Who, aside from me, remembers the academy award acceptance speech by Sally Field (for Norma Rae) which culminated in the cringe-inducing, much maligned exclamation, “You like me! You really, really like me!” as she cradled her Oscar and choked back tears?
All these years later Sally (doing ads for Boniva, a measure of just how long it’s been) has yet to live it down. She was mocked for her outburst, I think, because her triumphal cry sounded needy and self-satisfied at once. We hated her for wanting approval so badly–and for being so pathetically grateful once she got it. Her need and vulnerability made us mean. Her desire for love brought out our contempt. And her expressed satisfaction at having won it made us want to take it away. She gave the academy–and us–all the power. And for that, she earned our disdain.
I’m going somewhere with this, believe it or not. Sally couldn’t help herself. It was part of who she was–insecure–but it was just part and parcel of who she was. Because no one wants and needs love and approval, no one craves it, like women do. At work, at our children’s schools, at the places we volunteer, from out bosses and our underlings, women are constantly seeking approval, building coalitions, seeking consensus, trying to bring about agreement. Trying to be liked.
Our affiliative and relational tendencies work in our favor sometimes–we might use our personal connections to build our profile at the office; friendships can lead to help with childcare, emotional support, and countless other benefits. But just as often, these tendencies are self-defeating. Sometimes they even seem sick. Have you ever gone on one of those crazy websites like www.urbanbaby.com? The amount of hostility between women there is staggering, with exchanges so vicious that even a 20-year-veteran of New York City living like me has to seek cover. But what truly astonishes, upon closer observation, is the attempts to come to agreement, to bring other women to one’s side in the debate about who else on the site is a bitch. Women go on to post a question, it seems, and stay on in spite of heaps of abuse in order to build a bridge and connect–to someone they will likely never meet. Obsessively. For hours at a time. This is how strong the drive to build coalitions and engineer consensus, agreement, and good relationships is among women. So strong that we will do it for hours on end with nasty, perhaps even sociopathic total strangers on a web site!
From a stepmother’s perspective, the culture at large seems to have hooked into our drive to be liked, our need for approval, in sinister ways. For example, stepmother success is currently measured in an absurd way, one that remains mostly unexamined: a good stepmother = a stepmother whose stepkids like her.
This standard is ridiculous because stepmothering is not always, and perhaps not even usually, a two way street: being nice and making an effort ourselves is, it turns out, no guarantee. Indeed, Mavis Hetherinton and Marilyn Coleman and Larry Ganong found that it often backfires in a stepmother’s face, particularly if the kids are in a loyalty bind: the more attractive, appealing, and kind a stepchild in a loyalty bind finds his or her stepmother, the more forcefully he or she will reject her. And loyalty binds don’t just dissolve when kids get older. One woman told Hetherington about how she and her siblings mocked their stepmother behind her back for being nice and upbeat and “sucking up to us.” Presumably, if she were less warm and made less of an effort, they would criticize her for that, too.
Not all stepchildren are unkind to or contemptuous of their stepmothers once they have become adults, of course. And not all situations are so bad. But most stepmothers do struggle at some point, and many do so for years. The anecdote underscores a dynamic that the research on stepfamilies shows to be all to common: adult women acting like supplicants to their partner’s kids.
When will we stop giving his kids all the power–to make us not only good stepmothers but also good women and good people? When will we stop needing to be really, really liked, and bending over backwards to get there? I don’t know, but my prediction is that once we manage it, the balance of power will be reset in our households; our marriages or partnerships will get a shot in the arm; and our resentment of his kids will decrease dramatically.
Anyone reading this, and reading this far, is likely a person who has made an effort with her husband or partner’s kids because she’s decent. There is good reason to try. But there are equally good and important reasons to know when to draw the line. If the options are preserving one’s dignity at the cost of seeming “cold, ” or continuing to give undue amounts of power to someone uninterested or incapable of interpersonal reciprocity for whatever reason, we might consider the wisdom of learning to live with the misperception that we are somehow “wicked,” rather than continuing in a vein that is self-abnegating, self-defeating, and just plain pathetic.
Thankfully we are not all in a position where these are our only choices. But some of us are. Here, then, is a silent, secret mantra for anyone whose need for love and approval from a four year old or a forty year old stuck in a loyalty bind, or just stuck in a rut, is leaving her frustrated and resentful: “You don’t like me. You really, really don’t like me. And frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”