I am a woman who fell in love with a father of three. Admittedly, like most women in my situation, I was completely blindsided when I began experiencing the hardships that come along with blended families. Managing finances, constant family court disputes and logistics, and navigating complex emotions were just a few of the hurdles my husband and I had to tackle during our honeymoon phase. Needless to say, being a stepmom isn't for the faint of heart.
Whenever I meet another stepmom, I become curious about how she became one of us. I wonder whether her journey has been paved with heartache and conflict or whether, perhaps, she's been one of the lucky ones who inherited a picture-perfect stepfamily. No matter where a woman is in her journey, her role as a stepmother is probably not one she aspired to. She earned it by default.
In fact, typically for stepmoms, the bitter comes before the sweet: the aftermath of a devastating divorce, a family's broken promises, the pain of loss. Our roles are born because something came apart. However, many stepmothers are so engulfed in what has been lost that they fail to give themselves grace. We are the embodiment of redemption and hope. We are living, breathing reminders that families that come undone can be rebuilt to become impenetrable forces of love. We are proof that second chances are real.
As our country is reluctantly being ushered into a new social revolution and the grim underbelly of its foundation is exposed, the exclusionary rules of many traditional American systems, including "the family," are being confronted. Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden's wife, Jill, are now two of the highest-profile examples of stepmotherhood in America. (Melania Trump is also a stepmom.) In fact, their roles as stepmothers have been catapulted to the forefront of the Biden-Harris campaign, shining a welcome positive spotlight on a domestic phenomenon that has remained stigmatized for too long.
Harris married Doug Emhoff after his 16-year marriage ended. Her two stepchildren lovingly call her "Momala." She even considers her stepchildren's mother, who volunteered to help Harris' presidential campaign, a close friend. Joe Biden credits Jill with making his broken family whole again. Both women seem to be in stepmom heaven.
Jill Biden was born in a small town in New Jersey. While in college, she was briefly married to her high school sweetheart before she eventually married Joe Biden, then a senator. His first wife and their infant daughter died in a car crash, the first of several tragedies that have affected the Biden family. Jill is a mother with a doctorate in education. Her husband has always celebrated her successes and considers her an equal partner in their successful relationship. As second lady during the Obama administration, she even kept her job as a college professor.
Both of Harris' immigrant parents earned doctorates. She is a California girl whose Indian mom and Jamaican dad divorced when she was 7. According to her father, an acrimonious custody battle led to her and her sister's being raised by their mother, who died of colon cancer in 2009. A trailblazer in her own right, Harris attended the prestigious Howard University before eventually becoming California's first African American attorney general. Of course, she is also the first African American woman and the first Asian American woman nominated for vice president by a major party.
These are clearly very accomplished women. But I don't need to know anything about their careers or even their family histories to feel connected to them as stepmoms. While the world is seeing their blended families' finished product, I know that behind those "happy family" photo ops, theirs, too, are stories that were built on pain, loss and ultimately overcoming.
As a life coach, I deal with these behind-the-scenes stories a lot. I help individuals, families and couples in some of life's toughest transitions redefine their lives and take control of their new circumstances, whether they are painful relationships with estranged biological mothers, the ways blended families can create conflicting and confusing loyalties for both children and parents, or partners who can't set proper boundaries. (In my book, I delve into the three most common points of contention for stepmoms.)
When coupled with other daily stresses, these familial challenges can strain households and exacerbate or even unearth trauma. Anxiety is normal, if not expected.
With that context in mind, it's not surprising that for millions of American women, Harris and Biden represent resilience and tenacity. For the sisterhood of stepmothers, they are reminders that we, too, have the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.