clock menu more-arrow no yes
Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris and her husband, Douglas Emhoff, left, and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, represent a shift in the American political family.
Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Image

Kamala Harris, Jill Biden, and the national embrace of stepmothers

Their presence on the political stage spotlights the truth about the American blended family.

At the Democratic National Convention in August, Sen. Kamala Harris’s family members introduced her to voters in a short biographical video. Between vintage photo montages and campaign footage, Harris’s stepdaughter, Ella Emhoff, described the California senator as “a rock — not just for our dad but for three generations of our big, blended family.” Jill Biden, also a stepmother, got a similar treatment: “She put us back together,” presidential candidate Joe Biden said of his second wife, who married the widowed Biden and took on raising his two sons from a previous marriage. “She gave me back my life. She gave us back a family.”

This warm depiction of Harris’s and Biden’s respective roles in blended — and in the case of Harris, multiracial — families marks a radical shift in the presentation of kin in American politics, which has typically prized nuclear dynasties, like the Kennedys and the Bushes, over clans that actually represent many voters’ lived realities. Every day, Americans form 1,300 new blended families, bringing kids from previous relationships together into a new unit.

Despite the prevalence of divorce and remarriage, “we still don’t talk about it enough,” says Ron Deal, the author and therapist behind Smart Stepfamilies. Roughly 13 percent of adults are stepparents, according to the Pew Research Center, and one in six children live in a stepfamily, yet many feel as though they are navigating the emotional challenges, organizational dilemmas, and societal stigma alone.

Like first lady Melania Trump, both Harris and Biden are stepmothers — and they’ve turned their familial roles into reliable talking points during the campaign. Harris’s husband, entertainment lawyer Doug Emhoff, had two children from a previous marriage; Cole and Ella, now both in their 20s, call Harris “Momala.” Jill Biden’s stepsons Hunter Biden, 50, and Beau Biden, who died of brain cancer in 2015 at age 46, lost their biological mother and sister in a 1972 car crash. When Jill Biden married their father in 1977, the boys decided to call her “mom.” (Jill and Joe Biden had a daughter, Ashley, in 1981.)

Although Harris joked in a 2019 Elle essay that her “modern family is almost a little too functional” — among other things, Harris and her husband’s ex-wife have become good friends — stepmothers have consistently gotten a bad rap. Whether they’re haunted by the embittered Lady Tremaine in Cinderella or the gold-digging fiancé Meredith in The Parent Trap, decades of research show many real-life stepmothers internalize the “wicked” role assigned to them by Grimm’s fairy tales and Disney movies. In one 2017 study, 56 percent of stepmothers in New Zealand reported thinking of themselves as wicked for routine things like saying “no.” But instead of plotting revenge with their magic mirrors, these women tend to criticize and silence themselves — a phenomenon psychologist and stepmother Elizabeth Church termed “the poisoned apple,” an inversion of Snow White’s own scheming stepmother, in her own 2000 study on the challenges women face in blended families.

Pop culture, including feel-good television shows like The Brady Bunch, can set unrealistic expectations, whether sinister or oversimplified. “It’s the subject of great movies and terrible news stories,” Deal says, “but that’s not really the normal experience.”

The blended family narrative is long overdue for an update. While millions of people, including Jill Biden and Kamala Harris, are working to define their step-relationships, the social pressure can be constricting. In a 2017 essay for the New York Times Magazine about her own experience as a stepmother, novelist and essayist Leslie Jamison wrote, “Everyone had ideas about our family without knowing anything about our family.” Stepfamily stereotypes can be especially burdensome for members of multiracial blended families, whose relationships to one another are more often questioned by strangers.

Embracing the stepfamily as it actually exists — as a messy but often caring unit — could alleviate some of the pressure on the millions of Americans in blended families. The current moment could also help Americans reimagine what familial love really looks like.


The stepfamily has its roots in the Old English word “steop,” which means loss. Until the 20th century, most stepfamilies were formed in the wake of grief, as widowers often remarried quickly to ensure there was someone to take care of their children. But since the 1960s, when the divorce rate overtook the maternal mortality rate, stepfamilies have increasingly been formed in the wake of acrimony, and the “replacement mother” stereotype persists.

Throughout the ages, the stepmother archetype has changed alongside popular culture, but never truly outgrown her evil origins, says Leslie Lindenauer, a history professor at Western Connecticut State University and author of I Could Not Call Her Mother, an analysis of stepmothers in America between 1750 and 1960. Occasionally, the stepmother has been a virtuous figure, as at the turn of the 20th century, when Americans held the belief that anyone could learn to love like a mother — they just had to try hard enough. But the stepmother always returns to her most frightening form: a threat to children and society at large. In the American colonies, for example, “the evil stepmother replaced the witch in popular culture as a way of policing the boundaries around women,” Lindenauer says. Both witches and stepmothers were portrayed as women without their own offspring accused of hurting other women’s kids. And both were feared because they rejected the passive role traditionally meant for women by taking action — whether that’s over a bubbling cauldron or in another woman’s home.

Beneath each iteration of the stepmother mythology, according to Deal, is the “motherhood mandate,” a term coined by psychologist Nancy Felipe Russo in 1976 to describe the persistent belief that every adult female’s responsibility is to reproduce and rear children. In this context, stepmothers are tasked with the impossible: They must fulfill the duties of a homemaker and caretaker, without stepping on the biological mother’s toes. “The stepmother isn’t vilified for anything other than that she’s not the biological mother,” Lindenauer says. But these dichotomous demands take their toll on women, with 21st century stepmothers reporting higher stress and anxiety levels than stepfathers.

