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In this first episode of season 6, Iishana Artra, a holistic psychologist and stepmum, discusses the challenges faced by stepmums and provides strategies for managing stress and building resilience. She highlights the importance of planning and preparation before entering a stepfamily, as well as the need for support and expert insight during and after challenging situations. Ishana emphasises the power of perception and controlling the mind to navigate the complexities of stepmotherhood. She also shares resources, such as stepfamily-trained counsellors and her own website, for further support and knowledge.

Iishana Artra PhD: There are counsellors who give guidance and will probe into issues as if you have a neuroses. And that would be true if you were a mother. But if you’re a stepmother, what you might be experiencing might be normal. There might be a different kind of adaptation that needs to happen than there would be for a mother.

Laura Jenkins: In the Blend is a podcast series that helps parents navigate life within a blended family. Join me as I speak with experts and guests to get practical advice on how to have a, harmonious blended family life. This series dives deep into the unique dynamics, logistics and challenges of raising a blended family. From new partners to juggling mixed finances. We will help guide you through it.

Welcome back to in the blend. I’m Laura Jenkins and am thrilled to kick off a fresh season, season six. So, to our, ah, loyal listeners, it is fantastic to have you back. And if you’re joining us for the first time, or perhaps you’ve just discovered this podcast, a very warm and special welcome to you. Now, if you’re not familiar with my story, I am a stepmom of two teenagers, now currently 13 and 15. And we also have two children of our own who are now ages five and seven. So I’ve been a stepmom for a decade, ten years now, and have been through all of the things during that time. So am super passionate about helping others in blended families who are navigating the same challenges that naturally arise. This podcast has been going for about a year and a half now, and during that time I have chatted with almost 50 experts on a full range of topics as they relate to living life in the blend, and I really do feel like we have only just scratched the surface. In today’s episode, we have a guest who brings a unique perspective to the table. Ishana Atra is not only a child free stepmom, but also a seasoned expert in teaching systems that can meaningfully adjust to step family life. We delve into the distinctive challenges that stepparents face, the crucial role of managing your stress, and the necessity of building a very robust support circle. Our conversation also touches on the power of perception and mastering the mind in the complex realm of stepparenthood. So whether you’re a child free stepparent or not, today’s discussion is brimming with practical tips and actionable advice that you’re sure to find super helpful. I know I certainly did. So, without further ado, let’s dive in.

Iishana has a unique background combining holistic psychology and combat training

Okay, well, welcome, Iishana. It is such a pleasure to be speaking with you today. Now you have quite a unique background, combining holistic psychology, combat, PTSD treatment, empowerment, coaching. And you’re a stepmom yourself, so you’ve got the first hand experience too. So certainly a load of experience in this space. Lots of things I want to ask you, but to start us off, I’d love to know a little bit about your personal journey. And I understand you’re a child free stepmom as well, so I’d love to learn a little bit about that personal journey and also your professional experience and perhaps how the two have merged to lead you into your current line of work.

Iishana Artra PhD: Well, it’s great to be here, Laura. Thank you so much for having me. yes, certainly my professional journey has informed the way I’ve handled stepparenting. And stepparenting has actually informed how I work with, people in all the kinds of coaching I do, as well as even with the combat veterans, that the work I used to do. It’s quite amazing how, much we can learn from being a step mom, whether we’re child free or not, right? And how much we can bring in our vast life experience into that role. So being a child free stepmom gives me a, ah, unique perspective for other child free stepmoms. A lot of what I learned, though, does apply to any stepmother, because there are just universal principles of health and well being that every stepmother can benefit from. And also the research is telling us worldwide that, and I know there’s a lot of it in Australia and there’s more of it in America, that there are five ways that stepmothers need to look out for themselves and to create, in order to create more harmony at home. And as a child free stepmom, those applied equally to me and to my, know just as much as they apply to women with children, for sure.

But one of the unique, dynamics that child free stepmums could face is if you’re a woman who wants to have children of your own and you don’t, and you land in a step family where your partner has children with another woman, maybe two other women, maybe three other women, right. certain feelings can arise. jealousy would be perfectly natural, perfectly normal. Grief, any grief work you’ve done around perhaps not being able to have children, can be interrupted by the constant reminder by the presence of children in your life. so those are just two examples. Jealousy as well as grief. And also a, ah, child free stepmom that hasn’t been initiated. Right, Laura? Into what it’s like to live with children, what it’s like to be around children of all ages and what it’s like to have your life, really change shape in the presence of children and priorities. Women, when around children enough, will start to entrain hormonally and will go through these shifts. I started dreaming m one of my stepchildren’s dreams. We’d wake up in the morning and we would visited each other in our dreams. I used to call it the abduction. It’s like I had been abducted. Totally foreign planet of children. So there’s a lot that child free stepmothers go through that may not be the case for women with children.

