To My Children on the Night Before Valentine’s Day

Sugar is the last thing you need, given the gummy “fruit” snacks and cookie-topped yogurts I put in your lunchboxes, against my better judgment.

And presents. You don’t need those either. The Shrinky Dink bracelet kit you started just after Christmas still sits on the dining room table, unfinished. The Barbies and American Girls have more clothes and accessories than I do.

Even so, tomorrow morning you will each find a heart-shaped box of chocolates, and a small gift on the breakfast table.

Some will say that lavishing Valentine’s Day gifts on my children instead of my husband is a sign that we have allowed the demanding, mundane love of children to hijack the primacy of our marital love.

They could be right. Your dad and I, though, were never that big on romance. We were friends for such a long time before we were anything else that romance seemed a little beside the point. And while 15 years of burgers and an early movie lack the poetry of candlelight and champagne, it has been 15 years, after all. Happy ones, too.

But back to your chocolates and presents.

I know you know that I love you. I say it every morning when you leave for the bus, every night when I tuck you in. You little ones still like to snuggle next to me in our big bed before heading off to your own, and even you, my teenager, return my “I love you” with your own, offered cheerfully enough, even if you don’t always take your eyes off your glowing screen when you say it.

But these routine expressions of love are really inadequate for the task of telling you how I feel about you.

When I go into your rooms at bedtime, I pull the blankets over your tired bodies, smoothing and tucking. You probably think I do that to make sure you’ll be warm and comfortable. I do, but it’s more than that. What I’m really doing is reassuring myself that for now, for the next few hours at least, you will be right here. I am, in a way, taking comfort in the fact that you are temporarily stuck here, in our house, in comfort, in safety. I pull the blankets snug, shove them more tightly under your mattress.

That makes me sound a little nuts, I know. A little over the top. It’s just that as you get older, I can no longer keep you so close. I am tucking you in, right here, ever aware that more and more of your life is being lived out there. Where I can’t always make sure you’re warm and safe. Where I can’t always know what people say to you and what you say back to them. Where you will discover new people and pleasures and talents and habits that will shape the person you will grow into. I hope that you choose the people and pleasures and talents and habits that will nurture your best self, allow you to be mostly happy and well, but I don’t know that you will.

My love for you is passionate, vast, hopeful, voracious, ardent, tender—perfectly suited, I think, to the heart shapes and fiery reds of Valentine’s Day. I’m guessing you would prefer I express my love for you in chocolates and presents, rather than trying to put it into words or (worse) action, which would just be embarrassing for all of us, and possibly a little bit frightening.

So I’ll stick with a box of chocolates, and a little something special picked out especially for each of you, and the same old “I love you” offered as you run out the door, trailing your backpack, moving out into the world—your world, where you will grow into yourself.

(And don’t worry. I bought chocolate for dad too. And for myself, because I’ve learned that’s the only way to make sure I get the kinds I like.)

Happy Valentine’s Day, my loves.

About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • Priscilla Hooper

    Not fair! You made me cry! Enjoy those beautiful children while they are still right here. It isn’t long before they are not.

  • Jeannie

    Beautiful post — I can so relate, but you said it so much better than I could! Thanks as always.

  • J

    Tears again! This time, laughter, too. Hope you and your fam have a great Valentine’s Day. :)

  • Tim

    That’s a wonderful valentine for your kids, Ellen.

    We tend to celebrate Valentine’s Day and our anniversary much like you describe. Those days have always been an opportunity for family celebration, not just for me and my wife as a couple. Are we nuts? Well, we have two wonderful children, and our marriage is going strong at 25 years and counting. I’ll go with not nuts. (Unless it’s chocolate. I like nuts in chocolate.)

    A happy Valentine’s Day to you and your family, Ellen.


    P.S. I wrote a Valentine to my wife on my blog today. She made me promise not to get her a present or even a card. She said nothing about a blog post.

  • DaveP

    Thanks again Ellen for a post that brought back fond memories!

    > Even so, tomorrow morning you will each find a heart-shaped box of chocolates, and a small gift on the breakfast table.

    That’s what I used to do, too, except that instead of a gift, I got them each a small box of conversation hearts. Plus leaving a heart-shaped box of chocolates and a gift or extra treat for my wife. And even though my kids have all moved out, I still do it. Even moreso. On Monday I shipped each of my kids a package containing two heart-shaped boxes of chocolate (one for them, one for their significant others) and two boxes of conversation hearts.

    > And for myself, because I’ve learned that’s the only way to make sure I get the kinds I like.

    :) For many years we couldn’t afford the chocolates my wife really liked, so instead I got her whatever came in the flashiest inexpensive heart-shaped box. This year, for the first time since before we were married, I got her her favorite: Godiva in a heart-shaped box. And she got me one of my favorite treats: Peeps, in the shape of hearts.

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