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Broken Windows and Balloons: This year I was reminded of the true love of Valentine’s Day by a mother’s smile.

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Photo by Bakisin

Earlier this week, I broke heart after heart of elementary aged children who were unable to attend their class Valentine’s Day parties due to illness or fever. Parents scrambled to find alternate plans for reassurance – a private Valentine’s Day party at home with a parent, a treat on the way home from the clinic.

I assured at least one or two kids that their teachers would save their bags full of red crystal hearts or pink teapot erasers or chocolates for when they felt well enough to return to school. I promised them they would still get their lollipop or train cards with “I choo-choo-choose you.” I apologized for the bad luck of getting sick on Valentine’s Day.

I am not really a Valentine’s Day superfan. I don’t need a heart full of chocolates (though I did eat them) or flowers. It is enough for me to feel secure in my family’s love, or to get a few memes from my dearest friends. The cynic in me thinks Valentine’s Day is just a commercialized holiday encouraging us to buy more things, even though it has been celebrated for centuries.

So it was that on Valentine’s Day this year, I was counting my lucky stars that I didn’t have to buy and prepare valentines for a whole class now that my kids are out of elementary school. As I put their breakfast on the table, I told my two sons “Happy Valentine’s Day,” and one of them said, “It’s Valentine’s Day?” That was the extent of our celebration, or lack thereof.

I pulled into the parking lot to drop my son at school, said “good-bye” and “have a good day” and “I love you,” and started to pull out onto the street to go to work. As I did, I noted an older model car with duct tape holding the back passenger window together. From behind the duct-taped window stepped a middle schooler just like mine, blue hoodie on, Air Jordans on his feet.

As his mom got out of the driver’s seat, the young teen reached back into the car and withdrew three red heart balloons, a heart-shaped box of chocolates, a teddy bear with a red bow around its neck, and a small bouquet of flowers. He posed by the car with his bounty. I couldn’t see his face since I was behind him, but I saw his mother’s face as she took his picture.

Beaming with pride and love, she smiled at her son and took his picture, asking him to turn this way and that, aiming the camera up and then down to capture the whole scene of her son with his Valentine’s Day offerings.

I drove on, but the image of this mother’s face stayed with me all morning. It struck me that the money this mother spent on the gifts for her son’s crush could’ve been spent to replace her car’s passenger window. I don’t know her story, or how much money she has, or what happened to the window. But I do know the selfless love in her eyes when she smiled at her son and took his picture, and that, I will argue, is the real meaning of Valentine’s Day.

When you become a parent, one of the first lessons that you learn is that your needs are secondary. As soon as you bring your newborn home, you forego desperately needed sleep to feed and change and soothe your baby at ungodly hours your body hasn’t seen since the party days of youth.

When you want to be reading or going out with friends, you are instead sitting at soccer practice or waiting in the dance class lobby. When you want cereal for dinner, you have to suck it up and think of one more thing to cook for one more night, even if it’s chicken tenders and macaroni and cheese. When you just want to be in your pajamas watching your favorite series, you’re sitting at a sports game in the cold.

Parenting becomes your life, your 24-7 commitment. It’s the vomiting child at 3:00 a.m. It’s the late-night trip to the store to buy poster boards for the forgotten assignment. It’s taking on more hours at work or a second job for our children to have what they need. Most of us wouldn’t change it for anything, but there’s no arguing that becoming parents changes our lives, and it changes us.

It’s not an easy adjustment, even for those of us with pretty healthy coping skills. Parenting is a call to the ultimate selfless love, to truly loving someone more than yourself, to doing anything in your power to give this evolving person a chance to go farther in life than you’ve been able to go.

This mother symbolized all of that for me this week. While I don’t know her or her son, I lift my glass to her and to all of us parents trying to do right by our kids, on Valentine’s Day and every day, even if that means that the car window remains unfixed a little longer so that our son can take treats to his adolescent crush.

There is a good chance that this young man and his Valentine’s Day crush will not have a long-term relationship that extends into adulthood. But there was another relationship on display that day that will most assuredly be formative and lifelong for him, and that is knowing how much his mother loves him.

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