It’s mid-1990s and I’m in the fourth grade. My mom opens a box of 24 red and pink Valentines featuring Mickey and Minnie Mouse on the front. I sit next to her and fold them along their dotted lines, signing my name and making little hearts above my I’s instead of dotting them. You know, for that special Valentine’s Day flourish.
Somewhere between my school-age days and my children’s school-age days, the way Americans celebrate Valentine’s Day (and every other Hallmark holiday) has changed dramatically. No longer are store-bought Valentines the social norm. Now we have Pinterest and YouTube tutorials showing us moms how to create the perfect, homemade Valentine for our children’s classmates that will still eventually be trashed within two days (if we’re lucky).
In the effort of full-disclosure, I am the mom who produces Pinterest-fail worthy creations. Not for lack of effort but due to the extreme absence of any artistic ability whatsoever. Some moms enjoy buying the perfect little buttons and snaps at the craft store, but I wouldn’t know what to do with the business end of a hot glue gun. The idea of taking on a Pinterest craft project is more an exercise in humility than expressing my creativity.
When we moved to Sweden, I brought all of my American parenting ideas with me, including this notion that Valentine’s Day requires a personal touch. Pinterest is full of ideas like heart-shaped bubble wands, heart-shaped crayons, and anything else you can imagine that comes in pink or red heart shapes. A few days before Valentine’s Day, I browsed the aisles of my local Swedish grocery store and found a notable lack of any pre-made Valentine’s Day cards suitable for sharing with 15-20 classmates. The only cards available at the stores were romantic Valentine’s Day cards, and that was hardly economical or appropriate. Okay, so an easy store bought purchase was not possible. I was going to have to make these suckers by hand. Fantastic. I had to tap into my nearly empty well of creativity and limited access to art supplies for this one. (Sweden isn’t exactly bursting with arts and crafts stores like I was accustomed to in the US.)
Channeling my inner MacGuyver, I grabbed scissors, some colored construction paper, and started cutting out hearts to make mini Valentine’s Day cards. After two hours of work, I was quite pleased with the end result given my limited arts supplies. They certainly weren’t complex heart-shaped bubble wands, but they would do the trick.
On Valentine’s Day, I dressed my son in his cutest red shirt, placed the little cards into all of the children’s cubbies, and sent him off to enjoy his Swedish preschool’s Valentine’s Day party. When I picked him up that afternoon, I couldn’t help but notice that not one other parent had acknowledged the holiday. There weren’t any Valentine’s Day cards at all. Exchanging personal Valentines is not a social custom in Sweden.
Initially, I was disappointed. My son wouldn’t have the fun holiday card exchanges with his friends that I had while growing up in the US. After those two minutes of disappointment passed, I was tremendously relieved. Parenting in this Swedish culture, without the pressure to produce Pinterest-worthy crafts, birthday parties, or Christmas cards was liberating. No more long nights needed for making the perfect Valentines or Halloween costumes. For me, this was entirely liberating!
With all of the sharing on social media, there is an unspoken cultural pressure that my child’s personal celebration must be over-the-top to show that I care about my child. First birthdays have themes and elaborate cakes. I created a dragon cake for my son’s first birthday in Sweden and the parents who attended said in awe, “Wow! I’ve never seen someone do this for a kid’s birthday before.” And they had a point. Did my 12 month old understand the hours it took for me to create that dragon cake? No. Did I do it for myself or to impress the other parents? I think the latter, if I am being honest.
And I’m not the only one feeling the stress around these holidays. This very popular YouTube tutorial (with over 250,000 views and nearly a million subscribers!) features five easy-to-make, stress-free Valentines for your kids. Some actual comments on that video, “Thank you for these! I have 37 kids in my class.” One commenter noted the cultural difference, “Is this a big thing in America? Here in England people I know normally only give valentines to romantic interests or if they are organized to do it in small groups. (Even then its a card and it’s full of jokes).”
But when you live abroad, the holiday norms are replaced with unfamiliar holiday celebrations. In Knocked Up Abroad, Clara Wiggins author of The Expat Partner Survival Guide, describes the local Saint Lucian cultural holiday norms of the La Marguerite parade and her struggle to find the necessary dresses for her children to march in the parade. “…I found some suitable colored (and suitably shiny) material and a dressmaker, living on a patch of land, surrounded by chickens down a back road in the middle of nowhere.” When you live abroad, there is an odd cultural transfer that occurs, and you slowly realize that ‘Hey, we aren’t in Kansas anymore.’ During that transitional period, you may accidentally spend hours doing something that is culturally important to you but completely unexpected by everyone else, and your friends and neighbors might be spending hours on something that is culturally important to them and unknown to you.
Clara told me yesterday that her children’s American school in South Africa sent out a notice telling all of the parents that individual Valentines were expected at their class party. Fortunately, Pinterest and YouTube are full of ideas for you as I’m not sure Pretoria, South Africa has ready-made Valentines available for your convenience. You’ll most likely need to go the homemade route by necessity.
I can’t tell you how relaxing it is to be a parent in a culture that doesn’t expect Pinterest perfection. Swedish parents are not competing with other parents in regards to birthday cake complexity, birthday party themes, party invitations, or Valentine’s Day ideas. Swedish parents haven’t caught onto the Pinterest craze and I hope they never will because my artistic skills are not improving any time soon.
If you want to read more about Clara’s Saint Lucian preschool cultural norms, pick up a copy of Knocked Up Abroad on Amazon.