Every Valentine’s Day, I think of the Cheryl Strayed line, “My mother was the love of my life.” No romantic or sexual relationship has come close to the deep love I felt for her. Valentine’s Day in our household was like a feminist holiday—it was all about celebrating the intense non-romantic bond between two females. We didn’t need men, we had duty and laughter and admiration and intimacy—we were each other’s life partners.
Like many daughters of single mothers, I grew up seeing romantic relationships as a source of disappointment. Instead, I looked up to my mom’s deep bonds with her friends—whom we both turned to (and I continue to lean on) in times of need—as the kind of relationship that fostered real, lasting love.
As a little girl, I’d don a tiara and stage imaginary weddings with my mom, my uncle, my friends. Valentine’s Day was a day for decorating doilies and filling out a stack of mini-cards for everyone in my elementary class, not for boys, they had cooties. Even once I understood the meaning of marriage, I planned a “wedding” with a female friend in high school. Our relationship wasn’t sexual, we were just so obsessed with each other and wanted a way to celebrate—a wedding felt like the closest thing to a formal social recognition of our relationship. There was no shame in putting friends first.
Until adulthood, when I woke up to our amatonormative culture. What does amatonormativity mean? Philosopher Elizabeth Brake coined the term from the Latin word for love, amare, to describe the prioritization of romantic love over all other types of relationships. Once labelled, you see it everywhere. The songs we listen to, books we read, shows we watch—romantic love is pervasive, reinforcing the idea that it’s the only type of intense emotional exchange worthy of interest. Repeatedly depicted as the main path to happiness, we start to tie our self-worth to our ability to achieve it.
A single woman like me living with her (equally anti-social) black-haired, one-eyed cat? A spinster. The single old man must be emotionally repressed or closeted. Couples stay in relationships past their expiry date out of fear of joining our club of rejects. Entire industries (think, Viagra and couples porn) thrive off our fear of not having a romantic relationship; on our assumption that a failed romantic relationship is a personal failure. Break-ups and divorce are crises worthy of couples therapy and pints of ice cream. While friends rarely go to therapy when the relationship gets rocky and friendships fall apart without any acknowledgement of the loss.
It didn’t used to be this way. “Romantic friendships” were the norm from the 18th to early 20th century. Women wrote affectionate poems and called each other “my love” or “my queen” in letters. Men could walk down the street arm-in-arm without being labelled homosexual (scholars argue that the categories of heterosexuality and homosexuality weren’t even invented until the 20th century). Marriage wasn’t about sexuality and romance, it was a means of improving status. Friendship was the designated relationship for love.
It was only in the last century that romantic love took the spotlight. Once women and men were no longer operating in separate social spheres, platonic physical intimacy became frowned upon. By the 1950’s and ‘60s, marriage and the nuclear family changed the nature of friendships: wives replaced male friends as men’s primary emotional support while female friendships became centered on talking about their husbands and families.
The power of female friendships has slowly regained some status, at the very least in pop culture. I grew up with countless girl squad stories: The Baby-Sitters Club, Sailor Moon, Mean Girls, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, and of course, who could forget when Carrie said the Sex and the City gals were her soulmates. While most of these stories still placed romantic heterosexual love on a pedestal, it was empowering to see some of that intimacy I felt with female friends on screen.
As I’ve gotten older, the unique feeling of closeness with my female friends has become less about sharing secrets at sleepovers, and more about unconditional care (not unlike how romantic relationships become less about sex and more about obligation and support as we age too). Through break-ups and raising kids and caregiving for parents, it’s the queerplatonic friends (a term originating from the asexual community to describe deep platonic bonds) that last a lifetime.
It’s for this reason, that we need to re-examine amatonormativity, because it has real life consequences. The nuclear family ideal has turned the spouse into the default caregiver, leaving old single people stranded. At the hospital, it’s family that gets to make medical decisions, when, let’s be real—the first people who turn up are often friends.
Over 1,100 laws currently benefit married couples in the United States. Spouses share health insurance, disability income and get bereavement leave when their partner dies. What could society look like if our laws supported other kinds of relationships too? Would we have a long-term-care crisis? Would single parents or anyone without family feel like they don’t have a safety net?
Friendships and other exchanges of care can involve just as much, if not more, love and devotion as a romantic relationship, so it’s about time we recognize them. It’s why I loved when Leslie Knope introduced Galentine’s Day to the world over ten years ago—a day devoted to showering her gal pals with love in the form of mosaic portraits and 5,000-word personalized essays (not a far cry from the nonromantic female friendships of the 19th century). For single ladies, Galentine’s Day remedies some of that “I’m so alone” sentiment that the dreaded Valentine’s Day brings up, but more importantly, it recognizes platonic love.
Unfortunately, just like Valentine’s Day, Galentine’s Day has become a profiting opportunity. Now you can easily find a Valentine’s Day card that reads, “Let’s paint our nails & dismantle the patriarchy.” Big retailers have commodified female empowerment and taken the “the celebration’s expansion beyond romantic love [as] a mercilessly equal-opportunity development,” writes Joe Pinsker. I want to see platonic love socially celebrated with the same gravitas as romantic relationships, but a commercialized Galentine’s Day feels like a hollow step forward.
Instead of sorting through all the romantic Valentine’s cards to find one that could capture my unique relationship with my mom, I’d make my own. I’d spoil her with chocolate. But we didn’t need a holiday for that, because we don’t need a single day to buy each other chocolate (apparently Americans spent almost $15 billion on chocolate last year alone!); to honour the relationships that fill us up.
