Respect

I used to have this stepdad. He was ex-military and still looked the part: close-cut hair, bald eagle tattoo on his calf, and preferred to wear his correctional officer uniform even after he left the prison for the day. If not for his rounded, aging face and worsening posture, you’d think he just got back from basic training. He wanted to treat my brother and I like we were part of some sort of boot camp where periodic, unannounced room checks were the most annoying part of this weird role playing. And he liked to talk about “respect.” How he just wanted to earn our respect, how we were always disrespectful to him, how he respects us and our space but he just wanted the same respect in return.

And it was always bullshit. My brother and I talked back to this stepdad a lot, that much is true. But we were teenagers and we already had a dad who didn’t try to treat us like recruits so I’m not sure what this stepdad expected. My brother and I did not appreciate him coming into our lives and trying to change our routines, our lifestyle, our relationships. So we made that known to him, and he found it “disrespectful.”

This stepdad never actually did anything to earn our respect. He only tried to bribe us or win us over – and he failed. He would let us have something that mom wouldn’t, maybe, but then “our little secret” became a twisted form of double-sided blackmail. He tried to teach me how to drive, I think. He let me drive his truck on back roads before I had my permit. Unfortunately for him I’d been doing that with my actual dad since I was probably 10 or 11. I wasn’t impressed.

These things were supposed to make us like him, but they never worked and definitely didn’t make us respect him. If anything, we respected him less for trying to earn our trust in cheap, cliche, stereotypical stepdad ways. He didn’t respect us or our intelligence enough to understand that we knew what he was doing. Not only did we know what he was doing and why, but we exploited it as teenagers (especially those with divorced parents) tend to do. So when he yelled and screamed about how disrespectful we were, my brother and I just laughed and lost even more respect for him.

Long after this stepdad has gone from my life, I still have little respect for people who demand respect without earning it. Respect isn’t something you can just demand, like a child with a temper tantrum. Respect is earned, not handed out. Just because you got a promotion, just because you’re older than me, just because my mom decided to marry you – these things don’t mean I’m automatically going to give my respect. I might be polite, but respect takes time. And the more you demand undeserving respect the less polite I will become.

Impress me, and I’ll respect you. Help me when I need it; do something I can’t. Make possible the impossible. Give me your respect. You can’t treat me like some sort of object or inferior being and in the same breath whine about my lack of respect. Learn some manners. I can respect manners.

If you’re my “superior” that’s so deserving of respect, then why don’t you help me and answer my questions when I have them? The people I respect the most are the restaurant managers that help bus tables, or the prestigious university professor that’s willing to individually tutor a struggling student. The people who are willing to help people below them, even if it isn’t their job. Just because they know what’s needed, and they know what it’s like. The ones to get to the top just to be lazy and yell at other people to do their job? They’re the worst kind of people. I won’t respect those people.

Your pity doesn’t help anyone

When I was still going out on dates, I realized there were a lot of different types of people. Generally when I talk about dating, it’s insights I’ve gained about boys specifically but this particular thing struck me as something a lot of people do regardless of gender.

Family, in some capacity, usually comes up on a first date. I couldn’t say why, I guess it’s usually a safe question or topic, maybe. “Do you have any siblings?” seems to be a question I get a lot. I could answer this question a couple different ways. I  could simply say, “Yes, I have two brothers” or I could add to that and say, “Technically, I have four brothers, because I also have two stepbrothers” but between you and I, I don’t usually consider my stepbrothers to be my brothers. I didn’t grow up with them, and I rarely see or talk to them. When I was younger I used to say, “I have one and a half brothers,” but that just confused the shit out of people. So my usual response to the question ‘Do you have siblings’ is “Yes, two younger brothers, ‘E.’ is 20 and ‘B.’ is 8 years old”. That tends to confuse people, or shock them in some way so they say ‘Wow that’s a big age difference!’ I usually follow this up with, “Well, B. is technically my half brother.”

Now here is where you see the different types of people come out. Some people would have assumed B. is my half brother when I told them the ages of my brothers, because they have much younger half-siblings or they are the younger half-sibling to a much older child of their mother or father. (This being said, don’t ever assume. I know a lot of people with more than a decade between them and their closest sibling, and they aren’t half siblings. Their parents just decided to take a break before creating another human). So they understand this, but they ask about the age difference anyway to make sure they aren’t assuming. And then I tell them he’s my half brother, and they understand my parents are divorced. They don’t have to ask. They might say nothing, or they might nod and say “My parents are divorced too” and the rest of the date goes on.

The opposite end of the spectrum is people who may not know what I mean when I say ‘half-brother’ and so they need to ask “So your parents are divorced?” Or even worse I get the “So you guys have different dads?” which to me has always sounded so rude, and the fact that most people will automatically assume it’s different dads instead of different moms throws me off. I don’t know if that’s from a perception they have that kids tend to stay with the mother in a divorce, or some other assumption they have about ‘messy’ or ‘complicated’ families and divorcées. Why they even have to make the distinction at all, when I just met them, doesn’t make much sense. Most of this isn’t what bothers me. A lot of people will ask which parent my brothers and I share, especially if I show off pictures of them and a lot of people are trying to decide if we all look alike or not. Or they’ll notice my brothers look alike and I don’t necessarily look like them, even though I do share a full set of genetics with one of them.

