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



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.

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Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.


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Trump’s misleading tweet about changing your vote, briefly explained



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Searches for changing one’s vote did not trend following the recent presidential debate, and just a few states appear to have processes for changing an early vote. But that didn’t stop President Trump from wrongly saying otherwise on Tuesday.

In early morning posts, the president falsely claimed on Twitter and Facebook that many people had Googled “Can I change my vote?” after the second presidential debate and said those searching wanted to change their vote over to him. Trump also wrongly claimed that most states have a mechanism for changing one’s vote. Actually, just a few states appear to have the ability, and it’s rarely used.

Twitter did not attach a label to Trump’s recent tweet.

Trump’s claim about what was trending on Google after the debate doesn’t hold up. Searches for changing one’s vote were not among Google’s top trending searches for the day of the debate (October 22) or the day after. Searches for “Can I change my vote?” did increase slightly around the time of the debate, but there is no way to know whether the bump was related to the debate or whether the people searching were doing so in support of Trump.

It was only after Trump’s posts that searches about changing your vote spiked significantly. It’s worth noting that people were also searching for “Can I change my vote?” during a similar period before the 2016 presidential election.

Google declined to comment on the accuracy of Trump’s post.

Trump also claimed that these results indicate that most of the people who were searching for how to change their vote support him. But the Google Trends tool for the searches he mentioned does not provide that specific information.

Perhaps the most egregiously false claim in Trump’s recent posts is about “most states” having processes for changing your early vote. In fact, only a few states have such processes, and they can come with certain conditions. For instance, in Michigan, voters who vote absentee can ask for a new ballot by mail or in person until the day before the election.

The Center for Election Innovation’s David Becker told the Associated Press that changing one’s vote is “extremely rare.” Becker explained, “It’s hard enough to get people to vote once — it’s highly unlikely anybody will go through this process twice.”

Trump’s post on Facebook was accompanied by a link to Facebook’s Voting Information Center.

At the time of publication, Trump’s false claims had drawn about 84,000 and 187,000 “Likes” on Twitter and Facebook, respectively. Trump’s posts accelerated searches about changing your vote in places like the swing state of Florida, where changing one’s vote after casting it is not possible. Those numbers are a reminder of the president’s capacity to spread misinformation quickly.

On Facebook, the president’s post came with a label directing people to Facebook’s Voting Information Center, but no fact-checking label. Twitter had no annotation on the president’s post. Neither company responded to a request for comment.

That Trump is willing to spread misinformation to benefit himself and his campaign isn’t a surprise. He does that a lot. Still, just days before a presidential election in which millions have already voted, this latest episode demonstrates that the president has no qualms about using false claims about voting to cause confusion and sow doubt in the electoral process.

Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.

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Nearly 6,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan so far this year



From January to September, 5,939 civilians – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded – were casualties of the fighting, the UN says.

Nearly 6,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the first nine months of the year as heavy fighting between government forces and Taliban fighters rages on despite efforts to find peace, the United Nations has said.

From January to September, there were 5,939 civilian casualties in the fighting – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a quarterly report on Tuesday.

“High levels of violence continue with a devastating impact on civilians, with Afghanistan remaining among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian,” the report said.

Civilian casualties were 30 percent lower than in the same period last year but UNAMA said violence has failed to slow since the beginning of talks between government negotiators and the Taliban that began in Qatar’s capital, Doha, last month.

An injured girl receives treatment at a hospital after an attack in Khost province [Anwarullah/Reuters]

The Taliban was responsible for 45 percent of civilian casualties while government troops caused 23 percent, it said. United States-led international forces were responsible for two percent.

Most of the remainder occurred in crossfire, or were caused by ISIL (ISIS) or “undetermined” anti-government or pro-government elements, according to the report.

Ground fighting caused the most casualties followed by suicide and roadside bomb attacks, targeted killings by the Taliban and air raids by Afghan troops, the UN mission said.

Fighting has sharply increased in several parts of the country in recent weeks as government negotiators and the Taliban have failed to make progress in the peace talks.

At least 24 people , mostly teens, were killed in a suicide bomb attack at an education centre in Kabul [Mohammad Ismail/Reuters]

The Taliban has been fighting the Afghan government since it was toppled from power in a US-led invasion in 2001.

