Today is February 14. Valentine’s Day.
There are probably couples who will have a magical, romantic, Hallmark-style holiday. Good for them. Enjoy. Godspeed.
But then, there are the rest of us. Single people. Widowed people. Divorced people. Separated people. People in unhappy relationships. People who have a romantic partner, but who lack the funds for dinner out and don’t know how to cook a nice dinner at home. People who don’t have or can’t afford a babysitter. People who have to work. People who don’t even notice that it’s supposed to be a holiday because they’re too busy caring for an aging parent, a sick child, a loved one with special needs. People who are struggling with conditions and situations so tiring, so frustrating, so dire, so heartbreaking that just getting through the day is a triumph that they would celebrate except for the fact that they can’t spare the time or energy because they have to do it again tomorrow.
And yet the commercials and stores and ads conspire to make us feel as if somehow, our lives fall short because we don’t have a love interest to whisk us away for a night of romance and passion.
I don’t mean to take away from Valentine’s Day, I truly don’t. If you’re fortunate enough to have a beloved, and you have the resources (physical, emotional, financial, etc.) to go out and celebrate, do it. Have a wonderful time. Really. I don’t mind. What I resent is the implication that the rest of us—those who aren’t going out, who don’t have beloveds—are leading lives which are somehow inferior.
I recognize, of course, that this may be nothing more than transference: that it’s not the fortunate (or the advertisers) who are judging the quality of our lives, but we ourselves. Maybe. But I don’t think it’s that simple.
At various times, I’ve been in a relationship when Valentine’s Day rolled around. Sometimes the gentleman and I were even in love. The weird thing is that not one of those Valentine’s Days ever lived up to the hype. In fact, as I sit here, there are at least one or two that I know must have involved some sort of celebration simply because I’d remember if he’d skipped out, but I honestly don’t even remember what we did. One man I dated used to send me roses all the time for no reason at all, but he refused to send them for Valentine’s Day because they were so much more expensive that week. (I don’t remember what we did for dinner, except that I made a cake I tried to decorate artistically, and it ended up with frosting an inch thick, which was not pleasant.) A college boyfriend who couldn’t find a card that wasn’t too intense bought me a St. Patrick’s Day card and marked it up for Valentine’s Day. One man I thought I might marry bought me a lavender corduroy shirt and coordinating turtleneck as a Valentine’s Day gift, which wouldn’t have been bad except that I hate corduroy and the turtleneck didn’t fit, and I’d have been happier if he’d spent half as much on some nice chocolates. (We didn’t marry, but it had nothing to do with the corduroy.)
This year, Valentine’s Day falls on Ash Wednesday (or vice versa). So instead of noticing all the people going out to dinner on a Wednesday night while I’m home with the cats, I’ll be going to church. Maybe some people will be having their romantic dinners afterward, clinking champagne glasses with ashes on their foreheads. A curious juxtaposition, but if it works for you, why not?
By the time you’re my age—late middle age, we’ll call it—you learn how to maneuver around the toughest parts. You skip the TV specials populated by young attractive white couples who dislike each other so intensely at the beginning of the movie that any fool would know they’ll be in love by the end. You skim the card displays to find the ones for your friends and family, the people you love year after year and don’t break up with. You try not to roll your eyes at the pink and red hearts stuck on store windows and displays. You remind yourself that on the 15th, all that chocolate will be half-price.
Most of the time, these tactics work.
But every now and then, you sit down and have an honest talk with yourself. You acknowledge that yes, it would be lovely to have one of those romantic Valentine’s Days, with all they represent. But this isn’t your particular life, at least not this year. These aren’t the cards you’ve been dealt. You enjoy a great many blessings, but the romantic guy who wants to take you out somewhere special on a Wednesday night for an evening of dressing up, fine dining, champagne, and dancing—he’s not one of them. (This presupposes, of course, that you or he could even find a place where all this would happen. Offhand, I can’t think of one.) And you let yourself experience pain or disappointment if that’s how you feel, and then you get up and go on with your day, because that’s what grown-ups do.
Not every holiday is for every person. Any Jewish kid who grew up listening to his gentile friends talking about Christmas can tell you that. But sometimes, it’s hard to be okay about it when you feel (accurately or not) as if you’re the only one who’s been left out of the celebration.
For example, Mother’s Day honors mothers. Sounds simple enough. But those who aren’t mothers, who have lost their child, who struggle with infertility, whose mothers have died, who are estranged from their mothers or children, whose mothers were abusive or insensitive—what are they supposed to do?
I’m blessed to still have my mother (who turned 83 yesterday!). On the other hand, I once walked into church on Mother’s Day, only to have a well-meaning seven-year-old hand me a carnation and announce, “Happy Mother’s Day!” because apparently, someone told him to give them to all the women without remembering that we’re not all mothers. For a moment that felt like an eternity, we stood facing each other. I didn’t want the flower, but I also didn’t want the kid to feel bad. I ended up accepting his well-meant offering, only to be asked moments later by someone who knows I don’t have children, “What are you doing with that flower?”
But we find our own ways to cope. Some people ignore holidays altogether. Others leave town. Still others recast the holiday’s meaning. For example, I decided that my feline children are obligated to buy me presents, and that since I am a single parent, they must do so for both Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. Luckily, the cats do a masterful job of picking out gifts: one year, they bought me a lovely Le Creuset oblong grill pan that is one of my favorite kitchen tools. Another year, they bought me impatiens for the window boxes. Astonishing how good they are at gift-giving, and how their budget never exceeds mine. Yes, they use my credit card, but the bill is paid from their allowance, so it all works out.
This year, I saw a hashtag for #GalentinesDay. Apparently, this event falls February 13, and it is meant to celebrate our female friends. I’m certain that the person who coined this sloppy-second holiday meant well, but the truth is that I’ve never felt so condescended to in my life. Are female friends supposed to be the consolation prize for not having romance? And what about male friends—aren’t they worthy of celebration? I count some wonderful men among my friends. Am I supposed to wish them a happy Galentine’s Day? Or am I supposed to forget all they’ve meant to me? Or is Palentine’s Day coming on Thursday? And maybe Petentine’s on Friday for all the pets we’ve loved?
If we’re going to have a day to celebrate our friends, let’s make it a standalone holiday at some other time. To piggyback it on Valentine’s Day suggests that it’s supposed to make women feel better who don’t have a date for the Big Day—sort of a Lonely Hearts consolation prize.
We don’t need a consolation prize. What we need is to remind ourselves that holidays are not one-size-fits-all. Sometimes, it’s somebody else’s day. Generic holidays don’t always fit our particular circumstances. That’s okay. Our relationships, our beliefs, our situations—they’re individual to us, and they don’t necessarily coincide with the calendar. Even if we’re disappointed or hurting because we really wanted this to be our holiday and it isn’t, the reality is that it’s just one day, and we can get through one day, because that one day does not determine our worth.
It’s who we are on the other 364 days that will do that.