For those of us who are prone to melancholy feelings around the winter holidays, Valentine's Day often feels like yet another hurdle to clear.
The winter days are begrudgingly doling out our daily allowance of sunshine, the snow has piled up in our yards, and the cold, frosty temperatures are reminding us that we are still trapped in winter's icy chasm. After surviving the frenzy of winter holiday madness, now here comes that pesky little diaper-clad cherub who takes aim at us with his pointy bow and arrow. In this frigid, bleak moment, perhaps some of us imagine cupid's arrow of true love catapulting our romantic life from boring black and white to delightful Technicolor. However, it turns out that the traditional images of romantic bliss are, for many of us, yet another reminder of how rarely our realities match up to the visions embedded in our brains.
My 6-year-old daughter giggles infectiously as she exclaims: "Isn't Valentine's Day just the best holiday ever?! It's all about loving and caring!" While I love her enthusiasm, I myself, as a 40-year-old single divorcee, confess that I prefer to spread Valentine's Day cheer with a hearty, "Happy Singles Awareness Day!" (or even better, and when I can get away with it, I bid my cohorts a "Happy VD! " with a devilish grin). Though some have chastised me, thinking I am being negative or resentful, I have to say I am neither bitter nor lonely. Rather, I simply enjoy renaming the holiday as a playful rebuttal to a day that is based around consumerism, and highlights our society's perpetual focus on coupledom as the ultimate means to contentment and life satisfaction. Personally, I think that Valentine's Day is a charming reminder of the power and importance of love in our lives - whether in the form of parents, children, friends, pets, or a special someone. However, I do resent the commercials and advertisements that shower us with visions of rose bouquets, chocolate truffles, giant stuffed animals hugging big fluffy hearts, or worse yet, the ridiculously expensive diamond jewelry.
As a psychotherapist in a group psychotherapy practice, I often work with clients who feel isolated by their sadness and pain - as if the rest of the world has somehow figured out the secret to genuine happiness and life balance. I love being able to shatter that myth, sharing that actually, we are a world full of people in the throes of crisis, hurt feelings, powerless to addiction, struggling with medical issues, poverty, prejudice, or various other life challenges. Rather than feeling odd or different, I encourage my clients to recognize that the natural state of humanity is far from perfection and bliss - or even emotional health and wellbeing. And, Valentine's Day is one such example of perpetuating myths about how life is "supposed to be."
Imagine a Valentine's Day commercial that actually mirrored real life -- that embraced the diversity of life and all the ways that love is present, or not present, in our lives. For my 2011 Valentine's Day, I was newly separated and had purposely signed up for an evening workshop on "Co-Parenting after Divorce." It somehow seemed quite apropos and made me chuckle to myself when I thought about the irony of the combination. Yet, as I reflected on the fact that my children are the most important people in my life, it seemed quite appropriate to spend Valentine's Day focused on their best interests. For me, it was this expression of love toward my children that I celebrated on Valentine's Day in 2011.
This year, I was delighted that I would have my kids for Valentine's Day. Post work, I picked the kids up after school, drove them to a friend's house for a playdate, and then returned to their school to for a parent-teacher conference, where my former spouse and I somewhat successfully attempted to remain civil. Once again, not the picture of the blissful, romantic Valentine's Day society paints. Yet, there was love and care in our attempts to reconcile our differences in the best interest of our daughter's schooling.
Upon arrival back at home with the kiddos in tow, I set to work preparing a customary Valentine's Day feast of good ‘ole spaghetti with vegetarian meatballs, tossed salad, and a loaf of whole wheat bread. At the dinner table, my children and I were joined by two recently added house mates. The first is a recent college graduate from New York who moved to Colorado to be a mountaineer and travel writer/photographer. The other, a foreign exchange student from Japan who is staying with us during her two-week long English immersion program. Sitting around the dinner table, I was struck by how great it felt to revel in Valentine's Day as three adults and two children brought together in this loving, caring family-style experience.
As I sat at the table watching my 4-year-old shovel plain spaghetti into her mouth with her hands and my 6-year-old attempt to sneak bits of food to the dog under the table, I was struck by how untraditional this Valentine's Day would look from the outside. And yet this is the best of life - people who could be strangers coming together to share a family-style meal with love, laughter, and caring.
Wherever you were on Valentine's Day 2012, whomever you were with, and whatever the day meant to you, I hope that it was a snapshot of the diversity of life - and not the storybook illusion created by our culture of materialism and external validation. And if the holiday left you feeling blue or regretful, I hope you will make the decision to embrace the diversity of your life, to make a commitment to survive and flourish from the chaos and pain that so often entraps us, and to make the commitment to do one special thing for yourself today that celebrates, revels in, and proclaims a true expression of love in your life.