Valentine’s Day and other performances

A couple years ago, Tim and I agreed to no longer celebrate Valentine’s Day. There are a lot of reasons for that. Yes, we knew it’s a really commercialized quasi-holiday, and we knew prices of flowers and delivery are jacked up because of that. We knew it wasn’t an actual milestone in our relationship, and (at least for me) I knew I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life laboring over creative new gifts for a day that I didn’t care about. But perhaps the eeriest, most 21st-century reason we decided to stop participating in Valentine’s Day: I realized that I was craving the public acknowledgement and validation more than anything. I wanted Tim to send flowers to work, not bring them home; I wanted to post us drinking wine together to show that I had someone.

A few years ago, a person I knew — let’s call her Sally — was delivered a giant, multi-part Valentine’s Day gift from her partner. Another person — let’s call her Ann — took a photo of herself holding up one or two of Sally’s large gifts. Ann then posted that photo online with a caption that read something like “I hope you’re as beloved as me today!” with a couple hashtags, but NOTHING that explicitly said that she was joking and that those were not her gifts. Those who noticed this online and knew the truth behind the photo rolled their eyes together. I’m sure most of those people have forgotten this. But I remember it still, and I think it beautifully illustrates the “performative” culture that has become of Valentine’s Day. Yes, I think a huge part of this equation is a result of social media. But it’s also human nature of one-upsmanship. Twenty years ago, I still would have wanted the flowers delivered to my office instead of at home, so people could coo and admire and maybe be jealous, all of which would be for my own validation. And twenty years ago, those who didn’t get deliveries could have felt upset with their partners for not shelling out for office delivery, or been reminded of their lonely feelings.

Of course, not all people without partners feel lonely, and not all people with partners who don’t send flowers to work are upset about it. It’s also not inherently wrong to want a gift or a physical reminder of affection, nor is the desire to share something online that makes you happy. The problem is that the culture of “Instagram or it didn’t happen” runs so deep that people can post photos with someone else’s gifts and their network of friends will see it and maybe feel jealous or lonely, and it’s not even real. It’s that I found myself caring more about others seeing my flowers than I cared about actually receiving them. The better way to handle this is to do and to post what truly makes you happy. Just because it happened does not mean it needs to be shared. And if you don’t share, it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

There’s a tricky second layer here that I also want to try to address, and that’s remembering others who are struggling. Yes, when something delights you and you want to share with the world, go for it! For every happy post, though, there can be someone else who sees it and is reminded of their loss, their struggle, their pain. Of course you can’t please everyone, and of course you aren’t expected to hide your life just so someone doesn’t feel sad. But you can remember this. Valentine’s Day displays can remind someone of the painful breakup they experienced or the loneliness they feel in their current relationship. The same is true of pregnancy announcements and gender reveals (another massively performative event, btw). There are so many people struggling to conceive or to stay pregnant, and while it’s a joyous occasion for the expectant parents to be celebrating, those who struggle are reminded of the deeply painful and emotionally exhausting stage of their lives. Those people are happy for you, too, but they are already reminded every day that they can’t (yet) have what you have. And the same is true this Valentine’s Day. While you can’t fix the hurt that others experience, you can remember them when you catch yourself posting so that other people see. If you really want to share, then share! Do an awesome and colorful gender reveal and let me see your VDay flowers! But if you check your heart and realize that you’re doing and/or posting because you want validation from others (likes, comments, heart eyed emojis) or because you want people to believe something about you, stop. You’re caught up in the illusion. Skip buying a blue/pink cake when your pregnancy hormones only make you crave grapes, and skip posting that photo of the nice card that you received but that isn’t so special that it made your heart skip a beat. You won’t miss it. And neither will anyone else.

You should never stop celebrating what you want, how you want. But first, make sure it’s truly what you want. And remember that making sure everyone knows about it is not the end goal. As everyone is KonMari’ing and detoxing and coming off of Dry Januarys and looking to better themselves, I hope that everyone will also take time to ask themselves: Why am I doing this? Is it because it makes me happy? Is it because I feel it is expected of me? Do I feel that I need others to see this for me to really enjoy it? You know in your heart what is right. Absolutely love flowers? Let us know! Your heart sang opening up a handmade card? Wow, I’ll like that pic in a second flat. But your SO got you something and you feel it checks off a box but you don’t feel like you are ecstatic or really seen or feeling the love more than usual? You are a perfect candidate for not posting (and perhaps evaluating if you really want to carry on this tradition)! No one is going to be refreshing your Instagram feed to see if you received something. No one is going to think that your life or relationship is less-than because they don’t know exactly what you did on February 14, or what happened when you told your parents you were expecting, or when you tried a bucket-list bottle of wine or WHATEVER. Share what you love, but keep it real. I don’t want to see you post a photo of a bottle of Screaming Eagle and find out later you thought it wasn’t even that great or that it wasn’t even your bottle. I don’t want to see you pose with someone else’s VDay gift without clarifying that it’s not actually yours. Tell the truth on social media. I’d so much rather see the craft project you did that you’re really proud of, or the super happy smile you got from seeing your favorite artist live. Post for yourself, not for others. Know that you don’t have to get engaged or have a baby or celebrate any day in any performative, spectator-filled way, or at all. Simply do what feels right for you.