Valentine’s Day is around the corner and I have nothing planned. No reservations. No special gifts. No sexy underwear (none that fit, anyway). I have two young toddlers, a husband who works six days/nights a week, and not enough time to even clean the toilet. How do parents with young children find time to celebrate this holiday?

As a kid, I loved Valentine’s Day. Yes, I know it was mostly because of the sugar. My mom always bought an angel food cake and decorated it with thick, white frosting, pushing little red candy hearts in fun patterns. My brother and I’d each get a heart-shaped tin full of more heart candies, the cinnamon kind that made our tongues turn red. We were never allowed artificial colorings, not even on Halloween. But somehow those candy hearts made it through on the day of love.

Another reason I loved Valentine’s Day is because I thrived – and still do – on attention. As a kid, it was exciting to watch my little white paper bag taped to my school desk slowly fill up with colorful, vibrant cards. These were written for me

Many people believe that Valentine’s Day is nothing but a Hallmark holiday, pushed on us by marketing geniuses who convince us to buy ridiculously overpriced bouquets for our loved ones, unless we want them to feel neglected. However, the history of Valentine’s Day shows that it was about so much more.

Back in the day, the ancient Romans had a special mid-February holiday, called Lupercalia. This was a day to celebrate fertility. Legend says that there was a ceremony where men and women were coupled up by choosing names at random. And then in Ancient Greece there was a mid-winter ritual to honor the marriage of the god Zeus and the goddess Hera. Historians believe that our modern day take on Valentine’s Day may have been influenced by these ancient traditions. Let’s face it, our ancestors needed something fun to help them through the dreary darkness of winter. Why not throw in another feast, light a few candles, and cuddle up under some bear skins?

Then Saint Valentine’s Day emerged. The purpose of this feast was to honor two martyred roman priests, who shared the name of Valentine. One of these priests was famous for performing weddings for soldiers who were forbidden to wed. Apparently some Roman emperor decided that married soldiers made lousy warriors (maybe this was due to the happy husband syndrome, with these guys lounging around, being fed grapes in bed and getting fat from too much wine?). Anyway, this priest – Valentine – wore a cupid ring, which was his way of advertising his services to soldiers wanting to get married. He also handed out paper hearts to remind people of their devoted love to God.

We now take these rituals and commercialize them, with copious amounts of chocolate, fine dining, wine, cards with catchy limericks, and the pressure for romantic bliss. The extreme emphasis on romance at Valentine’s Day has always irked me. What about the single folks? What happens to them? They’re left to bury their heads under blankets, or to close the blinds and settle into a Netflix marathon with a tub of Ben & Jerry’s, feeling the heavy weight of their singledom. I despised Valentine’s Day when I was single. There was no cake with candy hearts. There were no piles of glittery, colorful cards sitting on my desk. It was just me, and it was kind of sad.

Then there was Valentine’s Day during the early stages of dating, adding some unspoken pressure to define our relationship. What if we weren’t quite ready to do Valentine’s Day? Did we ignore it? Or embrace if fully with all the pink and red merchandise? There was one boyfriend who forgot it completely, not even an email or a text. There was another boyfriend who went over the top: 5-course meal, a dozen red roses, gold necklace, gourmet chocolates. I loved all the attention, but it was a bit too much, especially early on in our relationship.

And then I got married and had kids.

One of my favorite Valentine’s Days was in 2016. I was three months pregnant with our first child. We invited all our friends over for a V-Day party. We had cake, cupcakes, candies, snacks, and drinks. Halfway through the party we gathered everyone around and announced that we were expecting. It was a great way to share the news. Celebrating Valentine’s Day with close friends felt like the perfect mid-winter celebration of life, love, and community. And feasting, of course.

Fast forward to now and we’re completely exhausted. My husband works six days/nights a week. I try to work around the kids’ schedules, stealing a moment here and there to quickly respond to an email, lugging them to the bank, frantically writing while my son plays with the iPad and my daughter is napping. It’s a whirlwind. They go to bed, my husband comes home after 9pm, and we go through the motion of emptying the dishwasher, talking about bills, when was the last oil change? The last thing on my mind is planning anything special. I surely don’t want to try to squeeze into those sexy undies (how did I ever fit a size small?). I really just want a nap.

However, I do know the value in having dates with your spouse. Dates without kids. We go out to eat on a regular basis, but we usually bring the kids with us. I then tell my husband we need to go on a real date.

But we just had a date,” he will say.

Um, I don’t count that as a date.” Honestly, if I have food flung at me, my boob clawed at, and have to stop eating to go change a poopy diaper crouched down on the FLOOR of the bathroom (c’mon people – changing tables should be mandatory in all public restrooms) that does not count as a date.

I was curious to know what Valentine’s Day means to other over-worked, exhausted parents. Do they include their children? Do their own date night thing? Or ignore it all together? I decided to post this question to a local mom’s group on Facebook.

There were definitely plenty who responded saying they don’t bother with Valentine’s Day, it’s a Hallmark holiday, has no real meaning, and they’d rather focus on birthdays and anniversaries, sharing special moments all year long. I agree that birthdays and anniversaries are way more meaningful. However, we missed celebrating our last anniversary because everyone was sick and we kept postponing our date, until a month passed and then it seemed pointless. So Valentine’s Day seems like another chance to recover that lost date. And why can’t we do date night whenever? Because we simply forget. We end up swimming in chores, work, childcare, car repairs, and then get lost in our phones, the latest Netflix show, Facebook. Somehow with Valentine’s Day approaching, it’s like a big fat post-it note floating in the universe: DON’T FORGET TO CELEBRATE YOUR LOVE! Oh gosh, I totally forgot. Thanks Valentine’s Day.

