At the beginning we’d light candles. We wouldn’t mention it, we’d just quietly light the candles before sitting down to our pasta, a flickering nod to ceremony as we completed another day of circling the same rooms together without drawing blood. That was the beginning of lockdown one, when romance had the same meaning and was yet to be wrung dry of its frivolities and frills. When it was still surprises and roses and walks in the rain. Now it is November and it’s not that romance is dead exactly, more it has changed into its wellies in order to better meet the weather. As the year has rolled on, romance has adapted to fit its new girth. There are no cinemas for holding hands in now; no red-boothed restaurants. There are only people, raw inside.
Evidence of the new romance can be seen through cracks in the internet. Over lockdown, “mating sites” are booming, with Modamily and PollenTree.com – matchmaking websites for people who want to platonically co-parent a baby – reporting traffic surges of up to 50%. Heterosexual single people who want kids are binning off “traditional” methods, which historically have included: meeting someone you fancy, waiting three days to text them back, cautiously having a conversation about exclusivity, then an appropriate number of years later cautiously having another conversation, this time about procreation, all the while tip-toeing around the anxieties they were left with when their previous relationship ended, as if these anxieties were gold-plated bear traps.
And then the roses, of course, and the wine. Pre-pandemic, we had the luxury of abstraction. Of space, lipstick, mystique and layers of velvet lies we could use to wrap around the people we wanted close to us and better communicate our desires and manipulate theirs. Candle light to make our gazes soft. Now, nope.
We have spent so much time with ourselves, contemplating the limits of life, that we can no longer drag out the suspense required for the old romance. We know what we want and that might be a new career, or a better relationship with our siblings, or a baby, or a very particular ice-cream we once ate on a school trip to Bournemouth, and our vision is clear enough to also know that there is no time to lose. Hence the rise of the mating site, a venture I wholeheartedly approve of.
There have been moments with each of my babies when I’ve been disturbed by the fact that all I had to do to become a parent was have sex. There were no exams, no lessons, nobody made me fill in a form – there was more red tape required when I adopted a cat. The traditional way to start a family, with its reliance on the old romance, is deeply flawed, grounded often in an evening’s fleeting attraction between two people slightly high and looking for comfort. New families are created using no more than vodka and bras, and a well-timed touch of a knee, no more than a fish and chip dinner eaten on the beach. Who signed off on this? Did nobody think of the children – placed in the terrified arms of couples who got pregnant because it was “the next thing to do”, or driven slowly to a flat where its parents must overnight become adults, or destined to grow teeth between two people who hate each other but are “staying together for the kids”.
I speak, of course, as a person decades into a relationship with the father of my children, both of us the product of couples still happy together, but even from here, wrapped in cashmere at the top of my mountain of smugness, I can clearly see the straightforward benefits of the platonic alternative. Shouting my thesis down the stairs, I learn my boyfriend disagrees. He says it’s romantic love that helps us get through the harder bits of childrearing. Interesting. I tell him I’m going to write his comments in to show, despite this column’s argument, we’re in a good relationship. He wants it amended: HE is in a good relationship. Let it be noted.
Love is sticky and attraction wobbles, and couples communicate thickly. Though I continue to be dully devoted to my family, I maintain it’s far more sensible to have a baby with somebody you can be completely cool with, your conversations not clouded by sex, or underlaid with old hurts. And then, to share responsibility for the child in a way that will avoid such punishments as a dark silence while the dishwasher is aggressively filled. The old romance has drama built in – it requires a certain amount of hiddenness and surprise. Money, for example, must not be spoken of, nor blocked sinks or exes. Instead it trades in illusions and memories. There is a place for it still, but that place is increasingly small, its walls shuffling closer with every sick month that passes.
Co-parenting by choice is part of the new romance, of tray bakes and honesty, where we have the power to point spotlights at the things we really want, rather than conceal them with candles.