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 about 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 my childhood, is of my mother letting me go to daycare a little bit later one Valentine’s Day. It 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—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 Pollyanna-ish attitude toward 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.
Pop culture rails against Valentine’s Day in an attempt to signify a degree of hipness and thoughtfulness that is widely unearned. It is very silly, and very blatantly a corporate manipulation, that we are expected to use 24 hours in February as a measure of our romantic self-worth. But to hate Valentine’s Day—does anyone actually really care so much about it?—feels like an easy out. It’s like those early corporate ideas of feminism, which insisted that if women were to enter professional offices, they must ergo do so by looking (and dressing) as much like men as possible. It is such a reductionist and closed-off critique that I don’t know that I ever took it seriously.
Which is to say: I don’t think that acknowledging the falsity of Valentine’s Day means we should decide any dedicated day or ritual to caring is unnatural. Or that to expand the definition of the day is somehow a second-best choice. I have been thinking more and more—as our world seems to ramp up toward some very nasty upcoming outcomes of our current political messes—how radical an act it is to profess to care: Sure, about yourself, although, self-care has been coopted into this impulse. But also to care about ideas, about how to participate in the world, and about how to interact with the people in your daily sphere. These are your neighbors, your coworkers, your friends, the people you meet as you go about your daily life.
I think this is the only thing that is going to save us, moving forward, as our government declares its interest in defending those companies that would harm and poison us; as media insists that opportunities, chances, change are scarce and disappearing; as everything tells us there is so much less in the world so be mean with what you have, hold it close, look out for yourself, and make sure you got what’s yours.
I want my daughter to celebrate Valentine’s Day as a rebuke to all of that. That it is a day marked off on the calendar devoted to the beauty of things we are told are frivolous and silly—chocolate and flowers and good smells and nice meals and touch—that it can be a day that insists those things are for all of us and we are each capable of giving and receiving those gifts to each other. No romantic partner needed at all.
Kaitlyn Greenidge is the author of We Love You, Charlie Freeeman.
Originally Appeared on Glamour