Scrabble tiles spelling out Happy Valentine's Day

I loved reading about other family’s traditions around Valentine’s Day. One of my favorites was one family who wrote a daily love heart for another family member, taping them all to a communal door. This family wrote these hearts from February 1st until Valentine’s Day. I’ll have to remember that one for the future. For now, my toddlers would rip them down and try to eat them, like my daughter recently did with a pack of glittery heart stickers.

Another mom posted about going out for pizza – apparently Papa John’s does heart-shaped pizzas on Valentine’s Day. And yet another mom posted about including flowers, treats, balloons, and other fun things at the family’s breakfast table.

But what about the hot sex?

A mom sent me a private message saying she was surprised nobody brought this up on my Facebook post, which seems obvious for a Valentine’s-Day-after-kids discussion. There was one mom who mentioned how they do romantic nights at home, aiming to go to bed early one night so they can stay up later the next night. They sip tea and listen to music in bed, leisurely letting intimacy unfold. Sounds like an affordable, stress-free way to rekindle the passion. However, I know that if I lounged in bed with my hubby AND a calming cup of tea, I’d most likely fall asleep. Perhaps nobody mentioned the sex because we’re all so tired? Or was it just a given that yes, you’ll try to have sex on special occasions? 

Megan Stauffer, a local parenting educator in Chapel Hill, mentioned that the hardest time for her marriage was when her kids were under the age of two; that because little kids need to be touched and held so constantly, you often end up feeling “touched out.” Finally, a phrase to explain my need to curl up into a ball at the end of the night, wanting only to be alone. And yet doing exactly that makes me feel like I’m floating away on my own island, watching my husband’s island fade away into the sunset. We feel like roommates, teammates, work colleagues, tossing diapers to each other, passing one baby and taking the other, one unloading the dishwasher while the other loads it. When we bump into each other in the night, on the way to and from the bathroom, it’s like we’re strangers. Who are you?

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Stauffer had some great suggestions for building up your relationship after having kids, such as writing down what is working and what needs to be improved, words of gratitude, finding each other’s Love Language, as well as reading the book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. I wish there were regular classes on how to improve your marriage, classes that provided free childcare, and also served dinner, and dessert, and maybe set aside time for you to nap as well? Somehow you’re supposed to figure it all out while drying toddler tears, cleaning up poop, finding clothes that fit your every changing body, and having energy to make eye contact and say I love you to your long-term partner. It seems like a lot to ask. “Marriage post kids is a lot more work than I ever imagined,” Stauffer says.

So after all of this, I haven’t figured out the perfect way to celebrate Valentine’s day after children, especially when you’re sleep deprived, uncomfortable in your postpartum body, and feel like a stranger to your spouse. But I am going to say this: find something that makes you excited and go with it, even if that means ordering take-out and leaving the dishes for the next day. Or ignore this holiday completely if that’s the quickest way to happiness.

If you do want to do something for Valentine’s Day, here are some tips I learned (and hope to implement):

Babysitting swaps

You go out this week while a friends watches your kids, and then next week you watch their kids. This is a great way to save on money (if finances are preventing you from going out).

Go out at different times

Some of our best dates have been breakfast or lunch dates, when my husband has found time off work and we’ve managed to secure a daytime babysitter (or you could use one of those drop-in daycares). We are often more awake during these dates, too.

Hire a babysitter for the morning after

Another mom suggested this and I think it’s brilliant! You can stay up late the night before, sleep in, and enjoy some early morning conversations without being thrown into the circus of children.

Make celebrations last longer than just one day 

I’ve been known to say “it’s my birthday fortnight” because I like having extra opportunities to celebrate. Valentine’s Day can become the “love week,” allowing you time to do a little something special every day.

Do coupons for each other as gifts 

We often don’t give gifts due to limited finances (which makes me sad because I love gifts). Someone suggested exchanging coupon cards for each other. For example: one hour of housework or I’ll take in the car for the next oil change. These little gifts of service may be more useful right now than a pretty piece of jewelry. 

Stimulating conversations

Our general conversations seem to revolve around bills, childcare, work stuff, and the ever-growing to-do list. I think it’s important to find new topics, to break away from the monotony of it all. My husband and I are quite geeky and we have some pretty awesome conversations when we stumble upon a nugget of information that neither of us knew. Using Google trivia can be a fun way to break away from the normal life stuff.

Make dessert at home

Sometimes having dessert after a meal is enough to make a day special. This is what often marks holidays when we’re a kid – do we get copious amounts of sugar? Then I love this day. (Check out the top healthy V-Day dessert recipes)

Sending special texts or emails

I remember back in the day getting a text that said I love you or You’re pretty. Now my husband and I text each other this: Oscar just pooped in the potty! Or: Don’t forget to buy more diaper rash cream. Sending a sweet text only takes a few seconds, and can totally make someone’s day.

Write down activity ideas

Brainstorm on fun things you can do together as a couple and/or as a family. Fill up a bowl with these ideas and then draw one each week. Find a day/time to make it happen.

Other fun ways to celebrate as a family

Splurge on matching love Pjs, create cute photo collages, make cards together, bake together, play boardgames, have a dance party, enjoy heart-shaped pancakes, and give out plenty of hugs.

Above all else, remember that Valentine’s Day is merely a reminder to appreciate and love your family, partner, and friends. Try to spread the love all year long. And don’t feel guilty if you skip it all to take a long nap. That’s probably what I’ll end up doing.