I'm not sure if I would call myself a romantic person. I know that as I grow older, I definitely crave romance (or my idea of it) much more than I use to. When I was younger, I used to snuff the idea of romance - almost as if it were beneath me.
Oh how young I was.
Now I'm like, PLEASE OH GOD JUST RUB MY BACK I'LL DO ANYTHING.
Thankfully, I have a pretty romantic partner. I think he's more romantic than I am, but what we classify as "romantic" would differ greatly. He does the surprise bouquets from my favourite flower shop - knowing to put peonies inside the bouquet and to go heavy on the greenery. One time he even brought me home a brand new Macbook Pro (probably tired of listening to me drone on and on about how slow my old one was) just because.
"Do you think this one would work better, Vaness?"
I burst into tears when he pulled the shiny new laptop out. I think I had been stressed out by a deadline so the tears weren't exactly a normal reaction... but memorable none the same. And to me, it was romantic because it made me feel like he was thinking about my needs, or what would make my life easier.
If you haven't noticed, my love language is gifts, with a touch of acts of service.
These are two categories in The Five Love Languages, by Gary Chapman; a really eye-opening book that I first explored during a very lonely Valentine's day from my twenties. If you haven't read it, it breaks down five common categories that we each fit into in order for us to feel loved: words of affirmation, physical touch, acts of service, quality time and gifts. So, let's say your BF shows his love through words of affirmations, telling you you're beautiful and the love of his life, but your love language is actually acts of service, like doing the laundry or taking care of supper - just because - you might not be feeling as connected and fulfilled as you want to. Once you know each other's love languages, it's easier to make sure you're doing your best to speak the other's language when it comes to love, in turn, making them feel loved.
I think Derek's love language is acts of service. He feels loved when I just take care of things - like making sure he has the right deodorant, and a lot of it. Or having supper made. Or taking care of the geeky technological things he doesn't get.
When we first became parents, we were pretty good at keeping the romance up, and really trying to fulfill the other's love language. We would go on dates, casually shop for our dream house, even just have good talks in the car on the drive somewhere. He's a man of few words, so by "talks" I really mean he would let me vent about something I needed to get off my chest, or listen to me plan what I wanted our future to look like.
He'd always pepper in a couple, "I love you, you know."
As our relationship grew, marriage would enter the conversation, especially after having Hawksley. But when we did find our dream home - and gorgeous property - getting married didn't seem like anything other than an expense that we couldn't really afford after such a grand purchase. Besides, I wanted new windows and new counters. (Love language alert!) And we both had brand new businesses. We had a tiny baby and a really different lifestyle we were adjusting to. What would change in our lives if we got married?
We had done things a little out of traditional order... and I kind of liked that about us.
And. Well. When my dad died, I made a silent vow to myself that I would never get married. When he was dying, he cried over the fact that he wouldn't be able to give his daughters away, and I think this crushed a part of my spirit that will never fully heal. I hated the idea of being so vulnerable without a father to give me away at a wedding. I hated the idea of having to stand up, by myself, again and again and again, like I always have without him there. I wouldn't be able to have the "father/daughter" dance that is always the most emotional part of the celebration... at least the most emotional part for me. And I hated the idea of creating a celebration that my dad so badly wanted to be a part of, but couldn't be. I hated that so much. I'd rather just avoid the entire situation altogether.
Back when Derek and I started dating, he had recently lost his mom, also to cancer, the same way I lost my dad. For the first time, I was able to date someone and connect in a way that was like, "Oh. You get how it hurts, and I don't have to try and explain it."
And he wouldn't get the mother/son dance at his wedding, either. In its own weird, heartbreaking way, that sort of gave me comfort. It made me feel less alone.
As Hawksley started to grow, I began coming up against little hiccups here and there, small problems over the fact that I had a different last name than he did because his dad and I never did get married. Hawksley also took Derek's last name. Mine's a mouthful, and Derek's is classic. It seemed like a no-brainer to me. Right?
But whenever I would take Hawksley to an appointment of any kind, I would need to pull out extra documentation to prove I was his mother. This seemed a little odd to me - so many people have children and don't share their child's last name. This wasn't something I had ever heard people talk about, so it must not be really important. I chocked it up to being something most mom's with different last name's go through, and I was just being sensitive.
