For many people of my gender and relationship status, today can be a stressful day. But for me it’s wine and roses — figuratively, not literally.
Your mother worked at a Hallmark store during college, and that pretty much soured her toward the whole holiday-for-lovers thing. She’s never expected anything special on Valentine’s Day. Not chocolates or jewelry. Not dinner or dancing. And certainly not wine or roses.
So when I told her that I’d be away in Nashville for V-Day this year, she didn’t so much as flinch. You two are having a sleepover tonight and you’re going to watch some movies. I’m going to go find some Kurdish food and eat alone while grading papers. And that’s all fine and dandy, because this isn’t a particularly important day on the calendar for our family.
That’s not to say it can’t be an important day for you. If you grow into the kind of woman who expects a horse-drawn carriage ride through the park at sunset, followed by dinner at the nicest restaurant in town, I’m OK with that.
Save one thing: I expect you to grow into the kind of woman who does not expect any of that because you are a woman.
There’s nothing wrong with doing things that are traditionally associated with one gender or another. When your mother and I go out, I drive the car pay the dinner bill. I certainly won’t pretend that these and many other roles we’ve assumed in our relationship don’t have anything to do with the gender expectations we’ve been raised with, but they don’t have anything to do with gender.
I’m not a better driver because I am a man (fact is, I’m not a better driver at all.) I am not better at paying bills because I am a man, either (your mom just doesn’t like doing it.)
Your mother does not expect me to do anything because I am a man. What she does expect of me, she expects because I am her partner, and because over our 11 years of marriage I have come to understand the kinds of things she likes (backrubs, pajamas, super-hero movies) and the kinds of things she doesn’t (V-day, taking out the garbage and driving on busy interstates.)
Likewise, I expect nothing of your mother because she is a woman, but rather because she is the person in this world who knows me better than anyone else. She tolerates the things I do that align with gender norms (watching football, riding motorcycles, playing poker) and the things that don’t (my recent obsessions with designer shoes and figure skating, for instance.)
When these tolerations, expectations and demonstrations of affection come from the things we learn about one another over time, that’s a very wonderful thing — no matter if the end result conforms to gender expectations or not. But when these things come from assumptions about what women or men need because they happen to be women or men, that’s not a good thing. It’s unhealthy and demeaning to our humanity.
Insomuch as it has come to be associated with the way men should treat women, chivalry is not dead. But it should be.
Because people who believe men should do certain things to show their appreciation for women, just because they are women, are buying into a worldview that suggests women should do certain things to show their appreciation for men, just because they are men. And for all of human history, men have taken advantage of those expectations in ways that are unkind, abusive and cruel.
If and when you choose a partner you want something from that person, by all means ask for it. And if you don’t get it, you should reconsider the relationship.
If you want carriage rides through the park, you should get that. If you want backrubs and pajamas, you should get those too. Not because you are a woman, but because you are a cherished partner to another human being.
And if you want wine and roses, I wish you nothing less than that. Every day of the year.