The high road to nowhere
HCBM has started hugging us hello and goodbye, which I hate. Oh, so NOW we're friends? After over a decade of high-conflict custody, poisoning SD against us, and generally making our lives as difficult as she could?
I think not.
You know, 10 years ago, HCBM reaching out like this could've made a real difference in all our lives. But nope! She chose to act nasty and unpleasant at every possible opportunity. Super fun.
And now this woman's coming at me with a hug like SHE'S the one who's being the bigger person. Like she's overcome sooooo much by choosing to look past all the awful things we've done to her and SD. What a champ, taking the high road and putting the past behind her!
The hypocrisy burns.
But here's what I hate even more than the hypocrisy: there is no polite way for me to decline the hug. If I step away, if I make an excuse, if I do anything other than accept her creepy tentacles around me, then I will be the bad guy.
So I force my face into a smile and accept the hug. I take the stupid high road. And you know what? Sometimes taking the high road really fucking sucks.
Why are stepparents the only ones expected to take the high road?
HCBM is an emotionally manipulative abuser who actively undermined SD's relationship with us, causing damage so deep that I'm equal parts staggered and grateful SD even speaks to us.
And yet somehow I would be the bad guy if I were to say "Gosh thanks but I'm not super comfortable with you touching me."
I would be ABSOLUTELY JUSTIFIED in saying that I never wanted to interact with HCBM again, that this woman was not welcome in my home EVER under ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, and for SURE she wasn't going to physically touch me.
But here we are. Hugging. Hugging like we're friendly co-parents who raised SD all together like the awesome people we are.
Maybe I'd feel differently if this were the first time everyone expected me to take the high road, but it's more like the bajillionth time. And I might also feel differently if I were not the only person who's expected to always take the high road.
The bio parents can squabble over their kids like playground toys and no one calls them out on that. The kids can treat their stepparents (and parents!) with less respect than they would a total stranger and no one puts their foot down. But if a stepparent acts anything less than perfectly accommodating? Suddenly we're the problem. We are not being team players.
When you're expected to follow every rule while everyone else breaks them at will, it's hard not to feel bitter. Like we're given an oh-so-lovely choice among high standards, double standards, or impossible standards.
Yet despite the shitty odds, we are good enough sports to take the hand we're dealt and struggle to play the game as we understand it. Meanwhile every other player is counting cards, shoving tricks up their sleeves, bald-faced lying, openly cheating, and getting away with every bit of it.
That one time I shamelessly took the low road
One year, SD's Halloween piano recital fell on our week with her. SD only had part of her costume at our house, so we met HCBM at the venue ahead of time to put together the rest.
In the parking lot, HCBM handed me part of SD's costume to carry as she assembled the rest. Inside, I held SD's program and more costume bits while she went up to play. I whispered "Good job!" when SD came back down to sit with us again. I clapped. I smiled. I made small talk.
And at no time—not when we arrived, not as we got SD ready, not while we sat there through the entire recital, not when we milled about in the lobby afterward—did either HCBM or SD acknowledge me in any way. Neither of them talked to me. Neither of them responded any of the times I spoke to them. No one asked me "Hey, could you please hold this?" before they handed me crap and no one thanked me for holding crap afterwards.
Nada. Not one word. Not even eye contact.
So when the recital ended approximately one hundred years later, I was ready to get the hell outta Dodge. I left ahead of everyone else, then heard HCBM yell "Bye Maarit!" from behind me.
And I thought to myself, are you fucking kidding me?
We've been here for like 3 hours together. You have literally not spoken a single word to me. Not one. I could be invisible for all anyone cares, and you have certainly made me feel invisible. Even though I know your goal was to reinforce just how much my presence doesn't matter, you know what? It worked. I felt like my presence here today did not matter. And I am not willing, after all of that, to now help you pretend like you're friendly.
So I kept walking. Acted like I hadn't heard her. Got in the car and closed the door, feeling mostly justified in my very small and very petty act of peaceful protest.
I mean, hey. She demonstrated through her actions that completely ignoring each other is acceptable behavior, right? I'm just following your lead, sister.
