Louise O'Neill: What mattered was you were special enough to warrant sending a Valentine

There are certain things I remember about when my parents would go out for the night together. A pair of silk trousers my mother had, the floral scent of her Anais Anais perfume.

Louise O'Neill: What mattered was you were special enough to warrant sending a Valentine

There are certain things I remember about when my parents would go out for the night together. A pair of silk trousers my mother had, the floral scent of her Anais Anais perfume.

My sister and I silently assessing a new babysitter, wondering how strict they would be on bedtimes and sugar consumption.

Trying to stay awake until they came home but more than often succumbing to sleep, eyelids too heavy.

I don’t have any specific memories of them going out for Valentine’s Day. It wasn’t that they ignored the day entirely — my father would get my mother a bouquet of red roses, and there would be a single yellow rose for me and my sister.

There would be dinner, a lopsided heart-shaped cake baked, the two of us fighting who would get to light the red candles on the table before Dad came home from work.

We were far more excited about the whole affair than they were, sighing as we envisioned our own futures, unfolding before us like a Disney film.

And they all lived happily ever after… Once I hit adolescence, I would occasionally get a card from the rather ominously entitled ‘Anonymous’ (Mom, I recognised your handwriting immediately), but later, a few cards arrived that appeared to be genuine.

A couple by post, and one hand-delivered to my father which mortified me at the time but seriously impresses me now.

My kingdom for the courage of a 13-year-old who would go into his local butcher shop, hand over a bright pink envelope to a man surrounded by sharp knives and ask him to pass it on to his daughter. I can remember every Valentine’s morning, the nervous anxiety building.

Wondering if you would get something in the post, knowing that it was unlikely, but still hoping. Looking back, I think it didn’t matter so much if you ever found out the identity of who had sent it.

What mattered was the sense of being chosen. That you, out of every other girl they knew, were special enough to warrant sending a Valentine. All your fears about being unlovable or not pretty enough, not thin enough, not good enough; all of that disappeared.

Someone wanted you. You had been seen.

As an adult, I’ve had two serious boyfriends and both relationships have been long distance. Because of that, there have often been times when it was impossible for us to spend the day together.

It never bothered me. I don’t loathe Valentine’s Day, or yearn for validation in the shape of a heart shaped box of chocolates the way I might have done as a teenager but the older I get, the more I find the fuss a bit embarrassing.

This is especially true given how gendered the commentary around it can feel. “Have to get the Missus a bunch of flowers, or she’ll lose her shit and divorce me!” Spare me, please.

Take it while it’s flying, my mother always says when she overhears me telling a boyfriend not to bother getting anything for Valentine’s. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, Louise. But I don’t actually want any of the paraphernalia that accompanies this nonsense.

I like flowers well enough but I don’t derive the same sort of joy that my mom does; she would fill the house with fresh flowers every week if she won the lottery whereas I would buy an island and never talk to another human being ever again.

I accidentally set myself on fire when I was a child (long story) so I’m wary of candles, and polyester lingerie sets in neon pink may as well have “Warning: Will Give You Virulent Thrush” stamped across the front.

But if you don’t get chocolate or an itchy pair of knickers or a wall of flowers like Kylie Jenner did, it’s as if you’ve just admitted that your partner secretly hates you and your relationship has failed.

Maybe that’s what annoys me the most about Valentine’s — how performative it is.

Before, it was going to school and telling your classmates how many cards you’d gotten that morning, feigning sympathy for the less fortunate amongst you.

Then it was getting a table at the nicest restaurant in town, sandwiched in between dozens of other couples, half of whom looked like they were bored, the other half wearing the faces off each other.

With the advent of social media, it’s easier than ever to perform your love, posting 50 photos to Instagram Stories detailing every second of your day from the hand-delivered breakfast to the silk sheets covered with rose petals that awaits you at bedtime.

I know I sound like a curmudgeon who despises romance but I simply believe true love is a lot quieter than Valentine’s Day would have you believe.

It’s small, everyday gestures that say – I’m thinking of you. I want you to be happy. I care about you. There’s not much to say about ‘He/she/they are nice. We’re happy.

They treat me well and I try to do the same in return. It’s easy. I feel comfortable around this person. We’re kind to one another.’

Put that on a card, Hallmark.


READ: Actress by Anne Enright. This is the story of an Irish theatre legend, Katherine O’Dell, as told by her daughter, Norah, exploring fame, sex, and power. It’s easy to take Enright’s brilliance for granted when her work is such a joy to read, and Actress is no exception. I adored it.

WATCH: Cheer on Netflix. This six-part series follows the Navarro College cheer squad as they fight to win a national title. The level of skill these athletes display is astounding, I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s all I want to talk about right now.

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