17 Years
Losing My Temper

Romantic Expectations

I've tried writing about romance and Valentine's Day five times now. Five different blog entries that I've started, but can't quite finish or post because I'm afraid of offending someone whose favorite holiday is Valentine's day. If that's you, you might just want to stop reading right now. Because I'm fairly certain I come across as the Valentine's Day Scrooge, only without any hope of ghostly holiday redemption. The Valentine's Day Grinch, only I don't think there'll be any little Who to come along and help me change my ways.

Bah! Humbug! Down with hearts and flowers! Curses upon romantic expectations!

Ah! there it is, exactly that which I don't like: romantic expectations. The idea put forth on Valentine's day by card makers and television shows, fine chocolatiers and florists, that only through chocolate, roses, lingerie, and candle-lit dinners can you show you love your wife. It is the caterwauling that goes among my very own gender as the middle of February approaches: give me chocolate! give me flowers! give me expensive jewelry!

It's the fact that I, too, used to caterwaul on Valentine's day. I used to have expectations. And then I gave them up, because there's also the fact that my husband is not a chocolates-and-flowers kind of guy. Maybe my V-day grinchiness is just a form of self preservation.

Because really, my anti-Valentine's-day persuasions have nothing to do with the childhood experience of the holiday. I have fond memories: converting a shoe box into a placefor other kids to put valentines in. We'd cut a rectangle out of the lid, cover the box with tin foil or white butcher paper and then decorate it with doilies and lace and paper hearts. (They don't do that at my kids' school anymore. Instead they decorate brown paper bags, which doesn't seem quite as fun. There was something satisfyingly artistic about those boxes that brown paper bags just don't hold.) Or pouring a few little candy hearts into the white paper envelope that came with valentines then. (When did the makers of valentines stop including the envelopes? This annoys me every single year.) Or, when I was in the fourth grade, I had an actual admirer. He was an exchange student from Australia and I was fascinated by his accent; I always listened to him when he spoke in class, and honestly: ever since, I've been a sucker for an accent. But when he gave me a sweet little love note and an enormous chocolate heart? I was so embarrassed. I can still remember blushing when he placed it on my desk---too large to slip into the rectangle on the top of my doily-covered box. An actual painful blush. I don't think I ever spoke to him again. I hid the entire thing under my bed and didn't want anyone to know because I was certain my sisters would laugh at me---and they did. Underneath my embarrassment, though, I had a little pleasant spark: hmmmm, someone liked me. In the politics of fourth-grade romance, it was acceptable to acknowledge our mutual discomfort by never speaking again. (I ate the chocolate heart though. And I still have the love note in a box somewhere. I wonder what happened to that Australian boy.)

But as an adult, I have all sorts of troubles with Valentine's day. This morning, when we woke up to a furious snow storm, Kendell offered to drive me to work. "It's Valentine's day anyway!" he said, when I protested. (There is something stifling to me in the idea of not having a car at my disposal, even though I wouldn't go anywhere except home for lunch.) "It would be romantic."

"But I hate Valentine's day," I reminded him. When he asked why, I might have caterwauled a little bit, a diatribe that made me late for work: because if you can't be romantic all the time, I don't want the fake romance of chocolate and red roses just because the calendar says so. It's like Melman says, on Madagascar II, to Gloria: "I would find a way, every day, to make you laugh." That's romantic. Hearts and flowers? What does that even mean? The only way I could like Valentine's day, I explained, is if he showed up with jewelry, real jewelry, every single Valentine's day. And then I would only like it because I wanted the jewelry, not because it came on Valentine's day. He gave me a strange look, a hug and a kiss. And a ride to work.

He's not a jewelry kind of guy either.

I guess it all comes down to what your definition of "romance" really is. A few weeks ago, I found myself at Hallmark, looking for Valentine's day cards (yes, yes, I see the irony) to send to a few friends, and there was this guy there, reading card after card after card. He finally turned to me and asked "would you rather get a card that's perfect on the outside but wrong on the inside, or sort of lame on the outside and perfect on the inside? Which is more romantic?" Ummm, really? Do I even need to answer that question? How about a blank card, and you write what you feel? Or maybe you could just get the heck out of Hallmark. There's a jewelry store a couple of doors down. That's what I mean by romantic expectations---the idea that a card from Hallmark might serve to say the unsayable. A bouquet of pastel hyacinths or yellow daffodils on a random Saturday in May? That's closer to my concept of romance than what's supposed to happen on Valentine's Day. Listening to me? Just listening? Even better. Honestly, the longer I'm married, I don't even know what "romance" means. Is it a synonym for love? The things you do to show someone you love them? The butterflies-in-your-belly feeling that love, in its first rush, engenders and that romance novels seek to recreate? Is it what you see in movies? (My own favorite romantic movie moment is the "In Your Eyes" bit of Say Anything.) Look up "romance" and "romantic" in the dictionary and you'll discover words like "tale," "narrative," "imaginary" or, my personal favorite, " something (as an extravagant story or account) that lacks basis in fact."

