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Monday, February 14, 2005

This thing called love

Maybe it’s just me, but the papers have done an extraordinary amount of coverage devoted to a holiday that began as the Catholic Church’s check on sexual passion.

In this op-ed by Stephanie Coontz she writes: “For thousands of years, love, passion and marriage were considered a rare and usually undesirable combination,” adding that few young people, even centuries later, were expected to marry on the basis of such irrational emotions as love and sexual attraction.

“When the church declared Feb. 14 St. Valentine's feast day in 498 A.D., it was not trying to celebrate romance. Rather, the Church wanted to replace the existing holiday, a festival honoring Juno, the Roman goddess of love and marriage. Church fathers probably hoped as well that a Valentine holiday would undercut the Roman fertility festival of Lupercalia, which began each Feb. 15. According to Roman custom, on Feb. 14 - the night before Lupercalia - boys would draw names from a jar to find which girls would be their sexual partner for the rest of the year.”

Coontz, who is a history professor and author of the forthcoming book, “Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage” (a rather convoluted title that would probably work well if shortened to read simply, “How Love Conquered Marriage), wrote about how high expectations and choice can increase chances for huge disappointments. Apparently, though, that’s also the silver lining.

“But today's high expectations are a monumental improvement over the past, when violence, adultery and day-to-day misery were considered normal in a marriage. So when couples look soulfully into each other's eyes tonight over a romantic Valentine's dinner, they might take a moment to remember that despite the risk of divorce today, never before in history have people had so many opportunities to make marriage fulfilling.”

When the fire and light of early romance evolves into a gentler, softer love of many years, it takes a little more effort to keep it burning brightly (or even slightly). Sadly one of the great detriments to loving marriages is modern parenthood.

In another op-ed in today’s New York Times by Judith Warner, author of “Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety," she writes of how our culture of playing Supermom and Superdad is killing our marriages.

Consider the opening of her column: “Your young child shows up at your bedside five minutes before the alarm clock is set to ring. She climbs in. She is warm, her hair is silken, and she nestles perfectly into the curve of your torso.

“You experience something like plenitude - until the alarm clock rings and your spouse's arm stretches out to shut it off and comes to rest upon the two of you. That arm is bristly and heavy, and feels, somehow, laden with demand. What demand the poor thing carries is not clear, but whatever it is, it feels like too much on this particular school morning when, after the usual rites of teeth brushing and sneakers and mittens are through, you've got to plan how, on this day of all days, you will most adequately express to your little loved ones just how deeply - and how festively and chocolate-drenchedly - you love them.”

I do feel confident that my boys know I love them infinitely, without my killing myself for them. But there's an unspoken parental pressure to go the extra mile for our kids. And so I spent the better part of yesterday afternoon getting Patrick and Michael ready for Valentine’s Day today, crafting containers for kindergarten Valentines and reminding Patrick to address his. At 12, Ryan has outgrown parties and cards and his basic attitude about the holiday is, “Who cares?” But I can remember with absolute sweetness and light the first hand-made Valentine he brought home from preschool. It had his chubby little handprint on the cover and the pride with which he bestowed this gift to me still brings tears to my eyes.

My good friend and fellow mother of three, Jill Miller Zimon, wrote about how this holiday has evolved from our younger romantic notions of fire and flowers to one that is wholly connected to our little darlings. In her debut column, Mommy Matters, for Cleveland/Akron Family Magazine she describes how slowly yet eventually, we become our children’s love slave. (She and I have often remarked that we must have spies in each other’s homes since our lives seem to exist on parallel planes.)

Though it’s something I continually work on, at times with more success than others, I want to share Valentine’s love with those I care most about — my family and friends. And to my hubby who patiently endures my neuroses and serves to remind me daily of the goodness in life. I feel blessed to have known incandescence…

“Nobody has ever measured, even poets, how much the heart can hold.” — Zelda Fitzgerald

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