will lose that contest, I am reminded that I know better.
She, too, stands next to the swings on a blistering, cold Sunday afternoon, saying things like “Henry, no pushing; wait your turn,” readjusting her woolly hat and looking at her watch. I cannot see her ride-or-die husband anywhere. She tells me he doesn’t enjoy playgrounds very much in the cold, and we both share a dry Heinz children’s apple biscotti (which is not and should never be called a biscotti in the first place).
Life is not like that.
Rationally, we all know that. Life is not an endless zip-wire of excitement where you stare into your partner’s eyes like it’s 2010 and think, “I only need you and a bit of air to have an ever-fulfilling life.”
And yet, here we are: Facebook is full of it all. And we suck it up.
I remember the first time I noticed the epitome of the hypocrisy with catastrophic dread was a few years ago when a headline read that a woman and her children were found dead in a fuel tank. The husband was eventually arrested. It was all extremely sad and upsetting to read.
However, what stuck with me was that the mother’s Facebook account, a few days before her death, apparently featured a love message similar to the ones displayed by thousands every year, declaring her love for her husband who was a loving father and an amazing husband. I found it gut-wrenchingly painful to read. I should also stress that I know little about the circumstances about that case.
But the fact remains that the messaging and declarations seemed to stand in far more stark contrast to the ones I noticed of my mummy friend at the playground, and I ask myself why we, in particular women, feel so strongly to declare to the world that we are in enviably fulfilling relationships, which also play into the kind of unrealistic Hollywood-type notions of what romantic long-term love and family life looks like.
I remember all those years I was single, I would look at these messages and aspire to find just that. I wanted nothing more than to be able to live a life of never faltering love and devotion where one person provides you with that romantic love in perpetuity.
Even now that I know better, a little part of me still cannot help comparing myself to this cut-out collage version of what frankly is probably best entitled “unhealthy codependency”—a relationship where we pool all our love into one person whom we then hold responsible for our own happiness.
I wish someone would have just drummed it into my single 30-year-old self that this is just an illusion.
Much in the way that Spanx do not do away with our extra pounds or Red Bull does not give you wings. And yet, Spanx seem to be a suitable metaphor for what we look to achieve, sliding on an extra, somewhat oppressive layer to hide parts of ourselves that we may perceive as inadequate or at least nonconforming.
But there is no need once we realize that most people are also wearing Spanx to hide stuff. No one or at least very few people (let’s leave some room here) are having a reality like this.
Our true and authentic presentation of our relationships will do the world much more good than perpetuating this cycle of tight corsets of love depictions.
At lunchtime, I brave the drizzle and head for a little walk, listening to a podcast. In it, Louis Theroux interviews Ruby Wax as they come to the topic of their long marriages. Ruby asks Louis whether his marriage is the same as when it started, and he relents that it changes and seems to change all the time.
He says, “There is the frisson of being head over heels in love with someone for the first time, and that inevitably ebbs away, and then you settle into something that is companionship.”
That is the first time this Valentine’s Day that I break into a wide grin because I like the realism of it.
Later that afternoon, my friend drops my six-year-old son off at home. I open the door and there he stands with two separate roses. A pink one for his little sister and a red one for me, neatly wrapped up in a little bouquet.
Behind her, my friend grins, “I love your husband, but we both know he is rubbish at this sort of stuff, so I thought I teach your next generation.”
As my son beams at me with pride, he screams for the whole street to hear, “Don’t worry, Mummy. They were only £5 each!”
And I look at my friend as we laugh out loud in the way I imagine my yoga teacher’s husband makes her laugh, and I realize that is the spirit of Valentine’s Day right there. When people (including my husband) who care for you show up at your door step and your life in that way.
There are so many ways to celebrate Valentine’s Day, and the choice is of course ours. I just wish it will depict the authenticity that allows us and the people around us to be at ease with themselves.