How Jill Biden and Kamala Harris are subverting the stepmother stereotype

The first lady and vice president of the US are putting their relationship with their stepchildren at the heart of the modern-day family

Kamala Harris and her stepdaughter Ella Emhoff. Instagram/kamalaharris
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With First Lady Jill Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris in the West Wing, the world is witnessing two stepmums taking centre stage in American politics.

While Biden succeeds another stepmum, Melania Trump, it's all a far cry from the nuclear dynasties, such as the Bushes and Kennedys. Biden and Harris are also repositioning stepmothers as the cornerstone of the modern American family (think less Parent Trap, Cinderella and Snow White, and more Maria Von Trapp).

President Biden says the first lady, his second wife, "put us back together", when he was left widowed with two sons. Harris's twenty-something stepchildren, Cole and Ella, meanwhile, have affectionately dubbed her "Momala", with Ella describing her as the "rock" of their "big, blended family".

President Joe Biden is congratulated by First lady Jill Biden and children Ashley and Hunter after being sworn-in during the 59th Presidential Inauguration on January 20, 2021, at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. / AFP / POOL / Patrick Semansky
President Joe Biden is congratulated by first lady Jill Biden and children, Ashley and Hunter, after being sworn in as president .AFP

If stepmothers were in need of a rebrand from the scheming villains oft portrayed in fairy tales and films, it seems there are no better women for the job.

The stepmother stereotype

Dr Saliha Afridi, a clinical psychologist and managing director of wellness centre The LightHouse Arabia, says: "Our worldview is very much shaped by media and popular culture. Narratives such as the 'evil stepmother' create constructs in our mind about what to expect from such a relationship. And if one does not consciously create their own storyline, then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

There is no longer a 'normal' family, and it's important that we recognise and support all types of parentage

“When we think of a stepmother, we get images in our minds that typically are not positive,” she adds. “So, there can be anxiety and shame associated with it.”

Dr Lisa Doodson, a psychologist in the UK specialising in stepfamily dynamics, concurs.

"The stereotype of the wicked stepmother still affects women. Stepmums have been shown to experience significantly more anxiety than biological mothers due to managing the perceived intrusion of the biological mother; understanding how to discipline or interact with stepchildren and understanding their own role in the family. This confusion means stepmums are often desperately trying to find their place in the new family unit."

Lack of support for step-parents

Doodson, who runs Happysteps, a website that coaches stepfamilies, first began researching the role of stepmums when she became one herself and couldn't find any advice on how to define the relationship.

“The role is very ambiguous and little understood. We know what a mum is, but people generally have very different views of what a stepmum should be. There are no rules and, as such, it’s very much open to interpretation.

"There is very little support for stepfamilies despite them being the fastest-growing family type," Doodson adds. "There is no longer a 'normal' family, and it's important that we recognise and support all types of parentage."

We have this wonderful opportunity to provide an additional support system to our stepchildren 

The reality is that blended set-ups now constitute about a third of all families in the US – something reflected in the world of celebrity. Kate Hudson refers to her beloved stepfather Kurt Russell as "Pa"; Jada Pinkett Smith calls her stepson Trey Smith (Will Smith's son with his first wife, Sheree Fletcher) her "bonus son and friend"; while supermodel Gisele Bundchen calls her stepson John a "little angel' and "the best big brother" to her biological children with Tom Brady.

Meanwhile, polygamy laws in Islam mean the concept of more than one wife and children add an extra, often complicated, dimension to the family model. Dr Sarah Rasmi, a psychologist, and founder and managing director of Thrive Wellbeing Centre in Dubai, says it's important not to downplay the complexity of blended family dynamics.

"It's challenging for everybody in that situation, from the biological parent to the stepparent to the children. The stepparent is often trying to transition from being a stranger to being a parental figure."

Different strokes

Sophia Rantzau, author of When Families End and Blend, knows only too well how challenging such families can be.

Sophia Rantzau with her stepdaughter, Sophie
Sophia Rantzau with her stepdaughter, Sophie

A stepmum to Sophie, Christian and Joachim, now, 22, 25 and 29, her relationship with her children was turbulent when she met them when they were 8, 11 and 15.

It was only after training as a counsellor specialising in families that she was able to heal the relationship with her estranged stepson.

"As a stepparent, I am very aware of how the challenging times can engulf you as a person," Rantzau says. "It is key to remember you are not in competition with anyone else other than yourself when it comes to being a good role model. We have this wonderful opportunity to provide an additional support system and to introduce our stepchildren into our way of seeing the world that they may never have experienced.

"It was recently my birthday and my stepson left an amazing message telling me I was the best stepmum in the world. So often, we fail to give ourselves grace," she says.

Jude Clarke, a journalist from the UK, has been stepmum to Rachel, 40, Rebecca, 36, and Alice, 32, for 28 years.

Jude Clarke with her three stepdaughters Rachel, Rebecca and Alice
Jude Clarke with her three stepdaughters Rachel, Rebecca and Alice

"I think of my three stepdaughters as somewhere between daughters, sisters and best friends. From when I first met them, I tried very hard not to impinge on their relationship with their mum, so I developed my own bond with each of them. As they are four years apart in age, this was quite different with each: I was like a big sister to Rachel, then 12; a kind of fun auntie to Rebecca, then 8; and a bit more maternal to Alice, who was just 4 when we met."

Paula Burns, a pharmacist from Northern Ireland, became stepmum to Nayana, 17, and Neva, 15, a decade ago.

Paula Burns with her stepdaughters Nayana and Neva, and her biological daughter, Amelia, 4 
Paula Burns with her stepdaughters Nayana and Neva, and her biological daughter, Amelia, 4 

Burns admits it took her a while to figure out her role in the girls' lives. "It has been challenging at different stages of their growing up, trying to find my place in their lives and gain their trust. Initially, we bonded over girlie things, like make-up and clothes. I was more like an aunt or a friend, but as time went on, we had two daughters who have cemented us all together as a family they love their baby sisters!"

If you are to make a smooth transition to step-parent, you'll need a Teflon-strong bond with your partner, says Rasmi, along with a solid parenting plan.

"That strong bond will help you weather the storms you are going to encounter, while it can also be useful to have some sort of discussion as to what the family values are, what the parenting objectives are and what discipline looks like."