My parents are celebrating their 35th Valentine's Day as a married couple. I, however, embark upon another February 14th husbandless.
Don't get me wrong – I'm cool with being 26 and single. The majority of my friends are in the same boat. But as we crawl further into 2008, I look at what my parents have sustained for 3 1/2 decades, and must admit: I'm envious.
It's not that I want to get married. In fact, my friends and I refer to marriage as a "social death sentence," where fun goes to die. Two fewer people on our texting list. Two more subscribers for Netflix.
But my parents have escaped this death-trap – in fact they've reinvented marriage in a way I have yet to see in any of my married peers. My mom and dad are still in love. They share home-cooked meals and stare into each other's eyes as they discuss the most recent snafu at work. They travel independently, but insist upon calling each other for updates on the day's happenings.
And they're not boring. They throw great parties. My dad commandeers the food and beverage table, never letting a guest pass with an empty glass or plate. My mom, meanwhile, works the crowd, catching up with every guest, remembering to follow up on their children and most recent journeys.
The morning after these parties, I'll often find them in the kitchen debriefing about the evening. My parents will laugh, sip their coffee, and choose where their brunch will be. How easily you could insert my friends into this scenario. This is married life?
I'm at that strange age where my friends are seceding into the "marriage track" and the single, quasi-swinger track. You choose a side, and you stick by it. Worried that you made the wrong choice, contempt for those who made the other choice manifests as pity. "Oh look at so-and-so, I do hope she finds a boyfriend soon." A few sighs later, and so-and-so makes a snarky comment about long-term relationships.
A quarter century into life, you're trying to sort out jobs, understand what you want. You're insecure and constantly justifying your choices. Sure I'll graduate from this master's program tens of thousands of dollars in debt, but I know it will lead to a better job. Or at least a better sense of the world, you hear yourself say testily at a party.
The relationship version of this talk is a lot harder to justify. With careers you can take hollow comfort in the name of your college or graduate school or current employer. But with relationships, you can't map it out the same way. You can't hide behind an institution, you can't rationalize your actions with a simple name. Instead, your singledom deserves a long story, one that boxes you into "no plus one on the invite" territory.
When friends become married, they no longer register on social radar. It's an unfair judgment and has occasional exceptions. But there's a rift between those who have that aspect of their life figured out – and even if they don't mean it, smugly – and those of us who continue to wade through the dating cesspool.
Maybe it's that we singletons want to imagine that married life is boring. But our hitched friends really aren't around. They don't party like they used to. They lead these terrifyingly stable lives and discuss dish patterns and the mortgage options. They exist in a completely different – let's be honest, boring – sphere: one that frightens me in its predictability.
And then I look at my parents and am silenced. Wrong. In a world where marriages routinely fall apart, too often a victim of that dullness, my parents stand "sans smugness" perfectly content.
I think about what we should all have, what we should all seek out in life. And my parents really have it. They have friendship but also a shared curiosity and sense of humor. They have separate lives but can seamlessly move between each other's, greet each other's co-workers and friends with familiarity. They have everything that my single friends and I possess, but with the added bonus of a partner whose companionship they love.
On their 35th Valentine's Day together, I propose a toast to my parents, but also to everyone out there about to embark upon a new married year: I hope that we can all find someone who makes us laugh, who loves us, who reinvents that social "trap" of marriage.
• Teal Pennebaker is in her final semester at Harvard's Kennedy School where she is getting her master's in public policy.