So, I’ve finally got to the followup on this post.
Soon after posting this musing Rights? What rights?, part of which included an old meme The Stepmother’s Bill of Rights (“SMBOR”), I came across Jacque Fletcher’s article A Stepmom Bill of Rights…. Dangerous To Stepfamilies?, followed swiftly by Carolyn’s post Another View on the Stepmom’s Bill of Rights at The Grown Up Child. Peggy Nolan also posted briefly on the topic, which I gather has become a bit of a hot one. I was especially interested to read the debate in the comments at Becoming A Stepmom.
For non-clickers-of-links, Jacque’s post makes the point that she feels, as per the title, that many of the “rights” outlined in the SMBOR are actually potentially dangerous to stepfamilies, in that they encourage unrealistic expectations and may fuel a counterproductive sense of angry entitlement in stepmothers when their “rights” are infringed.
I think Jacque and Carolyn make some great points, and it feels challenging for me to stand up and say – actually, I’m not completely with you on this one, ladies.
Because for me, the SMBOR plays the much-needed role of an emotional compass.
It helps remind me of what is a fair basic standard (as opposed to providing a checklist of behaviour to demand each and every day with a stamp of my foot).
For me, the (forgive me) headfukkery of the stemothering role demands I have a strong emotional compass.
It’s not just a stepparenting thing, either.
Once upon a time, I was in a relationship that was emotionally abusive.
During its course, I was gradually reprogrammed. Endlessly, I heard that I was unreasonable, that my expectations were flawed and unjust, that my concerns and requests for basic standards of behaviour within the relationship were “needy” and “co-dependent”.
I couldn’t tell up from down, right from wrong, fair from unfair. I didn’t know if what I requested was as straightforward as asking for air to breathe or as ridiculous as demanding the moon.
My emotional compass got skewed.
When I finally left, it took a long time for reality to come back into focus and for me to realise that it was ok to ask for basic consideration or decent treatment or that there not be double standards in my relationships.
The thing is, many of the ways my stepkids behave are not that different to what happened in that relationship.
They have hurt me. Hit me. Belittled me. Criticised and undermined me. Tried to bully me. Told untruths about me. Sought to undermine my relationship with the Lovely Man.
Regular stepkid stuff, I know, and perhaps none of it so dreadful in isolation.
If an adult did these things, though (and I know this will upset people), it would be called emotional abuse. If I did these things to them, it would be considered appalling, and it would be appalling. I don’t.
Instead, I make allowances. I recognise that children cannot be held to the same standards of accountability as adults. That they are still learning empathy and developing their critical thinking skills and growing their emotional intelligence.
I know they are children. Normal children, doing what children do when they go through the pain of their parents separating, and I believe that if they had full comprehension of what they do, they probably wouldn’t engage in these behaviours.
But in order to retain my emotional health in the face of these behaviours, I can’t allow my sense of right and wrong, reasonable and unreasonable, fair and unfair to get skewed like it has in the past.
I need to maintain my emotional compass.
Many things contribute to me being able to do this.
The support of the Lovely Man. My family, especially my wonderful sister, who gets it from the inside, being a stepmother herself. My blogging and the online stepmother community. My reading and research. My friends and all the things that keep me “me” outside of step stuff.
But the most helpful things in maintaining a clear sense of what amounts to reasonable and unreasonable standards of behaviour towards me have been my inner boundaries, my own Stepmum’s Bill of Rights, for want of a better description. It’s not precisely the one I posted, but it’s not that different, either.
I’m not saying we stepmothers should should stamp our feet and throw a tantrum whenever something doesn’t go our way, but, truly, if we reach the point where we’ve forgotten what a reasonable expectation looks like, we’re in trouble.
I remember one of my early commenters saying something that went straight to my heart in response to this post:
I have to thank you for the line “hold on, what kind of idiot loves someone who criticises them and their family, hits them and is rude and disrespectful?” [....] After hearing my husband tell me what an awful person I am for years because I am not ‘loving’ towards his daughter, I was really starting to feel like i was a terrible person. With that line alone, I know I am not the only one.
I think there are far, far more stepmothers out there who question their own right to have basic input in their own lives because their partner’s kids “must come first” than there are women who will have a relationship-risking hissy fit because their “right” not to be treated as an outsider has been “violated”.
In my view, these kinds of manifestos validate us and our experience of our families, serving to remind us of what’s acceptable.
Most powerfully, they encourage us to begin thinking about what might be acceptable and unacceptable to us, at where we need to call for help with or call time on particular behaviours that threaten to corrode our relationships or self esteem or mental health.
Recognising that a situation isn’t working is the first step.
The next (thousand) steps are skilfully discovering what, if anything, you can do about those behaviours, and working toward change.
“Rights” are always socially contextualised, never absolute. Screaming in the heat of conflict that someone is violating your rights is unlikely to ever get you what you want or need.
Reflecting on your values, on what is and isn’t an acceptable way to act or to treat you, and being able to communicate about those standards and seek ways to have them met…. Well, that’s got a much better chance of working out.
And so, for me, these “rights”, or “rights” like them, are necessary.
As a tool, not a rule.
For you, maybe, it’s different…?