My daughter was surprised to hear that university professors don’t usually give each other valentines. In her world there’s a pink Valentine’s Day mailbox decorated with hearts on every desk, and everyone participates. There’s lots of peer pressure in her world to come up with the perfect valentine and not leave anyone out for fear of hurt feelings. The expectations start with children and continue into adulthood, turning some of us into Cupid-hating curmudgeons, even while we continue to strive for the perfect celebration.
On our first Valentine’s Day together, my husband and I were graduate students and couldn’t afford to go out for a fancy dinner. We put on our best clothes and spent hours cooking dinner for each other at home, but I have no recollection whether the food was any good. We paid little attention to the details since it was early in our relationship, and every day was essentially Valentine’s Day. In the years that followed we repeated the home-cooked meal celebration, which once included a very memorable whiskey-chocolate cake. It was more science experiment than dessert since we learned that melted chocolate turns into little bricks when whiskey is added. Although we may have had unspoken expectations about what a perfect romantic holiday should be like, I remember these dinners as more like culinary adventures and kitchen disasters.
After becoming a parent, Valentine’s Day became my most dreaded holiday. It started when my son was only 3 years old and in daycare. The children all made specially decorated boxes in which their friends could place cards, and the teachers gave us a list of every child’s name with a reminder that no one should be excluded. I’d forgotten to buy valentines, so I cut hearts out of red construction paper and wrote “Happy Valentine’s Day” on each one. Getting my son to write his name once was a chore; writing it 20 times was not going to happen, so I signed all the cards for him. In addition to all the valentines, we had to bring a no-nut, not-too-sweet treat to contribute to the Valentine’s Day party. When my son saw that the other kids had brought Disney and Scooby-Doo valentines, he was disappointed in the plain red hearts he’d given out. And so it began. It seemed like every year after that we’d have to come up with the perfect valentine at the last minute, as well as a snack for the school party. There’d be the usual battle to get the cards signed and kids in bed on time the night before.
One would think that as my kids have gotten older I’d learn my lesson and make them fully responsible for their valentine projects. I should just step back and not fret if only one valentine gets made and signed for a special friend. However, I keep thinking about the teachers’ warnings to make sure everyone is included. And I can’t help but join in enthusiastically (at first) when my kids say they want to do something really special. So this year my daughter and I spent most of Sunday afternoon making clay heart necklaces, and the whole family pitched in to help her thread them on red yarn. Admittedly it was fun, but bedtime was about 45 minutes later than usual after we got her gifts finished. I’d hoped that my 5th grade son would no longer think it was cool to give out valentines, but his teacher sent home a class list and promises of a party. My son chose to give out homemade cookies. They were lovely and delicious, but at the end of his project my 25-year-old mixer was fried, and the cookie press was broken beyond repair. Again, we all worked together to make 32 packets of cookies for each of his school chums, and bedtime was an hour later than normal.
I’m thinking about stocking up for next year on the half-price Scooby-Doo valentines that are left on the store shelves now that the holiday is over. If we plan ahead, my kids could start writing names on them in September and have them all ready for Valentine’s Day 2013. We’ll start a new holiday tradition, where our children bake cookies for us to share with our university colleagues. Better yet, with the time they save using pre-fab cards, they could cook us a nice Valentine’s Day dinner. We’re always up for culinary adventures…as long as they do the clean up too.