Washington blamed the then-Taliban rulers for harbouring al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda was accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks.

Calls for urgent reduction of violence

Meanwhile, the US envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said on Tuesday that the level of violence in the country was still too high and the Kabul government and Taliban fighters must work harder towards forging a ceasefire at the Doha talks.

Khalilzad made the comments before heading to the Qatari capital to hold meetings with the two sides.

“I return to the region disappointed that despite commitments to lower violence, it has not happened. The window to achieve a political settlement will not stay open forever,” he said in a tweet.

There needs to be “an agreement on a reduction of violence leading to a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire”, added Khalilzad.

A deal in February between the US and the Taliban paved the way for foreign forces to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which agreed to sit with the Afghan government to negotiate a permanent ceasefire and a power-sharing formula.

But progress at the intra-Afghan talks has been slow since their start in mid-September and diplomats and officials have warned that rising violence back home is sapping trust.


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Classic toy tie-up: Etch A Sketch maker to acquire Rubik’s Cube



Spin Master Corp., the company behind the Etch A Sketch and Paw Patrol brands, has agreed to acquire Rubik’s Brand Ltd. for about $50 million, tying together two of the world’s most iconic toy brands.

The merger comes at a boom time for classic toymakers, as parents turn to familiar products to entertain kids stuck in lockdown. Like sales of Uno, Monopoly and Barbie dolls, Rubik’s Cube purchases have spiked during the pandemic, according to the puzzle maker’s chief executive officer, Christoph Bettin. He expects sales to jump 15% to 20% in 2020, compared with a normal year, when people purchase between 5 million and 10 million cubes.

By acquiring Rubik’s, Toronto-based Spin Master can better compete with its larger rivals, Hasbro Inc. and Mattel Inc. All three companies have pivoted to become less reliant on actual product sales, diversifying into television shows, films and broader entertainment properties based on their toys. Spin Master CEO Anton Rabie said he wouldn’t rule out films or TV shows based on Rubik’s Cubes, but he was focused for now on creating more cube-solving competitions and crossmarketing it with the company’s other products, like the Perplexus.

“Whoever you are, it really has a broad appeal from a consumer standpoint,” Rabie said in an interview. “It’s actually going to become the crown jewel; it will be the most important part of our portfolio worldwide.”

Hungarian inventor Erno Rubik created the Rubik’s Cube in 1974, a solid block featuring squares with colored stickers that users could twist and turn without it falling apart. It gained popularity in the 1980s and has remained one of the best-selling toys of all time, spawning spinoff versions, international competitions of puzzle solvers, books and documentaries.

The toy has been particularly well-suited to pandemic conditions. During lockdowns, parents have sought to give kids puzzles that boost problem-solving skills useful in math and science careers. Normally, toys tied to major film franchises are among the most popular products headed into the holidays, but studios have delayed the release of major new movies because of coronavirus. So classic products are experiencing a mini-renaissance.

“The whole pandemic has really increased games and puzzles,” Rabie said. “But whether the pandemic existed or didn’t exist, we’d still buy Rubik’s. It’s had such steady sales for decades.”

Rubik’s CEO Bettin said it was the right time to sell the company, with the founding families behind it ready to move on. London-based Rubik’s Brand was formed out of a partnership between Erno Rubik and the late entrepreneur Tom Kremer, while private equity firm Bancroft Investment holds a minority stake in the company.

Early on, Bettin felt Spin Master was the right home for the puzzle toy, he said. Spin Master, which was started by a group of three friends in 1994, has expanded through the purchase of well-known brands, including Erector sets and Etch A Sketch. Rabie says he works to honor the “legacy” of those products, which Bettin cited as a key reason to sell the brand to Spin Master over larger companies that were interested.

“It was important for us to not be lost in the crowd, and to be sufficiently important and cared for,” Bettin said. “And there’s a balance between being with someone large enough to invest, and agile enough to ensure you are key part of their plans.”

Spin Master won’t own Rubik’s Cubes in time for the holiday season – the transaction is expected to close on Jan. 4. At that time, the company will move Rubik’s operations from a small office in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood to Spin Master’s new games operations center in Long Island.

Some of Rubik’s Brand’s 10 employees will be part of the transition, but they won’t stay permanently, Bettin said.


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