Ah, February! Love is in the air. I can’t help the clichés, from sayings like “love is in the air” to writing my February column about love. I’m a hopeless romantic, a sucker for whatever rom-com you want to recommend and completely giddy about the sparkly heart decorations on all the Target kiosks.

I’m also the mom of daughters, and as we deliberate over which Valentine’s cards are appropriate to put in certain construction paper covered shoeboxes (“Mom, I can’t use the card that says ‘U R CUTE’ for any of the boys!”), I am reminded of my [many, many, many] past Valentine’s blunders. These memories are written into my heart’s coding, have gone with me into my later years, have become the foundation of my romantic endeavors. Being a hopeless romantic has not made me suave in love, and my husband will be the first to tell you… he has to love me for who I am.

For starters, there was Preston from the second grade—Mrs. Staton’s class in North Carolina. He had sandy brown hair and was one of the few boys who didn’t suck his thumb. Very mature. Got my attention anyway. The problem was, I could never really get his. My solution was what any logical 7-year-old would do: I pretended. Once school was over for the day, I’d hop on my bike in the driveway and I’d ride around with my imaginary Preston at my side, carrying on all sorts of hypothetical conversations and really working on my most flirtatious quips. One afternoon, I was especially into our banter, stomping up and down the sidewalk, jabbering away—to Preston—until I reached the edge of our property and realized I was being watched. By Preston. I could have said, “Oh, Imaginary Preston, meet your namesake. Preston, this is an inspiring apparition of who you could be.” You know, really gained the upper-hand. Instead, I became hyper-aware of my mom calling me inside, and I never made eye contact with Preston—real or imagined—again.

Time passed. I gained experience with a few more (imaginary) boyfriends, some recreations of classmates, others characters on television shows. Then one day in the seventh grade, an in-the-flesh boy approached me at church youth group. Wes was his name, which I knew even though he didn’t tell me. He said, “Hi,” and handed me an intricately folded note, my name scratched across the front. His hand almost touched mine as he passed it to me. He walked away. And for the next seven months, our relationship continued in this way: on paper. Poor Wes, because the first words we really spoke to each other were when I broke up with him. It felt like something I should do in person.

Then it was freshman year. In high school, boys actually talked to me, which, in theory seemed like neat progress, but in practice was completely terrifying. (Maybe Wes knew what he was doing.) Not only did the boys talk, but they did it in front of people—friends, teachers, my parents. I was ill-equipped to deal with this utter humiliation, especially considering most of my relationships to that point had taken place in my head. This was never more obvious than when Michael, a junior, asked me out in the most saccharin-sweet way (a little too sweet for my liking): on the lid of a donut box. He’d picked up a whole dozen Krispy Kremes on the way into school, approached me in the cafeteria, surrounded by my friends, and popped open the box for me to read his request. “Will you go out with me?” (Again, maybe Wes was on to something.) Looking back, I see now he didn’t really ask; and, you guessed it, I didn’t really answer. I simply stuffed an entire donut in my mouth as a gesture of my approval. He got the idea, but let’s just say the love affair ended before the donuts could even stale.

I did learn a few things in the years to follow: how to say “yes,” thank goodness, and more importantly, how to say “no.” I learned not to work so hard for a boy’s attention, but to be wary of getting too much (let’s be honest: grand gestures get boring after a while).

You know, I’d never tell this to my daughter, but in the first grade, I accidentally (or accidentally-on-purpose?) gave Nick Argo a “U R CUTE” Valentine and I lived through it. I lived through Preston and Wes and Michael, too. And lo and behold, despite not being a graceful princess, I really did find a Prince Charming. So, thanks to all the boys who thought me ridiculous. As my Nana used to tell me, “You might have to kiss a lot of frogs first!”