Laura Jenkins: Absolutely. I know it can be so overwhelming. That was my case when I met my partner who had two young children at the time. And you go from zero to all in, overnight, really. So I completely agree with you. It’s a huge adjustment.You touched on five key challenges that stepmoms faced

You touched on five key challenges that stepmoms faced, whether you’re child free or otherwise. Can you talk to us about what those five key challenges are?

Iishana Artra PhD: Yes. And it’s so empowering to learn what these are because we’re all going through them. But until we can name them and see them written down and know that literally millions right now, about 30 million women in America are going through these challenges to one extent or another, it’s empowering, right. We’ve normalised it. We know we’re not alone, we know we’re not crazy, and there are strategies associated with each. So it’s very empowering.

So there’s actually six challenges and five keys to success. So the six challenges are indicators that boundaries aren’t, in place and some boundaries in step family are not going to be in place. And in other, instances, boundaries need to be put in place. So let me tell you what I mean. So the first challenge is burst bubbles. So the honeymoon period is over. We know the big popping sound, right. This is not the ideal nuclear family. I thought it would be whether you’re child free or you thought bringing in your children and the other children together, they all love each other and it’d be the Brady bunch. those illusions are shattered, burst bubbles. And that comes with a lot of emotions. So you have grief and anger and confusion and overwhelm and disorientation. Sense of betrayal, perhaps. so burst bubbles is the first big challenge. And the boundary there that’s been, is that we can’t force a nuclear family on anyone. Right? We just can’t do it. So that’s a boundary that has to be in place. So we have to stop forcing it. Fragile connections is the next big challenge. And we’re aware that, oh, maybe some bonding, positive bonding, has been happening between the kids, maybe with each other, or maybe perhaps with, in my case, I bonded instantly with my first, step family, children. And the daughter was with us full time. We’d cuddle on the recliner, and we’d sing, and we’d laugh hysterically in that recliner. And then she flipped. She flipped quite, in quite a pronounced way. And I want to tell you that I’ve been through two extremes. I’ve been through, a step family situation where I didn’t know any of this ahead of time. And all these six challenges happened. All the boundaries were crossed, and she had a mother who was, quite unstable and violent even, and was giving me death threats. So that was an extreme right. And I moved the next. I was brave enough to try again years later, and I did everything the opposite. Boundaries were up from the very beginning, and it’s been fantastic. So the second challenge of fragile connections is when a child or the stepmom is feeling nervous and anxious about that bonding. And so what happened in my stepdaughter’s case was, she felt anxious about it, and she threw a knife at me.

Laura Jenkins: Oh, my goodness.

Iishana Artra PhD: Yes.

Laura Jenkins: This was in the first scenario.

Iishana Artra PhD: This was in the first one, right. So I don’t want to say that to scare anyone, but what I want to make, clear is that step moms, we’re in high risk situations. This is very sensitive psychology that we walk into. There’s a lot of grief, a lot of loyalty conflicts. there could be a sense of anger, that the children are feeling, the partner is feeling, the ex is feeling. And so walking gingerly in that is important. And that’s why it’s important to know what these challenges are ahead of time. So the third challenge is the too many cooks in the kitchen, literally and figuratively. So when a stepmom starts to involve herself in parenting decisions and in logistics, in picking up kids from school, doing the cooking, trying to negotiate around child rearing decisions, then that can lead to tension between her and her partner, between her and the kid’s mom and the kids. So that can be a boundary that’s being crossed. So then the fourth is control issues, and that’s where we feel. A lot of stepmoms feel we’ve lost our control. What happened? We used to have control when our own kids were going to eat, what they were going to eat, when they were going to bed, or if we’re child free, when we were going to go out dancing, how late we were going to work at our job to go up the ladder, whatever it is, how much money we were going to spend on ourselves, on our savings. Now we have kids in the picture we may choose to spend money on. So a lot of control issues. what are our surroundings going to be like? The noise level, just so many things that are now out of our control. And then there is the power outage. And as we work down this list, it becomes more serious. it’s harder to pull back from. So power outage is when the parent that you’re partnered with has lost the ability to make, a healthy parenting decision. And that could be due to parental alienation. that could be due to their own fear. that may not even be related to the ex, but their own fear of losing the love of their children. it could be that the children just are not adjusting and they’re not responding to parenting. we’re seeing more and more addiction among youth of all kinds. Gaming, drugs, alcohol. And that’s a power outage for the parent. And then the stepmom is living in that environment where their partner, even with the best of intentions, is not able to protect her from that tense environment. Right.

Laura Jenkins: Yes.