So can we just cancel Valentine’s Day, and Galentine’s Day (and all Hallmark holidays for that matter)? Recognizing non-platonic love in a card is a start, but we need meaningful recognition, in the form of legislation, and a regular celebration of the relationships that sustain us most.
Did you know the average American woman wears a size 16-18? Or that 1 in 4 people in the United States have a disability? It’s about time fashion brands start making inclusive and adaptive clothing.
I knew Aerie for their comfy loungewear but I didn’t know they also sell post-surgical support clothing and Slick Chicks’ period-proof undies (another brand I recommend). Leakproof underwear is also the expertise of Saalt and Knix.
With all the areas of our lives blending into one lately, our bedrooms have started doubling as our gym, dining room and office. But with people increasingly stressed and sleep-deprived this winter, reserving the bedroom for rest has never been more important. I rounded up some dreamy products to help re-establish the bedroom as your self-care temple.
Confession: I’ve never owned a vibrator. So LELO’s new SILA is perfect for me—it never actually makes contact with the clitoris (instead it sends out sonic waves). When it comes to slumber, this weighted blanket is a must and while I’m still skeptical, I’ve noticed I’m sleeping deeper ever since swapping my mattress pad for this CBD-infused one. As a teen, I’d never be caught dead in Uggs, but these slippers are so cute I might have to cave to the go-to brand for comfort. And I’m loving Canadian brand Vitruvi’s stone diffuser—the ceramic, porcelain casing make it a statement piece.
So I haven’t actually read Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close but it’s required reading if you’re into this week’s essay topic. Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman co-host Call Your Girlfriend podcast—“the podcast for long-distance besties everywhere”—so you know it’s gotta be good. For a taste, check out this excerpt on navigating interracial friendship.
Also required reading (that I actually have read)—Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex by Angela Chen. I love how asexuality de-stabilizes the meaning of attraction and relationships. By using examples from the Ace/LGBTQ community, Chen shows us that favouring heterosexual, romantic love limits our ability to survive and thrive as human beings.
🙅♀️21 witty responses to “Are you single?”
🤰And 21 clever comebacks to “Why don’t you have kids yet?”
👭What kind of love makes us happiest? Any kind that feels like friendship.
👨👩👦👦 “Today’s crisis of connection flows from the impoverishment of family life,” writes David Brooks. “For those who aren’t privileged, the era of the isolated nuclear family has led to broken families or no families; children traumatized and isolated; to senior citizens dying alone in a room.”
🏋️♂️ Men need emotional support, just not from women.
👋 On losing our “weak ties” during the pandemic. “Humans are meant to be with one another, and when we aren’t, the decay shows in our bodies.”
💞If you liked this week’s essay, you’ll like this Modern Love tale that makes the case for having more significant others.
📱On confessing and sharing vulnerabilities—“I fear that to over-share is to seek out the rewards of being loved without submitting to the mortifying ideal of being known.”
🎥 I have a huge crush on actor Steven Yeun and journalist Jay Caspian King, so a NYT article that involves both of them? Well I’m in heaven. But even if you don’t care about Yeun and King, the article is brilliant.
“Not everybody cares about our obsessing over belonging and not-belonging,” writes King. “Sometimes I wonder if the Asian-American experience is what it’s like when you’re thinking about everyone else, but nobody else is thinking about you,” says Yeun.
🎤 The quintessential 90s celeb relationship: JT and Britney. He apologized to her and Janet this week. But I still can’t find the Britney doc streaming in Canada (tips welcome!).
❤️ Devouring Helen Rosner’s guide to heart-shaped foods.
7 reasons Betty is one of the “best” shows about female friendship I’ve seen in the past year:
Aesthetics! Some critique that it’s style over substance, but so what? It has the down-to-earth docu-series feel of High Maintenance but captures the dreamy quality of adolescence—it’s like if Euphoria took a Xanax and swapped the soundtrack for Beach House.
It’s “female empowerment” without being too “girl power.” Like I May Destroy You, the show captures the nuances of gender roles, sexism, and sexual assault while still leaving room for us to form our own opinions.
The female friendships are realistically complicated (like the most recent of season of Insecure), without being overly sensationalized.
Gender and sexuality is fluid. You can’t categorize each character into a female archetype (like you can with most girl group shows—ahem, Sex and the City).
Racial and class diversity. We need more stories like Indigo’s—a Black weed dealer who’s secretly a rich girl.
It’s funny. As a dad-joke-loving granny who is watching sober, I’m somehow laughing at Gen Z humour—this says a lot.
The soundtrack is a MOOD.
If you were as shocked as I was to learn that romantic love has been the ideal for a relatively short period of human history, listen to this episode of Call Your Girlfriend. One of the biggest challenges to recognizing friendship as an institution? The cost barrier to exiting friendships is lower than that for marriages (divorce is still a process whereas it’s easy for a friend to just opt out).
And is it actually weird to feel deep love and (non-romantic) affection for our friends? This episode of The Cut gets into it. “We use this one word—love—to describe this whole range of feelings: from a friend, to a person you want to hook up with, to your grandpa,” says Avery Trufelman. Her and Angela Chen challenge sex being the primary condition of partnership, “What if your best friend could be the person you raise a family with or move across the country for?”