By Michelle R. Smith
Love stories are irresistible. Especially around this time of year. Even for seasoned writers like me.
So I’m going to tell you a love story. My favorite love story. In celebration of Valentine’s Day.
It is my love story. And it begins, ironically, with a heartbreak.
When I was 25, I broke off a year-long engagement with a man named G. I had been too young and unformed to say yes to his proposal but too flattered and frightened to say no. After a while, though, it became clear that I wasn’t ready for the level of commitment he wanted from me.
I wasn’t ready, and he wasn’t patient, and so we fell apart. I was hurt by how aggressively he’d tried to change me, but I still left the engagement convinced that I was wrong and needed to change.
And that’s how I reemerged into the world after the relationship ended. Convinced that I was a problem needing solving. Certain that even if I found someone new to love, I would eventually chase him away like all the others before him.
Because I was a serial monogamist at 25. I’d had four very serious relationships, and they’d all ended badly.
My first boyfriend S and I had fallen apart when I went to college. Neither one of us could seem to handle my transition to Adult Michelle.
C was never official, never committed, and never consistent, and, yet, he dumped me.
N was actually a romantic, but, sadly, he romanticized conflict as much as he romanticized connection. I broke up with him after I got sick of the drama that enveloped him. He confessed afterward that he’d cheated throughout the relationship for revenge.
G had been my fourth boyfriend—a seeming knight in shining armor. He wrote poems and drew portraits; he did all the right things. Except accept me as I was and treasure me as that woman.
So after him, I was thoroughly convinced that I was the reason these relationships hadn’t worked. He had spent copious time explaining it to me, after all. The reasons “we” couldn’t get along with “each other.”
I was too independent. I was too opinionated. Too distrustful. Too angry. Too easily hurt. I held grudges. I talked too much. I said all the wrong things. I didn’t appreciate having a man in my life. I didn’t know how to treat one.
I didn’t like men. I didn’t like myself. I didn’t know how to open up. I didn’t know how to show love. I wasn’t healthy. I wasn’t normal. I was too involved with my family and friends and not involved enough with my romantic life. I wasn’t sexy or sexual enough.
At one time or another, I was criticized for all these things, in all these ways, by all the men I loved. The fiancé was just the most vocal of the four. And I thought that surely after him I would be alone. I thought perhaps I should be.
But then I met J. My current boyfriend. The father of my daughter.
J was 20 when we met. A rebel. He’d just been kicked out of his first of two colleges and sent back to Cleveland to get himself together. He was living with his mother, riding the bus, and barely scraping together money for cigarettes and $2 beers at the bar around the corner. He was scribbling poetry on any scrap of paper he could find, devouring political tracts and science fiction novels, and watching the news like most men watch football and basketball.
J didn’t have all the “resume” qualifications that most women look for, and it caused me quite a bit of consternation when we first met. He was kind, though. He was deeply intelligent, surprisingly funny, and beautifully soulful. He was handsome and a talented poet and emcee. He loved his mother and younger brother devotedly, and he fell decidedly in love with me.
I couldn’t resist doing the same to him.
This is probably where you—reader—expect the story to end. You expect me to conclude with some aphorism about silver linings on clouds or pots of gold at the end of rainbows.
If only our relationship unfolded that way.
J was wonderful, but J was five years younger than me. He was unsettled, unsure, and unprepared for a relationship as serious as ours. And we went through more ups and downs than I care to enumerate or narrate in this essay.
In other words, we were real people in real love. We had real problems. We made real mistakes.
Thirteen years later, we are still in love. We have a daughter and a history that makes us cringe at certain events and beam at certain others.
Thirteen years later, after countless fights, break-ups, make-ups, two years of long distance, a pregnancy, a clinical post-partum depression, underemployment, unemployment, two miscarried engagements (yes, to each other), family quarrels, and an array of good, bad, and ugly dealings, this is what truly matters—the point I’m going to make right now. As my conclusion.
G loved me but wouldn’t validate me. He was too busy sorting through his own issues.
J loved me but couldn’t validate me. He was too busy sorting through his own issues.
So in the thirteen years that we’ve been together, going through everything that couples go through, I have learned that romantic love is not the place where you should seek validation.
You have to seek it in yourself.
I saw that if I was going to depend upon the smooth operation of my relationship with J to feel like a good or desirable person, I was going to experience constant, bipolar mood swings in how I felt about myself.
Instead, I came to depend on myself and my own opinions in order to feel good.
I cut myself some slack, gave myself some compassion, and slowly fell for myself as this dear, dear friend.
Now, the kindness, patience, generosity, devotion, and care that I give to J and our daughter are not breathless bids for their returned love and attention. They are deliberate, proud demonstrations of what a strong, open, and, yes, healthy person I am.
I am able to participate in our family life in ways that bring abundant light to it because I am finally and fully aware of the light within me.
I am able to lead, help, share, nurture, and bond with my babies, and, at the same time, I am able to write, teach, hone my sense of spirituality, maintain my sense of style, and pursue one of my greatest passions, which is empowering black girls and women, because finally I appreciate all the things that I am and I have to offer.
I have trained myself to pause and look periodically inward to examine what’s there and assess it for myself.
I’ve stopped searching outside of myself for myself.
Loving the men that I’ve loved, and failing to do it as perfectly as I wanted, has taught me the most important lesson I think a woman can learn about love.
You must love yourself. Foremost if not first.
So here I am, at the end of this chapter of my story. I am still too independent. I am still too opinionated. I still talk too much. I’m probably no more “normal” than I ever was.
But I am happier than I’ve ever been. Not because my romance with J is going well. But because my romance with me is going wonderfully.
A couple of months ago, to be clever, I posted this quip to my Facebook: BYOB—Be Your Own Bae.
That’s what I want all women to do this Valentine’s Day. To shift their attention and focus on and appreciate themselves.
I want all of you to be your own valentine, not just on the 14th, but every day and in all ways. Because you deserve it. You’re infinitely worthy.
Don’t save all that amazing, exquisite black woman love to lavish on some imaginary future mate.
Be Your Own Bae.
Even if you have a man or woman.
Be Your Own Bae.
And make every day you get to live as you a heart-filled holiday.
Guest Blogger, Michelle R. Smith is a mother, daughter, writer, teacher, lover, fighter, seeker, finder, sister, and outsider, writing and working out of Twinsburg, OH.
What’s your self-love story?