No, what bothers me is when people ask “Your parents are divorced?” and when I say yes, they apologize. I’m sure they’re trying to be nice – but their entire face will change when they do it. It’s like I told them one of my parents died, or that they locked me in a closet under the stairs for the first ten years of my life. Most of the people who do this, are people who’s parents are still married. However, I’ve met plenty of people who’s parents are married and they can still handle this information with social grace and without that awful look of pity. But for the people who give that look when I tell them – just don’t. I don’t want it.

I still remember the first time someone apologized to me for my parents getting a divorce. It was maybe a year or two after my parents got divorced; I think I was ten. I was on the bus going home from school with the girl I rode the bus with every single day. I mentioned something about my mom’s house vs. my dad’s house, and she didn’t understand this at first. Why would my parents live in different houses? Then she got it. And she honestly reacted like someone had died, she felt so bad for me. “It must be awful, I don’t know what I would do if my parents split up,” she said. I didn’t really understand why she was so sad, why she had that look on her face. It was just a thing that happened. Life went on.

When my parents first got divorced, I wasn’t really old enough to get it, I think. Then I got a little older and it hit me pretty hard. Now that I’m an adult myself, I can’t imagine my life and my parents being any other way. Both of them have gone through phases where they were so unhappy, both pre- and post-divorce. Now both of them are happy, and successful, and flourishing in ways they might not have had they still been married. They got married in their 20s, even younger than I am now, and I don’t think either of them knew what they wanted from life. Now they’re in their 40s and they probably have more interesting lives than I do.

To be honest, when I think about my parents and who they are now, I have no idea why they got married or even started dating in the first place. They are entirely different people with different interests, hobbies, and ideal living situations. But that’s okay. They tried being married, and when it didn’t work, they decided not to be married. That’s all divorce is. Just a slightly more complicated and way more expensive break-up. I’m glad they decided to get divorced instead of resent each other my entire life and skew my perception of what a marriage should be.

So, please, don’t look at me like that. Just because my family is a little different than yours, doesn’t mean I’m broken. That kind of shit is character-building, right? So really, you could learn a lot from my and my built character.

Feminism in Limbo: Chapter 6

In college I took an Organizational Behavior class as part of the business school curriculum. The class was too easy; the grade based entirely on 3 multiple-choice exams that were based entirely on the textbook. I went to class anyway, because the professor was amazing, funny, and had wonderful stories to tell.

But one thing that stuck out from that class, was a chapter on gender and a very distinct difference between the genders I’d never really noticed before, but it made sense. (I’m paraphrasing a bit and it’s been awhile, so bear with me). Women, when they complain or have a problem, typically want sympathy or someone to listen to them. Men expect a solution. So when a woman is telling you about their awful day, and then this guy is trying to solve the problem, when all she wants is someone to empathize with her… or vis-versa, a man is telling a female about his awful day, and he wants the problem to go away, but this girl is just giving him all this sympathy he doesn’t want. You can see where this could lead to frustration.

The professor then went on to explain why this happens, why the difference exists (again, paraphrasing):

When a little kid falls down, parents (dads especially), will often treat a boy differently than a girl. If their little girl falls down, a dad will rush to the rescue, and make sure everything is ok. If a boy falls down, dad will tell him to get up and brush it off, maybe even say something like “dirt don’t hurt” and expect the boy to be on his way. This make girls accustomed to receiving sympathy when they fall, and boys are just told to get up, you’ll feel better, problem solved.

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My dad, seen in the picture holding me over a fence (which I’m pretty sure he wasn’t supposed to do) wasn’t that kind of dad. If my brother fell down, Dad told him to get up and brush it off. If I fell down, I was told the exact same thing. At times, I sort of hated him for this. If anything, my dad pushed me a lot harder than he pushed my brother – whether academics, or sports, or other hobbies – he was always telling me where I could be better. I got an A; he’d ask why I didn’t get an A+. My team won a soccer game; he told me I looked a little tired toward the end, and I should get myself in better shape.

This gets to be exhausting after awhile. I just wanted to be celebrated for my accomplishments, not told it wasn’t good enough. That’s what I heard, every time he would ask why it wasn’t an A+.

I didn’t hear “you’re smart enough to have the top grades in all your classes,” instead I heard “this isn’t good enough.”

Now I’m an adult and understand why he did those things. A lot of people I know now who are successful, had a parent who was rough on them and was kind of an asshole. By default, kids (especially smart ones) can be lazy. They know they can be. They don’t have to study for the test, or ask questions to understand the homework. It pisses people off, but it’s true. So without that constant effing nagging – they’d continue to be lazy for the rest of their lives.

I don’t think my dad knew the ripple effect of what he was doing. The bar wasn’t set at “you did well for a girl,” but it was “did you come in absolute first place, boys or girls?” He was going to set the bar as high as possible, and not bring it down just because of my gender. He knew I was a smart kid, and wanted to make sure I reached my full potential. I was the first child, and I’m sure that’s a lot of the reason the bar was so high. It didn’t matter to my dad that I was a girl. He wouldn’t have been disappointed if my brother had been a girl, either. Even though my dad was the last chance for carrying on the family name, and without my brother the name would have died, he didn’t care. There was a lot of pressure from the family for my dad to have a boy.

“I was too worried about having a healthy baby, I didn’t care what it was as long as it was healthy,” he used to tell us. But, to the satisfaction of my aunts, a boy was born. So now the pressure is on my brother, I guess.

Even more powerful, it wasn’t because I was a girl that my dad was a pain in my ass. It was because I was smart, because I had the potential to do something real. He understood I’d have to deal with a lot worse if I was going to be a smart, successful, powerful woman someday. But he did it because he wanted his children to succeed – boy or girl.