I’ve never been, by nature, a Valentine’s Day kind of guy. I spent my 20s and 30s cursing large corporations for guilt-tripping me into buying trifles for my beloved. These little jeremiads were entirely predictable and painfully tedious. A variety of women put up with them, though rarely for two consecutive winters.
And then, five years ago, I had a change of heart, induced by two events. First, I got married. Second, I found myself in possession of two charming but psychotic toddlers. My life was, in short (and in short order), overrun by domestic and financial duty. And it was only within the crucible of this new life that I began to recognize the essential truth of any family. To wit: If mama is not happy, nobody is happy.
And one thing that made mama happy was to feel that her husband, when afforded a rather obvious occasion to express his affection, would, rather than launching into a self-righteous speech on the evils of late-model capitalism, do the right thing.
I don’t mean “the right thing” as defined by Hallmark or your local florist or even Miss Manners. I mean the right thing as defined by common consideration. Because that’s the foundation of marriage – any long-term relationship, really. It’s what gets you through the tough times, when the kids are throwing nutters and the bills keep piling up and no one’s had enough sleep. In these moments, it’s not about fireworks, but basic consideration.
And thus I’ve come to embrace Valentine’s Day as a chance to show my wife that, amid all the kid stuff and work stuff that dominates our days, the fresh anxieties we mint each day, she’s still the woman I fell in love with.
I’m not suggesting I’ve become some kind of supercharged Romeo. Probably the most romantic thing I’ve ever done for Erin on V-Day took place when we were on opposite sides of the country. Our favorite singer was playing a club in Somerville and I persuaded her to play Erin’s favorite song– a French love ballad – and to dedicate it to her. Then I called Erin on my cellphone and told her to turn up the volume. So there she was, alone on a couch in Irvine, California, listening to the song, being performed live, for her, 3,000 miles away.
OK. Not exactly a tour de force, I admit. A true romantic might have bought her a first-class ticket, a thicket of roses, and a stretch limo to the club. But Valentine’s doesn’t have to be about grand gestures or big expenditures. It shouldn’t be a way of earning points or fulfilling an obligation.
After all, our most disastrous Valentine’s was also our most elaborate. We got a baby sitter and headed to our favorite restaurant, which lost our reservation. We wandered for an hour, finally choosing a place that was drafty and smelled of ammonia. We headed to a gourmet bakery to get fancy desserts, and even those were stale.
But that wasn’t what made the night a bust. It was the pressure we felt to make Valentine’s a special night, rather than a simple expression of gratitude, an annual reminder that love isn’t some magical state you fall into, but something you and your partner work to cultivate one day at a time.
So that’s the other thing that I’ve learned, as I’ve bid the self-absorption of my single years farewell: humility. The pressures of marriage and kids have revealed the limits of my wisdom and patience. I can be a real pain. Erin deserves more than just kind words for putting up with my crap.
I can’t tell you that I have some perfect plan cooked up for this Valentine’s Day. That’s not how I roll, and Erin has by now recognized my limits as a romantic. Anyway, what we end up doing isn’t really the point.
Last year, for instance, we spent the big day on a cross-country flight from Boston to California. Erin is an anxious flier, so I did my best to look after the kids and let her doze. That night we shared a few squares of a fancy chocolate bar. I gave her a drowsy massage. I told her I loved her. I kissed her behind the ear and wrapped my body around hers. Then we collapsed, happily, into a jet-lagged sleep.