We all want to be loved. We all hope that the people who say they love us really do. Valentine's day wants to be about reassuring us that love is fact. That our most primal need has been met. But it tries to accomplish that with illusion. With a formula. Red roses + heart-shaped box of chocolates = I really love you. It takes what is mysterious and undefinable, the very nature of who we are as people, and turns it into a riddle. "A mystery is not to be confused with a riddle," the poet Paul Sohar says. "A riddle is only a riddle until it's solved and then it's used up, ready to be thrown away. But mystery calls for awe rather than solution; it cannot be solved, it has to be absorbed, accepted and---most important of all---evoked." Maybe that's why I keep writing about romance, and failing: because love is, at its heart, the greatest mystery. It's hard to put into words how --- and, more importantly, why --- our popular culture's insistence on the importance of Valentine's day continues to irritate me.

And, honestly, maybe it doesn't really have anything to do with pop culture at all. Maybe it just has to do with me. Maybe, in a strange and twisted spirit of magnanimity, I am transferring my annoyance at my husband for not being a chocolate-and-flowers (and especially a jewelry) sort of guy onto Valentine's day itself. Or maybe I'm really annoyed at myself for wanting, in some deep, dumb way, for him to give me what pop culture says he should. After all, a fluency in the traditional Valentine's trappings doesn't prove anything other than a fluency in society. It doesn't prove that he loves me. Giving me a ride to work on a cold and snowy morning gets a little bit closer.

My fingers are hovering over my mouse, ready to click on "post." I'm still not sure I managed to avoid sounding grinchy or scroogy or just downright whiny. At the very least, I know this: I still don't like it, but Valentine's day is almost over for another year, so I can get over being grumpy about it. A couple of friends sent or brought me Valentines, which helps me feel less irritated. I didn't have to clear my car of snow before going home from work today. I know my husband loves me.

And I still wish I had a new and pretty little bit of jewelry.

It's so annoying.

Comments

jamie

I began to enjoy valentines day when I gave up all expectation. It's a day rife with emotion and angst. I wanted my kids to find a way to associate the day with something other than romantic love so we have a special valentines day breakfast and I try to make it about just fun, feeling good love. That helps me too. I spend a lot less time thinking about what Mark may or may not do. Then if he does do something I'm happily surprised. My brain agrees with you on so many levels but my heart can be easily swayed by the chocolate and roses.

jamie

ps if you want to read a very grinchy valentine post check out my sister link, the pessimistic optimist, on my blog..

DeborahW

Finally, another woman who feels similar to me about Valentine's Day. Here's my post on the subject: http://debztalkin.blogspot.com/2009/02/he-loves-me.html.

Deborah at Webajeb

Taci

I hear you about Valentine's Day. I just have this battle inside myself that doesn't really care about Valentine's Day and the expense of flowers that die, chocolate, and jewelry (not really a jewelry kind of person). Then the other part of me would feel really excited and loved if my husband would give me flowers and a card and chocolate. So then I just set myself up for disappointment when I tell him not to worry about Valentine's Day, and then get disappointed when he doesn't! Silly!

Margot/NZ

Yes, well MY partner is SO not into Valentine's Day he's away in another part of the country tramping (= NZ for hiking), where there is no mobile coverage so he couldn't even send me a message (not that he'd have been likely to send anything remotely 'soppy' or romantic anyway).
Did he do this because he doesn't "love me"? No.
He's just not a flowers/chocolates/jewelry guy on Valentine's Day or ever.
Fortunately it's not that big a thing here in NZ. Unfortunately the florists and confectioners are trying to make it one - and the 'expectations' thing is creeping in.
I think it's best to remember what real love looks like (eg your ride to work in the snow - and the kiss & hug); but chocolates and roses would be nice too. (I've absolutely given up on the jewelry expectation!).

Kim

Great post - really. I'm really glad you posted it. I get it. And no, you're not a grinch. I don't know what to do about my expectations that exist 365 days a year, but they are getting easier to deal with as I get older.

One thing I remind myself (even though my husband and son occasionally knock my socks off with something spectacular) is that it's the little, consistent things that matter. Like him having dinner done on the days I work late, which are happening all too frequently now. Or him making sure there's always gas in my car. Or making me a sandwich to take to work for lunch if we've made my favorite chicken salad. Or him splurging on blueberries when they aren't in season, just because I love them. Or him talking to my mother for a half hour when she calls so I can see the ending of my favorite show. Or playing with "my" dog and saying he tolerates her when you can tell he's absolutely crazy about her. THOSE are the things that matter. That ride to work? It mattered.

Shaunte

Looks like more women are in our camp than out of it.

Maybe we should plan a girls night out next year and go see some sappy chick flick.

Sophia

Amy, as much of a romantic as I am, and as much as Doug is, we never have been big on Heart Day. We hate the crowds and do all that we can to avoid them. We usually hit a quiet little favorite spot before or after the 14th. We don't usually exchange gifts, especially like jewelry or chocolates. He does always bring me roses a few days early, but between you and me, I'd be just as happy with them on June 6th or November 3rd or any other day of the year. My best V-day was when I bought new wiper blades for his old truck and gave it a "heart attacK." I loved doing that more than anything I've ever received. It made him happy! I'm with you. Love me every day, not just the day that Mr. Hallmark says you should. Fortunately for me, he does!

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