With the dark nights closing in and heating being turned on in our homes we can safely say that summer is now behind us. However, for some stepfamilies there is a blessed relief that business as normal can be resumed.
Most parents struggle to balance work with their children's long school holidays, but for stepfamilies this can bring additional challenges.
As a psychologist dealing primarily with stepfamilies, I find that my weekly 'postbag' is full of requests for help in managing this tricky area. Most stepfamilies have a regular routine, where they know what days of the week the children are likely to be staying. Often weekends alternate and children skip between their biological family, spending time with each parent and seeing their wider family network.
However, summer holidays usually mean this routine is abandoned, with rash promises of looking after children given by one or other parent. This often means that they have to retrospectively negotiate with their other half - the stepparent. Biological parents can frequently be left feeling frustrated and 'in the middle' of this exercise. They've made promises to their ex partner about the holidays, and now they're either going to disappoint them, or risk falling out with their new partner.
My advice to anyone in this situation is not to commit to any changes before checking with their partner first. This may sound obvious, but it is generally one of the biggest and most recurring problems. Negotiating with an ex partner is difficult and people often want to finish these conversations as quickly as possible. So, when your ex asks if you can look after your children for an extra week over the summer, the default answer is usually 'yes of course,' particularly if you don't see much of them during term time or regular weeks.
My suggestion to fix this is really very simple: the answer should always be 'let me check and get back to you later this evening.' This gives you time to review any diary clashes and, more importantly, talk to your partner.
Another thorny issue is 'who is actually going to look after your children when they visit?' Do you need your partner to help with odd days off, or will they have to cover time when you're at work or away from home? Often parents will make assumptions about their partner and this frequently leads to anger and resentment from stepparents.
It is important to remember that your new partner is not replacing your ex-partner. They are a great support to you in looking after the children, but don't take them for granted. This is why it's so important to include them in any plans involving the children.
A really simple but effective idea is to introduce a family calendar - one which you can write all the family names onto, so that everyone is included. Any visits or changes can then be added to the calendar so that everyone is up-to-date.
As we say goodbye to summer, it's really not long before our thoughts turn to Christmas, which brings similar issues in terms of changes to routine. Christmas is of course a special time for children, and it's only natural that we want them to be with us, meaning there are some particularly tough choices for stepfamilies to consider.
Christmas doesn't have to be just one day of the year - you can make any day special
My advice is to plan early, and be reasonable and fair. Talk to your ex and try and find some agreement. If it doesn't quite work out as you hoped, make the best of things. Christmas doesn't have to be just one day of the year - you can make any day special.
Work with your partner to make sure you both agree and understand the plan in advance. This gives you plenty of time to enjoy the planning and shopping together, and of course sit down for a drink and wait for Santa.
Visit www.happysteps.co.uk for more advice for stepfamilies.
Dr Lisa Doodson is a psychologist specialising in stepfamilies. She works at Regent's University London and is author if 'How to be a Happy Stepmum' and 'Understanding stepfamilies: A practical guide for professionals working with blended families'
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