The more and more I came up against having to prove I was Hawksley's mother, the more the name thing started to prickle at me, and the more sensitive I got about it. But I'm not sure sensitive is the right word. For whatever reason, I felt like I was being spotlighted for being an unmarried woman with a child. Was this just my old religious background and societal expectations rearing their ugly heads? Could I really have some lingering guilt that made me feel bad about "accidentally getting pregnant" when I was never supposed to be able to conceive in the first place?
Derek never seemed to have this problem. He shares Hawksley's last name, and Hawksley is a mini version of him so the questioning was even more rare. One of our friend's once quipped, "Wow, you don't need a paternity test for that one!"
He was joking, but... I don't know how I felt about that comment. What exactly does that say about me?
Everything about becoming a mother ignited my inner feminist who was dying to be released. Every little quip about my womaness and my choices acted like fuel. And I'm pretty sure it's like, the one right I should have - the one right I expected to have - I pushed this kid out of my body so don't fucking question me about whether or not he is mine. Isn't it the dad who usually has to prove he's the dad?
When I thought I couldn't possibly get any more sensitive about it, I received a letter in the mail from the taxation department, negating two years of my tax returns, asking for all the money they had given me, back. On top of that, I had a claim I was paying back from making too much money in my final year in finance, before I made the leap to being an entrepreneur and a mother.
I was left with a rather hefty bill.
I called my accountant in a bit of a huff, and he sympathized with me. He told me that because I have a different last name than Hawksley, I needed to prove to the government that I was his biological mother and primary caregiver. I claimed Hawksley on my taxes, so Derek's were completely omitted from this situation.
"OK, I'll just scan his birth certificate," I said.
"Well, actually, they need a written letter from Hawksley's pediatrician, stating your home address, that he lives there with you, and that you are his mother."
"That seems a little excessive," I said, groaning, because Hawksley's doctor is not easy to get in with.
"The government can be a little stuck in the 70s with some of these things."
So I got the letter. His doctor didn't seem too surprised by the request, which I thought was a bit odd. I didn't think to ask if this ever happened to any other mothers of her patients. I gave all the documentation to my accountant and he fired it off to the government.
But then I received a call, demanding that this outstanding payment of thousands of dollars needed to be paid in a week or legal action would be taken against me.
I actually laughed. What kind of joke was this that the Universe was playing on me?
"I don't owe this money. Didn't my accountant connect with you?"
"It can take up to two years to process that Hawksley is your biological son."
"Seriously? That's not my fault."
"Once your claim is processed, all this money will be sent back to you."
"OK... but I don't have that much money in reserves to give to you. You're asking for three years worth of returns."
"You'll have to take out a loan then."
So I went to the bank, now a fury in my belly. I wanted this done and over with, or someone was going to feel my wrath. OK! I had a baby and I wasn't married! OK! I'm sorry! What do you want from me? Meanwhile, the festering prickle of having a different last name than Hawksley had turned into a full blown hole, eating away at me.
"I'm sorry. We can't give you a loan because you haven't been working for two years."
"What do you mean? I have been in the work force for over ten years."
"Well, you were on a maternity leave. Unfortunately you need to be working for two years after that in order to be approved for a loan."
"What if I were to have another baby in that time?"
"You'd have to wait another two years after that maternity leave."
This is relevant because Derek and I have been talking about having another baby and whether it makes sense for us. But what if I have a financial hiccup? What if I need help - a loan - some influx of money? Am I cutting myself off from this type of resource so long as I'm having children? More feminist fuel.
Now, I realize there are other ways we could have got around this, but at this point I was in a blind rage, all my feminist instincts kicked completely in high gear. After a bit of research, I found that women in a few prairie provinces had been up against some of the same allegations I was - and a few of them waited the full two years for their claims to be processed. Thankfully, some happened sooner.
The reason I was so mad was because I felt like I was being punished for having a baby and not being married. I felt like I was being punished for choosing Derek's last name over mine to give to my son. I questioned if I had unknowingly disrespected my dad, by not giving my son his last name (there are no grandsons on my side, so the family name has stopped). I felt like I was being punished for taking time away - not even the full year I'm entitled to - to heal and raise my son when he is in his youngest, most fragile years. I felt like I was being punished for being a mother. A woman. An unmarried mistress just living in the woods. I felt like I was being punished for executing all the rights I have as a modern woman.
"I don't care what fucking paper I have to sign," I said to Derek, "Let's change my name to yours and just be legally married as it obliges to the government so I can be done with all this."
"...Do you really want that?" Derek asked me.
Of course I didn't.
That would be the final foot dropping to kill any hope for romance in my life.