Naja Hall, the founder of the millennial stepfamily support network Blended and Black, has experienced this bind firsthand. When the New Yorker met her now-husband in 2014, she knew he was the perfect partner for her. But “the one thing that really gave me pause was the fact that he had children from a previous relationship,” she says — twins, now 10, and an older sibling, now 16. While Hall pursued the relationship anyway, she got a taste of the “baby mama drama” she’d feared, including trips to family court. “At the time, I felt victimized by it all,” Hall says. As the new person in the situation, she had to empathize with everyone else’s emotions, while accepting that no one was really concerned about hers.

Hall searched for online resources to help her cope, but as a Black woman, she didn’t see herself reflected in the existing options. While census data shows Hispanic, Black, and white kids are roughly equally likely to find themselves in a blended family in the United States, Hall noticed representations of happy stepfamilies seemed to focus on white people. She decided to build her own network, Blended and Black, to provide other stepparents with the information, coaching, and community she craved.

As the company grew and eventually became Hall’s full-time job, it became clear to Hall that stepmothers were facing unique challenges. “I don’t think stepmotherhood is something to be ashamed of, but it is a role a lot of women aren’t proud of,” she says. “I have heard from a lot of stepdads. They don’t envy stepmoms.”

Jill Biden, right, squeezes the arm of granddaughter Finnegan Biden, who is the daughter of Hunter Biden. In speeches, Jill Biden has spoken about the challenges of joining a family that endured tragedy. “Motherhood came to me in a way I never expected,” she told viewers of the Democratic National Convention this summer.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Sen. Kamala Harris, second from left, attends an event with Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and several members of her family, including her husband, aunt and sister, Maya Harris, at the U.S. Capitol in 2017. Her extended — and blended — family has become part of the narrative around the vice presidential candidate.
Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

Saskia Thompson, a 44-year-old paralegal in the San Francisco Bay Area, joined Hall’s dedicated VIP Stepmom network when she got engaged to a man with two daughters, ages 9 and 11. Though the girls embraced her, the experience has been overwhelming. “I don’t want to say I’m making it up as I go, but if I’m honest, I am,” Thompson says. She doesn’t want to be in the traditional role of a “stepmom,” and instead sees herself as one member of the “village” that’s necessary to raise every child. But she’s found that many people are not accepting of her mentality — or her presence in her fiancé’s children’s lives.

“No one even looks at me like a stepmom,” says Thompson, a Black woman engaged to a white man with white children. It’s only added to the “stigma” she feels around her role. When Thompson took her fiancé’s youngest daughter to get a haircut, the stylist mistook her for a nanny. At the girls’ birthday party, one parent assumed she was the driver of the van that would take the kids to the event. The experiences made the long, slow process of blending a family seem even more impossible. At one point, Thompson took a step back from all of her relationships, including those with her fiancé’s children, so she could care for herself for a few months instead.

Thompson says she can see herself in Biden and Harris. While a stepfamily in the White House won’t stop people speculating about her role in her fiancé’s children’s lives, Thompson says that seeing the differences in how Biden and Harris approach their relationships with their stepchildren has reinforced her commitment to charting her own path — one in which she’s free to be neither witch nor martyr.


Stepfamilies are an intricate and intimate arrangement, as any member can tell you. But in politics, thrusting these relationships into the spotlight is standard practice, says Jennifer Lawless, a politics professor at the University of Virginia.

For candidates, family provides a logistical and psychological support system during the campaign. They also offer a humanizing effect — vouching that the candidate is a good and trustworthy person. “Voters want to hear from a family the kinds of things they wouldn’t hear from a surrogate,” Lawless says, including details about their past, their personal relationships, and their capacity for love.

“I think that’s why Trump’s use of his family has been so odd and jarring to people,” Lawless adds. “His children aren’t saying, ‘He’s a great father.’ They’re saying, ‘He’s such a great businessman.’”

The expectation of family participation in campaigns is now so ingrained that “the absence of a candidate’s supportive family is glaring,” Lawless says. But she says what that family looks like is more flexible than ever. Candidates can use close friends, parents, siblings, and stepchildren to boost their credibility.

In the lead-up to the election, it’s clear that Harris’s and Biden’s family members have been primped and prepped for their starring role. But they are real families, and their presence on a national stage has the potential to amplify existing conversations about how Americans create and maintain some of the most important relationships in their lives.

In more than two decades working with stepfamilies, Deal, the author and therapist, says he’s never met anyone who grew up wanting to be a stepmother or stepfather, but he’s worked with plenty of people who have found joy in the role.

“It’s not the primary narrative people want to write for their lives,” he says. “But there can be a second opportunity for love and family that is beautiful.” And, in the right hands, it can be politically advantageous, too.

Eleanor Cummins reports on the intersection of science and popular culture. She’s a former assistant editor at Popular Science and writes a newsletter about death. She previously wrote about the “death-positive generation” and the people hell-bent on ignoring social distancing for The Highlight.

Features

Apple picking is a bizarre imitation of hard work

Science & Health

Healing, a saga

Identities

For protesters, trauma lingers long after the marching ends

View all stories in The Highlight

Sign up for the newsletter The Weeds

Understand how policy impacts people. Delivered Fridays.