On an unseasonably warm February 4th afternoon, I decided to separate from my husband of over five years. The majority of that day is a blur with the exception of a few details: The numbness I felt after engaging in the same, repetitive argument for the last time. How my daughter’s colorful overnight bag seemed to mock me as I packed some of her favorite toys before we left the house together.
But my clearest memory is the first (and perhaps oddest) thought I had just as we reached the city limits: I was supposed to have tacos with him in ten days — Valentine’s Day.
While I wish that my first official fret as a newly separated woman had involved something more selfless, I’m not surprised that my low-key Valentine’s Day plans took up so much mental space during such a life-altering moment. Until I met my husband, I struggled with the holiday. Whenever someone asked me why I hated it so much, I often blamed my dislike of February 14th on its saccharine nature: “Too much pink! Too much sappiness! It’s all so performative!”
If I had been honest with myself, I would have admitted that Valentine’s Day always served as a reminder that I never learned how to be happy as a single woman. As I watched my peers seemingly revel in their singleness, I always struggled to find that same joy. I processed my lack of a romantic partner like it was some sort of prolonged, unspoken rejection from others. Exacerbated by mental illness, Valentine’s Day magnified my usual insecurities and I’d usually spend the day secluded from everyone I knew, depressed and anxious.
Of course, that changed when I met my husband. We dated, fell wildly in love, got married in a kickass wedding, and had an amazing baby girl. When things were good, they were great. And while “having a built-in Valentine for the rest of my life” was quite low on my list of perks, it was still really nice — a relief, actually — to not have to think about it for a while.
But as diligently as I tried to work past our major differences — constantly compromising, suggesting couple’s counseling to no avail — things just didn’t work out. Suddenly, I was faced with one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make. The idea of ending my marriage made me physically ill, but remaining in a toxic relationship was simply not an option anymore.
So, after years of trying, I left. And while I knew that leaving was the right thing to do, I still dreaded what that meant in the grander sense of my life.
I found it easier to focus on failed Valentine’s Day plans than a failed marriage, so that’s where my thoughts stayed for a few days.
I spent the night of February 13th worried about whatever emotions waited for me the next day and, consequently, the day after, when I no longer had a holiday to distract from the bigger issue.
On the morning of February 14th, I was unceremoniously jolted out of my sleep by a very energetic little girl who had no clue of the day’s significance. All she knew was that she wanted to eat a big breakfast and spend time with her mom. So I spent the first hour of my day making pancakes and eggs, getting my daughter to laugh, and setting the rest of the day’s schedule. Afterwards I worked, wrote for a little while, and edited a podcast. When I needed to take a break, my daughter was insistent about having an impromptu dance party until I was laughing as hard as she was.
Yes, there were moments of sadness throughout the day. I let myself experience those emotions, too, because I owed myself that much. But the difference this time around was that I didn’t feel utterly hopeless on a Valentine-less Valentine’s Day. In fact, as I was catching my breath, I began to recognize the potential laid at my feet.
With the loss of a relationship, I’ve gained the ability to start over.
I suddenly had the chance to reexamine how love and intimacy looked in my life, as well as whether or not a romantic partner — or anyone, for that matter — was needed to achieve them. With my newly freed time, I could begin to really work towards the things that actually brought me joy, like writing and watching my kid grow up. And for the first time in years, I could seriously focus on me and my mental health.
The initial round of holidays after a major separation can be tumultuous. As you’re actively trying to pick up the pieces and move on, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed by the memories of lost traditions and happier times. Even Valentine’s Day — a day with varying degrees of importance, depending on who you ask — can be a seriously triggering time. If you find yourself in that position, you should know that you have every right to spend that day however you choose. You’re the only one who knows what you have the emotional capacity for.
And no matter what your circumstances may be, you deserve love, support, and respect.
This Valentine’s Day will be my second as a single woman, and my only two certainties are that there will be dancing and tacos. For now, that’s more than enough.