Photo courtesy of Aimee Christian

Our Daddy-Daughter Valentine’s Tradition Isn’t Creepy, It’s So Important

I've heard all the criticism, but in our house, Valentine’s Day is a celebration of a daddy and his daughters. No, it’s not creepy, you're creepy. It doesn’t teach girls that they are inferior. It doesn’t encourage incest. You don’t like the term “daddy-daughter date?” Don’t use it. Call it something else.

In our house, my husband is the stay-at-home-parent while I am often away, traveling for work. When they were babies, Johnny heated up bottles of frozen breastmilk for them, wore them in the wrap, changed them, bathed them. They napped on his chest, sucked on his pinky. As toddlers they snuggled with him at bedtime, listened to him read bedtime stories, helped him fold and put away everyone’s clean underwear and other clothing. One of our daughters has a physical disability and still needs help in the bathroom; Daddy is the one who helps. And now, Daddy is the one who scrambles to get them on the bus every morning, shuffles them to and from lessons and playdates, hurries to throw together meals, and gets them ready for bed. Half the time he does all of this entirely on his own around the clock, because I am away. Is any of this creepy? No, of course not. It’s parenting. When I am home, we make sure to slow down and spend some quality time every chance we get. That is parenting too.

Once he took one of them to New York City for the weekend; she still talks about it.

This means a lot of one-on-one time. Of course we want to spend time all together, and the girls beg for Mama time whenever I come back from a work trip, but they also crave quality Daddy time. So nowadays a typical weekend day looks like this: I take one kid out for the morning while he has the other, we come together for lunch, then we switch kids in the afternoon. The girls love it. Johnny is the fun parent: with him they skateboard, practice guitar, play video games, go out for French fries or bagels. Once he took one of them to New York City for the weekend; she still talks about it and wants to go back, only with him, and her sister is begging for her turn. We all enjoy our one-on-one time more than I can express, and because we mix it up this way, being together as a threesome or foursome is exciting and fun, too.

To me, unconditional love from one’s parents — including one’s father, if there is a father present — must precede romantic love.

In our family we celebrate everything. We have to. I am away so much that I weave in whatever I can to bring the family together, to make daughters feel seen and heard by both parents. We have developed little traditions for every holiday and birthday and opportunity we can find to be together. On Valentine’s Day, we make it about the girls and their dad. When some people told me they thought this was creepy, and others said they found it downright dangerous, I was shocked. If Valentine’s Day is a fabricated holiday in the first place, why can’t we make it into whatever works for us? Some people love the Hallmark holiday. Others have Galentine’s Day, others still have Singles Awareness Day, some people avoid the whole thing. For us, it’s just another excuse to remind our girls that they are loved. To me, unconditional love from one’s parents — including one’s father, if there is a father present — must precede romantic love if that love is to be fulfilling and healthy, so we work to create opportunities to show this wherever we can.

I did not grow up feeling unconditionally loved by my parents. They are not celebratory, they are not affectionate. My mother has only ever said “I love you,” aloud to me once. We didn’t get along well; I felt maligned and misunderstood. My father was different.

When I was very small, he hugged me and whispered that he loved me. When I was 6, 7, 8 years old, he would give me a store-bought card and a small trinket on Valentine’s Day: a little necklace with a heart pendant, a packet of those heart candies with phrases stamped on them: I Love U, Be Mine. One year I got a pink plastic heart that opened; inside were red M&Ms. I savored them one at a time, cracking them and gnawing off the chocolate coating before I let the insides melt in my mouth. I loved those few years and mourned them when he got too awkward as I went through puberty.

When I was in middle school, my mother went away for the summers to work at a camp. One summer, my dad and I stayed home together. I had a summertime babysitting gig, he worked. We’d join my mother on weekends. I loved weeknights with my dad: I’d persuade him to take me out for dinner, go for walks with me, get a cone of Baskin Robbins chocolate chip mint ice cream with chocolate sprinkles. Mostly I complained about my mother. As I got older, this became very confusing to me because I couldn’t understand how he could love me and still side with my mother. Over time I pulled away from him. He was unwavering in his love for me, but quiet about it. He was always there, but waited for me to come to him. When I was a teenager, deep in my own personal adolescent hell of hormones and changes and fury, I couldn’t reach out first. I stopped coming to him. That meant the dinners and ice creams and walks all stopped. It meant we stopped talking, and we basically didn’t interact one-on-one for decades. I never stopped loving my father, and I never stopped wishing that he would reach out to me. I never forgot those few years of Valentine’s Day presents. I wished he’d had a way to tell me he loved me as I grew up and away.

The messages our society sends to people about Valentine’s Day enrage me. They exacerbate and reinforce what women have drilled into their heads from when they are tiny little girls: men validate you. Men complete you. Men define you. Men determine your value. Your love interest determines whether you get to participate in this holiday. No love interest? No holiday. This one is only for women who are loved by men who are willing to participate. To me, that’s creepy.

Our daughters never get tired of hearing that they are loved. They never roll their eyes or run from our open arms. They love to feel loved consistently and unconditionally. We don’t need a holiday to tell them we love them, of course, but having holidays makes it extra fun. They are too young to understand more than the concept of romantic or sexual love. To them, Valentine’s Day is about hearts and candy and saying I love you. To them, partner love is way off in the future. They no longer talk about wanting to marry me or Johnny when they grow up, and they know the love he and I share is different than the love we have for them, but beyond that, it’s a mystery to them.

This holiday is about Daddy seeing them and the little tiny things they like: hearts and stickers and unicorns and smelly pencils and candy. And we are happy to keep it that way for now.