By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Would you be angry if your children address someone else as “Mom,” if you are their biological mother?
Joe Biden’s words at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) gave parents and children something to reflect on. His running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, can also share with you an important lesson on parenting her stepdaughters. How remarkable and aligned their views are despite their gender differences!
That’s personal to me because my parents were divorced. In split custody, my brother was raised by his stepmom, and I had a stepfather and a younger step brother.
What to call stepparents is tricky business. It has caused a lot of hostility among families. It created unnecessary pain for me as a child, and a rift between my mother and stepfather.
Biden’s first wife, Neilia, and their daughter were killed in a car accident a month after he was elected as a U.S. Senator, representing Delaware. A widower with two sons, he married Jill. “Beau (his son) and I said, ‘We are done with stepmom,’” Biden said in a video. “Mommy died, Jill is our mom,” Biden said. The late Beau was only 8 years old at the time, and yet he was mature for his age. He wanted a mother, not a step below.
“I took time off to establish myself as the boys’ mother,” said Jill. In any human relationship, it takes effort and patience to nurture it. It requires all family members to understand and speak to each other heart to heart. Those powerful words from the Biden family touched me profoundly.
The word “step” implies not as important and secondary. It’s saying, “You can never be as good as my mother.” Or “I will never love you like my own mother.”
The distinction between Mom and Mommy may not be obvious to some. But it does to children who are traumatized from death or divorce. Biden made it clear to his sons that Jill was not replacing their mommy, only as a second mother who would love them just like their mommy did. Calling Jill “mom” helped his sons to embrace Jill whole-heartedly as their mother. It brought them closer together as a family.
Biden told his sons, “Mommy had sent Jill to the family…Jill is a gift to the family.” Jill raised them as her kids. That conversation should be made between parents and children when one parent is not the biological parent of the children. It is wise to set the right tone at the beginning for all family members involved. I wish my mother and stepfather had done that with me from the start. How lost and broken I was from my parents’ constant fighting! Meanwhile, I felt my stepfather rejected me.
Biden was 35 when he married Jill. Yet, he had the wisdom and vision to guide the transition for his sons and Jill. Look at how messy President Trump’s family is—his wife Melania and daughter Ivanka are rivals. So are Trump’s first wife Ivana and Melania. Trump had a bitter divorce from Ivana. Perhaps he enjoys the jealousy between his daughter and current wife so he’s always the center of attention, and in control of the two women.
Harris and her husband’s ex-wife
You can tolerate someone by putting a wall between you and him or her, meaning having as little interaction as possible. But for an ex-wife and the present wife to spend an important family meal together, year after year, could be too much for both women. According to a recent New York Times story, Harris and husband Doug Emhoff spend Thanksgiving with Kerstin, his ex-wife, and the whole family together. Wow! Harris doesn’t let insecurity get in the way! A woman for all seasons, she can exhibit grace for her family, but toughness in the political arena. Harris is sweet and open-minded to accept Kerstin. It’s a tremendous example for divorced families who couldn’t resolve their troubled past, and continued to bicker like my mother for decades with my father. It made life miserable for the children.
What do Harris’ stepdaughters call her? Not her first name. “Momala,” they call her. It‘s a term of endearment and a special name to honor their second mother. The family shows nothing but respect and love for one another.
Many Americans like to call their stepmom or dads by their first name. Unless they are close to their stepparents’ age, it’s considered disrespectful and rude in Chinese culture to do so.
Harris’ stepdaughter, niece, and sister introduced her at the DNC. The format was dynamic and moving. Harris’ stepdaughter is also campaigning for her. What a contrast to Trump’s competitive and adversarial relationships in his family! His niece, Mary Trump, published a tell-all memoir in July, “Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man.” It reveals Trump being a dangerous narcissist. Oh, Mary taped her conversation with her aunt, Maryanne Trump Barry, to show that it’s not just her, but also Trump’s sister who disapproved of his presidential record and behavior. Had he done a better job in leading this country and if his administration was not corrupt, his sister wouldn’t have criticized him harshly. Had he been treating his niece with decency and fairness, those incidents would never happen.
My dads and me
It would mean so much to me if I could hear directly from my stepfather, “You can call me dad. You are my daughter.” For a long time, I was confused as a child and teenager whether he thought of me as his daughter. My mother told me to call him “uncle.”
One day, my stepfather complained to my mother, “Why does she still call me uncle?” It made sense that he raised the issue. After all, he was the one who felt compelled that I should change my last name to his. I delivered his letter requesting my school to do so without explaining why.
In retrospect, it was comical because my teacher asked me quietly, “Did your father die?” I opened my mouth, but couldn’t utter a single word. In shame, I put my head down. But my teacher thought I was grief-stricken so she didn’t pursue it further.
When did my late stepfather and I see each other as father and daughter? After I left Hong Kong and came to the United States to attend college, he decided to visit me. It was snowing with freezing temperatures in Oregon. And he wore only a pair of leather shoes. When we said goodbye at the bus stop, I told him the buses were unreliable. He said he could wait. Within 10 minutes, I rushed back to the bus stop, doing the unthinkable. I stuck my thumb out to get a ride for him. It was the first time I had ever hitched a ride. He never expected I would do that for him. Neither did I.
Decades ago, many parents were not equipped to communicate to their children about adults’ complex and messy relationships. Now, divorces are more common and more acceptable in society. We have the help of professional counselors. The worst is, they failed to heal their children who got caught in the middle of their conflict. My mother and I were embarrassed to utter the word “divorce.” What my mother should have said to me at the time but didn’t, “It wasn‘t your fault. We all love you.” But no, she made it sound like it was my fault that I didn’t request the school change my last name when I was only 12 or 13 years old.
To distinguish between my two fathers, I called my biological dad “BA,” and my stepfather, “BAR,” by raising my pitch higher. It’s hard to tell the difference if you don’t listen carefully. My husband jokingly called my two dads as real and fake dad to distinguish the two. Finally, we figured it out, Ng Dad and Yeung Dad. Both my dads, my mom, and my brother’s stepmom are deceased. I was glad our two families got along well for the past two decades, and gathered for celebrations.
My brother called his stepmother “mom.” It infuriated my mother for years. She was deeply hurt. I think my brother didn’t have any choice in those days. This is personal among divorced families, especially for the women. Some parents want their children to hate their step parents. But what good does that do?
Just think of it this way, your children are fortunate to be loved by two mothers or two fathers, instead of just one. It changed my brother’s life to be raised by a stepmother. Overnight, he became independent and resilient, and less rebellious. Most importantly, he thrived in a new environment among his step siblings. He knew failure was not an option. My mom finally realized his stepmother had done a good job in raising my brother, her own son. Eventually, my mother thanked my brother’s stepmother for raising him all these years.
Whenever I returned to Hong Kong, my brother wanted me to visit his stepmother. I did, and I even gave her pocket money out of appreciation for raising my brother.
Children will be better human beings if they see that their parents are capable of forgiveness, understanding, and love. Even though someone is divorced, the ex-husband and ex-wife are still part of the family, especially if there are children involved. You can never cut those ties. It’s part of your children’s identity and history. You might as well work it out with your ex. It would make life so much easier for you and everyone! It’s worth it.
Thank you, Joe and Kamala, for setting examples for many broken families to heal and work out their differences. For those of you who have awkward family dynamics, it’s time to organize a reunion meal with your ex, or for your step and biological parents. Reconciliation is an act of human triumph. Cheers!
Assunta can be reached at email@example.com.