I started to cry (maybe I do cry a lot). It already felt like the government was in my bed. I didn't want them to take hold of a potential celebration with my partner, removing anything special from it. There would be no romance. Just business.
I googled how much a marriage licence cost, anyway, just to dot my i's.
I started to look around my life, and noticed a lot of it had become business over romance. In a lot of areas, I had removed the romance, and made it more of a business relationship. Practicality over the sweeter things. What happened to the sweeter things? Didn't we used to be so romantic in the beginning? Now it's just:
"I did supper. You have to do bath time."
"House rules: I wash the laundry, you fold it."
"I wake up with him everyday. You have to wake up with him on the weekend."
"I buy all the groceries so you need to always take out the garbage."
"You have hockey again? When do I get to go out and do something?"
"Shit, we're out of butter. Can you get butter at the store? You have to be fast though. Hawksley is gonna lose it."
How much of my partner did I take for granted because we are in sync and trying to build a life together? Was building a life supposed to be this hard? Were we doing it right? Is this just a normal phase of life, bludgeoned by the demands of early parenthood and new careers? Am I really just being sensitive?
And were we really not that romantic?
I thought about this as we held hands on a car ride one Sunday, Hawksley sleeping in the back seat. Derek changed the radio station from SportsTalk to Coffeehouse. He loaded my laundry basket full of shop orders into the truck for me so we could drive into town to ship them. He packed Hawksley's blankie so he would fall asleep instead of sing about Paw Patrol and cookies for the millionth time.
He always loads all the wood into the house from the woodshed.
He always cuts the grass along the entire property - even the sprawling parts, speckled with random trees.
He always does bath time.
He sucks at cleaning the kitchen, but he installed me a new dishwasher, and built the dining table I designed.
He painted the high parts of the fireplace waaaaay up on the ladder when we were in a DIY mode he didn't want to be in, and I was too scared to climb that high.
He always always always gets late night treats. Every time.
He never gets mad when I wear his cozy sweaters straight from the wash, even before he gets to.
He was doing everything that an acts of service love language would do. And he was doing it constantly, even when I was too mad about the technicalities of being a couple, and not paying attention.
I text my mom and asked her if she knew her love language, in hopes that I could get some insight into the way couples work. In my eyes, my mom is incredibly romantic, and her needs and the needs of her husband are always extremely important to her. She's passionate. She takes care of herself. She's silly. And she's loving. The memories I have of her and my dad are also overwhelmingly romantic, maybe exhaustingly so. It was always very obvious they were attracted to each other, and they always made little jokes with one another. I used to catch them kissing, and my dad would make jokes to try to quell my grossed out expression, but my mom would just laugh and genuinely not care that I saw his hands up her shirt.
Honestly, that's fucking cool. I know it seems horrific to catch your parents goofing around and being playful in a romantic way, but now that I'm a parent, I just respect them even more. Like, your kid knows you guys love each other. That's cool. So many kids don't get to feel that. I have friends who have never even seen their parents kiss, and I just can't imagine a childhood like that.
I'm aware I could be romanticizing my parents' relationship from a child's perspective, but even when my dad died - on my mom's birthday - there were roses, for her, in his hospital room. And that's the final memory I have of their love: Dad, on his deathbed, still obsessed with mom.
My mom didn't hesitate to say physical touch when I asked her about love languages. At first I was surprised, because that's probably dead last on my list. She said she felt loved through the gentle touch on the small of her back, a good morning kiss, holding hands in the car just because...
"It's such a learning curve, Vaness. You're young. It will change. It's the small things that count."
When she told me that, it sort of clicked things into place. Derek and I were hemorrhaging romance, but I was so caught up in what I thought it was supposed to look like, that I couldn't stop and appreciate it for what it was. Maybe we weren't traditional. Maybe we weren't even married. And I think for the most part, I'm aware that we're romantic, maybe even exhaustingly so to others when we harmonize with one another in cars (sorry about that guys), but it's OK for me to want to go on a date sometimes, have him pay (we share a bank account), and bring me home flowers (also from my bank account). That's my love language and what makes me feel loved. But I still need to pay attention to what he is doing that follows his love language.
Because we do love each other. And sometimes love looks like farting in bed and flowers.
Vanessa Kunderman is a writer and poet, mother, smoke bath addict and cancer survivor. She created Rogue Wood Supply after reconnecting and rediscovering her spirit self; a surprising side effect of surviving her cancer diagnosis at sixteen years old. She plays six instruments, loves a smooth honey bourbon, and starts each day with a warm fire.