Iishana Artra PhD: And so then the final one is burnout. And that’s self explanatory.

Laura Jenkins: Okay. Yeah.

Iishana Artra PhD: I want to end on a down note. There’s a lot we can do. Yeah. Okay.Stress management occurs at four stages, before, during and after

Laura Jenkins: I, know, look, I think you’ve summarised those challenges nicely there. And, what was going through my head, as you were speaking, was there’s such a diverse, rich range of things that different stepmoms feel depending on their circumstance and their individual situation. So it really was highlighting for me that there is just this plethora of different emotions and challenges that stepmoms can face. so how do we go then about giving them the keys to unlock some of these challenges? Yes.

Iishana Artra PhD: Great. Yes. So I have a shorthand. It’s called, I always reverse it in my own headab. so B-D-A-B. Before, during, after and between. So stress management occurs at all these stages and depending on what, if it’s before the tough situation, before walking into the room and seeing everybody cuddling on the couch and you’re excluded. Right. But before that, there are some steps you can take. And during that, when you’re seeing it, there are steps you can take to reduce your stress afterwards and then between that incident and when it happens again. So I like to break stress management down into those four stages, because they’re very different. Each one is very different. if we think of step parenting, this, is all about mindset. As an ex sport or an extreme sport, it’s very helpful. It’s very helpful. It can make it seem daunting, but it also can focus us. Right? Like, okay, wait a second. This may not be something I can just wink. I can’t just improvise this for 20 years.

Laura Jenkins: Yes.

Iishana Artra PhD: Right. a glacier climber, for example, does all of this preparation ahead of time. And this is the before in the BDAP, before gets to know, understands glaciers, understands melting, knows the kind of equipment that’s going to work, cheques the weather conditions, decides whether or not to even go up that day. Right. May change. Right. It’s not a competition. They have nothing to lose if they don’t do it that day. So it’s a different mindset. So with a step mom, planning. Planning is absolutely crucial. What the research is telling us is that when we live in a constant state of stress, our cortisol is elevated and it’s harder to have a relaxation response. So all the best advice about breathe, meditate. and this is all good advice. When you’re not in a constant state of stress, go for a long walk. Right. Punch the punching bag. It’s great advice, but when we’re in a constant state of stress, we may, physiologically may not be able to gain as much benefit from that. But what they’re finding is that there is something called an anticipatory stress regulation. And we access that physiological shift into stress regulation by planning, by anticipating the stressful situation and planning for it ahead of time. Pretty powerful, right? So we walk to the room, we know that when we walk in there, they’re going to be cuddling on that couch. But we’ve been doing our planning, like maybe the week prior, we met with our coach and we planned out what we’re going to do. So when we see that happening, our body, our mind, we don’t have as high of a stress response. So that’s very important. So I teach planning. I have a stop the drama in 30 days method. It’s all about planning. And then there’s during. So BDab, B-D-A-B during the stress. So now you’re seeing them cuddling on the couch. You’ve had this plan. It’s great. And part of your plan is, what are you going to do when you see them? And this is where a lot of women benefit from a mantra from noticing their breath in that moment, from thinking to themselves, okay, what I’m seeing is my step kids attaching to their parent in a healthy way. This is good. This is good. This is not personal. That has nothing to do with excluding me. I feel left out, but they are not leaving me out. Right. So there’s a certain amount of self talk during and then there is after. So how do we recover after? And my work with combat veterans taught me a lot about this. a stress response during a stressful experience needs to be dealt with afterwards. During, we’re engaged in a whole different way of thinking. Our body is reacting. Certain tools are just not going to work for us. So afterwards, the sooner we can return to baseline our normal state, the better. So that our amygdala doesn’t get stuck there in that high stress place. So there are tools like heart mass, that art, creative art, expressing what you’re feeling. regulating your breathing is a very powerful method for bringing back to baseline. That’s an example of what you can do after. You can process it with your counsellor. And then there’s the between. Okay, so the between is where so much of the meat happens. Because the between is where the keys really kick in. I said there were five keys, right?

There is expert insight. That’s key number one. So that time in between, you have all this opportunity to read, to listen to Laura’s podcast, right?

Laura Jenkins: Absolutely.

Iishana Artra PhD: Talk to your step family coach or step family counsellor. Get expert insight. Self care.

Build up your resilience. There are eight ways to build up your resilience. I cover those in my, assessment tools and on my website and also the ebook. So you want to build up your resilience between. And. Then there is the household structure. What are you going to negotiate with your partner behind the scenes between stressful events around household structure and outsider boundaries? Is there any influence coming in from people who don’t live in the home that is affecting that tough situation? So if so, you address that between incidents. So that’s the between I see. I always reverse it, Bdab. And you just rinse and repeat the.

