“Oh, wow! You are so special. I could never be a stepmom.” I recoil and mutter some kind of response before walking away. It's another one of those awkward social situations in which someone who struggles to connect with people who aren't exactly like they are, ends up giving one of those compliments for moms that aren't actually compliments. In this case, I think her words were maybe meant to be a compliment. However, it's hard to interpret something as a compliment when it's phrased in a way that makes you feel like even their words are trying to hold you and your life out at arm’s length; like there's some part of your existence that smells so bad, other people admire you for your ability to withstand the stench, but they don't want to get too close.
(Pro-tip: “I could never” is not part of a compliment. It's just not. It sounds like you think their life — which they may love and feel so grateful for and proud of — must be terrible. Like the life they've built is an ordeal to survive, not a worthwhile experience. If you can't relate to what someone else is going through, don't comment on whether you think you could do something you don't understand. It won't feel like a compliment. It will feel like you're looking down on them from the safe distance of your allegedly superior life.)
Sometimes, a non-compliment giver earnestly means to say something affirming, and it just comes out wrong. Sometimes the giver is well-practiced in the art of backhanded compliments, and uses them as a shield to deflect their own insecurities and resentments onto other people. Most non-compliments are reflections of all the weird lessons we've all learned from growing up in a messed up society.
However, whether we say something in response, or just quietly file the information away (“And now I know I should try to avoid So-and-So when I'm feeling crummy about how I look”), just know that while non-compliments like the following can sting (particularly when they unexpectedly fall out of the mouths of people you're close to), you don't have to take them personally. They're really not about you.
“It's So Great That You Just Don't Care”
Translation: “I assume that you must not care about how you look, or traditional social norms, or whatever else I derive my sense of worthiness from by dutifully complying. I can't imagine that it's possible to not live your life according to a bunch of arbitrary external rules that make you unhappy, and I'm low-key a little resentful that you've rejected them and haven't been struck down or punished somehow.”
“You Look Comfortable!”
Translation: “You look a mess. Just not trying at all these days, huh?”
“You're So Wonderful! I Could Never Give Up My Life To Stay Home With My Kids.”
Translation: “It's not possible to have a meaningful life when you spend your days raising children. You’re too pathetic to make a real contribution to the world, but it's awfully nice of you to make a cute little life for your family.”
“You're So Brave! I Could Never Leave My Kids With Someone Else Everyday.”
Translation: “I suspect I love my children more than you do, but it's impolite to say that, so I'll say this thing instead.”
“You're So Strong! I Could Never Be A Single Mom.”
Very few people intentionally set out to be single moms, so there are plenty of current single moms who once said the same thing. Here, the distance implied by “I could never” sounds a lot like disapproval, masked as praise.
“You're A Saint! I Could Never Raise Someone Else’s Child(ren).”
Another pro-tip, from and for every stepmom, adoptive mom, foster mom: love creates belonging, not genetics. Whatever children a mom is raising, are her children.
“You're An Angel! I Could Never Raise A Kid [Who's Atypical In Any Way]”
Again, that piercing distance. And no one thinks they can meet a most of their biggest challenges, until they do.
“You're So Lucky You Have An Excuse To Let Yourself Go”
“Gee, thanks for telling me you think I look ugly, and that you think I'm so unable to think for myself that I'm using my family to gain a waiver from whatever invisible authority figure orders women to wear a certain amount of makeup, and the ‘right’ kind of clothes, and be the ‘right’ size, and take up the smallest possible amount of space.”
“You're So Lucky To Have Such A Helpful [Male] Partner”
Real talk: the bar for men is so low. If men do for their families even a fraction of what women do, they're praised like they represent the Second Coming. Luck isn't a skill people have any control over, and successful relationships involve more work than luck. Plus, being with a grown-ass man who behaves like a competent adult shouldn't require luck, and it shouldn't surprise anyone. It should be normal.
“You're So Lucky To Have Such A Great Family”
It is a fortunate thing to be blessed with certain advantages, and we should be grateful for each one we have (and work to make a world where having a good life isn't a matter of luck). But once you're a grown-up, having a great family isn't simply a matter of luck. It's also the result of a lot of hard work. Saying you're lucky may sound like a positive thing to say, but crediting luck for your hard work can feel more like a theft when you're well aware of how much you're doing to make this great family life possible.