California Senator Kamala Harris announced in January that she would be running for president. But aside from being a United States Senator and a 2020 presidential candidate, she’s also a stepmom to her husband Doug’s children, Cole and Ella. In honor of Mother’s Day, Sen. Harris writes about what it’s like to be a stepmom—or, as her kids call it, a “Momala.”
When I met Doug, the man who would become my husband, I also met a man who was a divorced father of two children, Cole and Ella, named after John Coltrane and Ella Fitzgerald. As a child of divorce, I knew how hard it could be when your parents start to date other people. And I was determined not to insert myself in their lives until Doug and I had established we were in this for the long haul. Children need consistency; I didn’t want to insert myself into their lives as a temporary fixture because I didn’t want to disappoint them. There’s nothing worse than disappointing a child.
So, we took it slow, and Doug and I put a lot of thought into when and how I would first meet the kids. And that meant waiting. As we waited, anticipation grew. When the day finally came, I had butterflies in my stomach. The plan was to go to a seafood hut off the Pacific Coast Highway called the Reel Inn, a favorite of the kids.
On my way to meet Doug, I picked up a tin of cookies and tied a ribbon in a bow around them. I took a few deep breaths. I was excited, and I was nervous. I rehearsed what I would say. Would the kids think the cookies were really nice or really weird? Was the ribbon too much? (The ribbon was probably a little extra, but over the years Cole and Ella have spared me by not telling me that.)
Cole and Ella could not have been more welcoming. They are brilliant, talented, funny kids who have grown to be remarkable adults. I was already hooked on Doug, but I believe it was Cole and Ella who reeled me in.
To know Cole and Ella is to know that their mother Kerstin is an incredible mother. Kerstin and I hit it off ourselves and are dear friends. She and I became a duo of cheerleaders in the bleachers at Ella’s swim meets and basketball games, often to Ella’s embarrassment. We sometimes joke that our modern family is almost a little too functional.
A few years later when Doug and I got married, Cole, Ella, and I agreed that we didn’t like the term “stepmom.” Instead they came up with the name “Momala.”
Our time as a family is Sunday dinner. We come together, all of us around the table, and over time we’ve fallen into our roles. Cole sets the table and picks the music, Ella makes beautiful desserts, Doug acts as my sous-chef, and I cook.
Flash forward two years—and it truly felt like a flash—I was being sworn into the United States Senate. Cole had already graduated and was off at college, but Ella was just entering her senior year of high school in Los Angeles. This new job meant that I would be splitting time between California and Washington, D.C., and the hardest part was going to be being away from my Ella. I knew I was inevitably going to miss more than a few swim meets.
And as you might guess, it ended up being more than swim meets.
On June 8, 2017, FBI Director James Comey was asked to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee about his firing and the Russia investigation. It was the same day as Ella’s high school graduation, a scheduling conflict that I was acutely aware of, but that the Senate Intelligence Committee—and for that matter the rest of the country—was not.
I agonized over the scheduling conflict and ultimately took a deep breath and called Ella from D.C. She could not have been more understanding when I told her I wouldn’t be able to make it back in time, but I still felt awful about it.
I sought the advice of my female colleagues in the Senate. And it was Maggie Hassan, the senator from New Hampshire, who offered me some sage wisdom. “Our kids love us for who we are and the sacrifices we make,” she said. “They get it.”
I believe you don’t have to be a U.S. Senator or a candidate for President of the United States for that to ring true. Time is precious, and so many of us understand the struggle to seek balance.
I ended up missing the graduation ceremony during the day but made it home in time for our time: Family dinner that night.
And Maggie was right. Fortunately for me, both Ella and Cole do get it. They are my endless source of love and pure joy. I am so thankful to Doug, to Kerstin, and most of all, to Ella and Cole. And as our family embarks together on this new journey—one that has taken me to South Carolina, Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio, Nevada, and Michigan in the last few weeks alone—I can say one thing with certainty, my heart wouldn’t be whole, nor my life full, without them.