Something to Consider This Valentine's Day

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on UnsplashSource: Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

Valentine’s Day is just around the corner. As I sit in the waiting room before my annual primary care appointment, I am struck by the gigantic red and sparkly heart and metallic pink streamers that hang from the front desk. It is so incongruent with the cool, sterile feeling of the rest of the office. Then I think how obsessed we (as a culture) are with love and relationship. It is the biggest connector, and greatest divider. And even in the most medicalized environment, love (or a representation of) radiates from the center of the room.

Naturally, my mind goes to my favorite relationship expert and one of the psychologists I most enjoy reading – Dr. Esther Perel. She often writes about the contradictory pulls of love, and blows the doors off the unconsidered confines of modern relationship. She is pro-love, pro-connection, and a romantic of sorts, yet she is a hard-core realist and has the courage to say what many are thinking and feeling. She often says, “the quality of our lives is determined by the quality of our relationships.” Yet, Dr. Perel argues that in modern day world, never have we expected more from our intimate relationships and at the same time feel the intense weight of expectation around them.

Just say "No." Resist the urge to take on extra obligations at the office or become the Volunteer Queen at your child's school. You will never, ever regret spending more time with your children.

In her book, Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic , Dr. Perel wrote: “Love rests on two pillars: surrender and autonomy. Our need for togetherness exists alongside our need for separateness.”

As a working mother and a psychologist who specializes in parenthood, I am acutely aware of the intense ‘surrender’ many experience and experience to the detriment of their most important relationships – partner and children. The romanticized emotional surrender Dr. Perel speaks to is often trumped by the depleting and physical surrender of everyday life. I just heard that the average mother only has only 17 minutes to herself each day, and that ¾ of the mothers studied (2,000 in total) reported that they “live their lives entirely for other people” ( https://www.swnsdigital.com/2014/02/me-time/ ).

Many parents’ days are filled with activities like shuttling between kids’ sports, cooking for the family, working hard for someone else, and caretaking for an aging parent. In the ever chaotic and demanding culture of modern parenthood, where people strive to do it all and lack the support and community prior generations had, parents are extended well beyond their limit, leaving lots of resentment and little patience and empathy. The killer of closeness.

What I hear from patients and when I think about the most intimate moments with my own people, it is evident that the most fulfilling times are when boundaries of self are protected and personal needs and wants are prioritized. I hear so many women talk about how they look forward to the very few moments they have before sleep as they lie, hoping for "me time" or "downtime", to indulge in a show, book, or something online that is exclusively for their benefit. There is a desperate hunger that is not being fed in the shuffle of the everyday.

Asking questions. Asking questions is a normal part of life – but try to resist asking one after the other. Sometimes it is more helpful to comment on what your child has said and wait.

The more a personal and professional life is cultivated with intentionality and for pleasure, we end up feeling more present in our relationships and more in sync with how we want to see ourselves. So often parents wake up after five, ten, or more years (often when kids launch or prepare to launch) and find they are a shell of who they are, and who they want to be.

So, I push you think more about how you can find autonomy in your relationships today, not just for yourself but for health and intimacy with the people you love. Autonomy is not selfishness. It is self-directing freedom.

How can you cultivate a space for you where your needs are top priority? What would that look like? What would need to change? Whose support would you need and how could you ask for/take that? What brings your pleasure and how can you access that today?

For me, it is saying “I am off duty. I’m going to lie on the couch and relax now. We can play later.” Or, it is consciously not attaching to the guilt that used to rise to the surface when I would head out to dinner with friends and leave my husband to put the kids to bed alone. It is recognizing my own hand in creating a dynamic where I am spent and depleted (resisting the urge to finger point and blame) and make a choice to do something different – something for me. Novel, no? Paradoxically, when you have space to yourself, there is room and opportunity for the emotional surrender Dr. Perel refers to. There is a craving to be with and connect with others, when your own needs are fed.

Ask your children three "you" questions every day. The art of conversation is an important social skill, but parents often neglect to teach it. Get a kid going with questions like, "Did you have fun at school?"; "What did you do at the party you went to?"; or "Where do you want to go tomorrow afternoon?"

So, this Valentine’s Day when you are pulled to stay up too late and make cookies for the entire class or homemade bracelets for friends (both of which I have done), ask yourself “is this something that I really want to do? And for whose benefit is this really?” If the answer is no and if it is depleting rather than energizing, don’t do it. Kids often appreciate the local pharmacy Valentines even more than homemade ones anyway! Step back and ask how you can give yourself more love and more freedom. Although the intention is to bring more love and connection to yourself, paradoxically you might actually find yourself with more love, connection, and intimacy in all your relationships. Happy Valentine’s Day.