Later the next week, Dan said we needed to talk.
"HCBM is really upset that you were rude to her at the recital," Dan said. "She said she told you goodbye and you just ignored her. I said I'd talk to you about it. You know, it's really best for SD if she can see that you and HCBM are getting along."
"Uh huh," I said. "And so did you also lecture HCBM and SD about being rude to me first?"
I told him the entire story and he slumped. "Ugh, I didn't even notice they acted like that," he said. "I'm so sorry."
Did he ever follow up with HCBM or SD? Did their shitty attitude toward me ever change? Of course not. Only stepparents are expected to take the high road.
Taking the low road holds us back
It was frustrating and depressing and hurtful enough to have SD rejecting me full-time in our home, but then seeing that exact behavior modeled for her by her mother in public only underlined that I would never and could never win… and precisely why. By ignoring me herself, HCBM sent the message to SD that ignoring me was okay. That not acknowledging me was okay. That I didn't deserve basic courtesy, manners, or respect from SD. And Dan, in not correcting SD's behavior, was telling SD the exact same thing.
I'm not going to pretend like I didn't know my behavior that day was rude. Of course I knew. I'm a consummate hostess from a long line of consummate hostesses; I always know how to put on my party manners. But that day I was just done.
HCBM took the low road at every opportunity for more than a decade and never apologized to anyone for it. Dan let her get away with it. Why should I be held to a higher standard? So yeah. For once, that one single time, I deliberately chose to sink to HCBM's level. Slum it on the low road. Check out the scenery down there.
And while there was a certain degree of freedom that did come from taking the low road—no one on the low road stresses over how their actions affect others—I gotta say, I can't recommend that route.
If you're a reasonably moral and ethical person who's invested in doing the right thing, taking the low road makes life harder on everyone, especially yourself. Taking the low road causes more conflict within your household and between households. That's not a problem if you're a high-conflict person who doesn't give a shit about anyone but yourself, but normal people feel like jerks when they take the low road. Normal people experience guilt when they hurt others.
Taking the low road makes you feel worse in the long run. You're angry (probably justified) and then you respond with a low road kind of action (also probably justified) and then you're pissed at yourself for taking the low road because dammit, you know better. You're a better person than that.
Like holding a rock in your hand with your arm straight out, the weight of these small, mean acts seems manageable at first. But over time, the weight becomes intolerable. The longer we maintain our rage, frustration, and resentment, the more damage we're doing to ourselves. We keep ourselves in agony when we refuse to set the rock down and scramble our way back up to the high road.
A raging dumpster fire takes two: one to light the match, and one to douse the garbage in gasoline. The lit match on its own can do some damage, sure, but not nearly as much as if you continue feeding the flames.
Stop. Put down what you're carrying. Walk away. Hike back up to the high road.
The needs of the many outweigh the exasperation of the one
I will never ever be the person who says you have to try and play nicey nicey with a narcissistic sociopath in an effort to put the children first. You can absolutely take the high road while simultaneously setting very clear boundaries.
But there are also times when there's no way to set good boundaries without causing a big ol' stink. And at those times—ugh, fine, I can just accept the fucking hug.
There are bigger factors at work here than my personal feelings. It's 15 seconds out of my life to suck it up and take the stupid high road. The alternative is risking my newly peaceful relationship with SD. God only knows how many years she'd stop talking to me if I refused to hug her mother. Is that a price I'm willing to pay, no matter how justified I'd be in refusing?
SD & I had a very rocky start (and by "start" I mean the first 11 years of our relationship) largely because HCBM was super busy alienating SD against us. Life is only now normalizing after a decade plus of constant conflict. I don't want to be the person responsible for kicking the dust back up again. My hard-won personal peace and relative harmony within our blended family is more important to me than a 15-second intrusion into my physical space.
Even if the stupid fake hugs do still piss me off, and I want to shower in battery acid after HCBM touches me.
Is it unfair that stepparents are always expected to take the high road? You bet. Do we keep taking the high road anyway? Yep. Even when it gains us no points and leads to absolutely nowhere.