February’s always been a weird month for me. After the wiz-bang-rush of hurtling through the holidays and the shiny new possibilities of a new calendar year, February feels like a bit of a slog. Yes, there’s the magical excitement of, um, Groundhog Day, but somehow the freezing rain manages to overshadow the thrill of waiting for Punxsutawney Phil. And then there’s Valentine’s Day.
The hearts and tacky red sparkle crap cluttering my Pinterest feed dredge up not-so-loving memories, ones that still sting and sometimes creep into the ways I model self-confidence to my son. I viscerally remember making a Valentine’s Day gift for my parents during elementary school, a book about their “love story.” Staring at the page in dumb confusion, a burning blush starting to creep up my face. I looked for guidance from my teacher. How exactly was I supposed to write about the love shared by two people who clearly hated each other? My eyes started to sting as my classmates carefully followed the cursive writing example of “and they lived happily ever after,” the sentence we were supposed to use to close the story. I leaned over my paper and put down the final line: “and then they got divorced.”
In the 90s, American society was still very much grappling to find ways to talk about the impact of divorce on kids. Not only did I come from a “broken home,” as a result I would have screwed up romantic relationships. I internalized the messaging that my family was less-than, and that I, too, was lacking. As one of only a handful of divorced families in our entire sprawling suburban neighborhood, each time I was in a playmate’s house the happy photos of intact, smiling families at Disney World reminded me that my own family’s story was a cautionary tale of what could happen when parents failed to make it work.
True to the predictions of sanctimonious psychologists of the day, I took these feelings of inadequacy into my own relationships. I was zero-to-60 with any boy I went out with—I never ‘liked’ a guy, I loved him. My behavior was more than cutesy over-eagerness with early crushes; I was desperately seeking affection that I thought would fill the feelings of deficiency that I had yet to find constructive ways to manage.
Without fail each year, being carpet-bombed by glitter and candy hearts takes me back to these memories. They still scrape up against the insecurities and emotional scars that have mostly faded under the soothing balm of good therapy and great friendships. Now that I’m going into my third Valentine’s Day as a mom, I’m even more acutely tuned into the ways in which messages about love and romance push the idea that legitimacy and self-confidence come from being half of a couple, rather than a whole person with an independent sense of self.
While I am in a supportive, loving marriage, my happiness and well-being is not dependent on my husband, a fact of which I am proud and one that I think matters a great deal in terms of the way I parent my son. Unfortunately, my perspective isn’t a popular one.
In our mainstream society, there’s an expectation that two parents are at the helm of each household, and that parents’ romantic relationships are necessary precursors to raising emotionally stable kids.
I don’t buy it.
The most important relationship we can have to ground our kids with a sense of stability is the relationship we have with ourselves. Are we projecting the sense that we are somehow lacking? That our worth is tied to another? That our happiness waxes and wanes with opinions other people have of us? We can’t equip our kids with the self-determination and fortitude to forge a future of their own choosing without taking a hard look at the way we calibrate our own sense of self-worth.
My New Year’s resolutions have already tanked, but I am still committed to frequently reflecting on the ways I am setting my son up to be able to form a sense of self-independence from the attachments he has to other people. I do my best to honestly examine the things I need to improve on without straying into self-flagellation. I go running or vent to friends to recalibrate my attitude when I get cranky, showing my son that we are responsible for our emotions and have the power to change our outlook on the world. I speak positively about my body. I spend my time balancing the needs of others with taking time to indulge in my favorite hobbies. I make sure that each day I can make choices that move me closer to being the best version of myself. By doing these things, I hope to show my son that self-confidence is an outgrowth of doing the right thing, not just being with the right person. BC
Elizabeth Mount is the executive director of the Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance.