Well, it’s Valentine’s Day, and I’m sure roundabouts five this evening, plenty of harried men are going to be scrambling to pluck through the aisles of their local Walgreens or Wal-mart or Wal-whatever to find something, anything to take home to that special someone. Alas, it’s not the gift itself, guys. It’s the thought that counts. So you might as well save your $19.99 plus tax for that overpriced (and really, rather tacky) teddy bear/faux flower combo and just salvage the day with dinner, music and your best after-hours A game, if you know what I’m sayin’. 

In my house, it’s just me and the Girl Child, and usually we do a mommy and daughter date night. We roller skate or go to the movies or stroll through the mall and always, always go out to eat because, in our minds, nothing says love like some fun plus food. They’re like the Ashford and Simpson of our social world. But this year, no date. No fun. Not even food. She’s upset with me and has been for the past week, the longest she’s ever held a grudge against me. All over a boy. It’s official. She’s 13. Earlier this week, I was ready to kick that 13-year-old butt up one side of heaven and down the hot beds of hell. Despite all of the clucky warnings and admonishments I’d gotten about this age when she was 10, 11 and 12, I for some naïve reason thought we were too close to fall victim to the storied, melodramatic dust-ups between a mother and her teen daughter. Big ol’ fail for me.

I know she doesn’t want to hear it—just like I didn’t want to hear it when I was going through with my mama when I was that age—but she is the love of my life. And nothing, not a boy or a hot streak of bad attitude, could ever make me not want her or stop adoring her. In fact, even in her huffing and puffing and sulking around the house, I have to resist the urge to sneak a hug and kiss in on her. I didn’t expect to become a mother when I did—honestly, how many of us are actually planned?—but it’s been the biggest blessing I never knew I needed or wanted. And it’s actually made me a better person all around. I’m as far from being the finished, fine-tuned product I aspire to be as a woman, much less as a mom, but I like to think I’ve been getting progressively better since October 10, 1998 for a few reasons.

1. I roll with the punches like nobody’s business. I was doing laundry at three in the morning (and thwarting the broken English flirtations of the little Latino laundromat attendant) when I noticed a smear on the front of one of the dryers. My daughter had left lipgloss in a pocket. I surprised myself by not freaking out or vowing to firebomb her when I got home. Instead, I pulled out the blotchy garments and rewashed them, tacking another 45 minutes onto my stay. But I wasn’t even mad.

2. I’m more compassionate. Being a mama has taught me that not everything is black and white. There’s a lot of grayish, beige-ish area to navigate, between what I allow her to do and what I do myself, even down to eating the asparagus I con her into eating but barely want to wrap my lips around myself. I try to really listen to her, even if, in the back of my mind trying to creep up to the front of my throat, I’m working on my counterpoint. My job is to be there for her. I’m learning I can’t do that if I don’t understand where she’s coming from.

3. I’m more open about being wrong. The first time I apologized to Girl Child, her jaw flew open like Wile E. Coyote. “Mommy, you’re saying sorry to me?!” she gasped. Yes, mommies can be wrong, too. That ability to just ‘fess up about my shortcomings and fallibilities has spilled over into other relationships. It’s too hard trying to be right all the time. And honestly, being her mama pushes me to be a role model, which means I have to watch how I react to certain situations. I can be a bit of a pistol. (Shocking, I know.) But I’ve curbed my sharp tongue and blossomed into a more diplomatic person for her sake. And, I guess, mine.

I might be spending this Valentine’s Day alone. No kid to cuddle, no baby girl to lavish affection on. But February 14 or September 14, I never, ever want her to doubt that I love her more than even me and my wordy self could express. Hopefully one day, we’ll be able to look back on these tumultuous times and laugh about some of them. My love isn’t the greatest of all—that comes from God. But I’m right behind Him in line.