Updated from April 2015.
My mother and I often talk about stepparenting. Yes, she's also a stepmom. And by her own admission, not a very good one.
When she and my stepfather married, he shared joint custody of a son with his ex-wife. My stepfather moved into our family home and gave up his smaller abode five minutes away. However, my stepbrother actually lived with his mother over an hour away from us during the school week and visited only on weekends. That's not unusual for most stepfamilies. But in our family it didn't allow for a lot of bonding time. It also didn't help that our family home only had three bedrooms. Therefore, my stepbrother had no designated personal space for his visits. Those facts alone allow for some stepfamily beginnings that were less than ideal.
Looking back, I can see choices that would have enabled us to become a more cohesive stepfamily earlier in the process.
First, I believe that having a bedroom, a closet, a den or some other personal space where my stepbrother could have stored his belongings would have made him feel more welcome in his dad's home. Coming with a bag packed each and every time he spent the weekend must have made him feel like a visitor. Even more so was sleeping on a pull-out sofa in the great room. While this may seem like a small issue, to a child who is looking to feel part of a new family, it can play a large part in the development of the new stepfamily.
Secondly, more time could have been expended towards bonding. Though the miles created some difficulties in bringing us all together during the week, proper planning could have helped in ensuring that it did happen more often than weekends only. Whether a dinner outing, a sporting event or just a visit to a local park, time together allows for deeper connections and more meaningful relationships. My stepfather would have been less conflicted about being away from his son and my mother would have enjoyed a closeness with her stepson during his adolescence. Moreover, the effort expended would have been evident to my stepbrother.
Third, I am a proponent of encouraging biological parents to spend time with their children, separate from the stepparent or any other children. Initially, children may feel abandoned by their biological parent because of the involvement with the other family. No child should feel that disconnect with their parent due to the creation of a stepfamily. Had my stepbrother felt more secure in his relationship with his dad, I think he would have been more accepting of my mother and her place in his father's life in his adolescence.
My mother has mentioned often that she wished that she had had a support network and stepfamily tools that would have enabled to her to be a better stepparent when our stepfamily was in its infancy. In other words, "When you know better, you do better." Being able to speak about it now is cathartic for her. Still, having tools in place thirty five years ago would have made a difference in the life of our family in those early days.
I consider my stepfamily of origin to be successful. Things weren't, and aren't, perfect. Yet, I am beyond grateful for the connection that I feel with my stepfather. My sister and I communicate well with him, acknowledge the vast part he played in our development and realize that our vision of parenting/stepparenting was shaped by his involvement in our lives. My stepbrother didn't necessarily experience that same early nurturing from my mother. But thirty five years on, there are tools including books, websites, blogs, stepparent coaches and online forums to help transition to be the successful stepfamilies that we know we can be.