Laura Jenkins: Example that you described. Imagining that’s what you’re going to see. And then when you actually see it, it’s not such a surprise or such a shock. And the impact, that stressful impact is less because you’ve, imagined it prior, is that right?

Iishana Artra PhD: Yes, that’s a piece of it. The imagining prior, the rehearsal. And the other piece of it is to have a plan that really gives you confidence, because when you feel that, yes, I could succeed at this, that’s when that anticipatory stress regulation really kicks in physiologically. And so you want to work with tools that, you know are based in expert insights that you can have confidence in and that you can handle as well that you’re ready for.

Laura Jenkins: Yes. I really like the analogy to extreme sports as well. I think that’s great. And they do have to train. They have to train really hard to go and participate in that level. And your earlier, comment around the knife being thrown, which is so frightening, that’s a practical example that this can be an extreme sport as well. And it’s about really, you’ve got to do the work, don’t you? You’ve got to prepare yourself for the role that you’ve stepped into.

Iishana Artra PhD: Yes. And that knife being thrown, if we thought of it as a metaphor, it doesn’t have to be a literal knife that gets thrown. It could be the eye roll. And each woman has. We all come with our own history, our own triggers. There’s a lot of women who have attachment trauma, who have trauma from other types of experiences, perhaps have just unresolved anger or wounds that aren’t at the trauma level. And in a step family situation where you don’t have that control and where there is some volatility, potentially, and it’s all kind of always lurking, those triggers are ever present. So even an eye roll for one woman could feel like a knife being thrown. Right. M and another woman might just take the knife and throw it right into the wall and laugh. That was not me. It is something to be aware of. It’s a very tender situation. That’s why I’m not a one size fits all coach. in terms of advice or guidance, I really base it on each woman where you’re coming from in addition to where you are in your time of life. some women come into step parenting, older perimenopause, or even postmenopause, if they’ve had any kind of, surgeries. So the hormonal regulation of cortisol is very different. So being in this chronic state of stress, there are some other strategies you might need to employ.

Laura Jenkins: Yes. So, I know you talked about a couple of examples for how people can go about regulating that stress. So one of them was deep breathing. Another was perhaps going for a walk, turning on a podcast, going and having a talk to your coach or psychologist. What else can people do?

Iishana Artra PhD: Great. Well, women benefit tremendously from circles, of support. we have a profound physiological response when we are supported. It doesn’t necessarily have to be by other women, but it tends to be especially women we don’t have to explain ourselves to. So if you set up for yourself a circle of support, and these are women, they could also be men, they could be gender neutral. It’s people who you feel safe with, who, you know, get you and people you. I like the idea of having a hotline number. So I had a friend and we were buddies, we were stepmom buddies, and we had codes that we could send to each other on our texts so that if anybody in our step family saw our texts, it wouldn’t be awkward. So we had little code words where if we were in trouble and we needed some support, or if we wanted to remind each other to go for it, I would tell her to breeze. That was her reminder that she needed. So you can have a circle of support. That’s huge. The studies all show that step moms without a circle of support do not fare well.

Laura Jenkins: Yes. I love that. Having the friend on text who you can have on hand right now, and.

Iishana Artra PhD: You could say the fun things like the crow flies at midnight use codes.

Laura Jenkins: Yeah, well, whatever works. Whatever works. And I think as well, just to touch on the circle of support, it’s quite difficult, if you haven’t been a stepmom, to understand what it’s really like. And so having people who are either stepmoms or they’re professionals in that space who’ve worked with a lot of step mums, I think is really important, just so that there’s that complete understanding, which can be more challenging for those who haven’t fully experienced all of the ins and outs that come with the gig.

Iishana Artra PhD: Yes. It can backfire. Right. I’m sure you’ve heard stories of it backfiring. It’s pretty common. there are friends who mean well, but they give advice that’s geared towards a mother.

Right. Who has power. And there are counsellors who give guidance and will probe into issues as if you have a neuroses. Right. And that would be true if you were a mother. Right. But if you’re a stepmother, what you might be experiencing might be normal and there might be a different kind of adaptation that needs to happen than there would be for a mother. So the circle of support being up to speed about what stepmombing is all about is just so important.

Laura Jenkins: Absolutely. And what other resources would you suggest, Iishana, that people can turn to to help provide them with more knowledge and tools and support, if they’re going through any of the challenges that you listed at the top of our conversation.

Iishana Artra PhD: Yes, well, certainly I think the resources are going to depend on where you are at on the continuum of stress. So a low stress resource is going to look different than a chronic high stress. This has been going on for maybe six months or longer and you’re starting to see health effects. so different resources for sure. But if you’re going to go to a step family, if you’re going to go to a counsellor or even a couple’s counsellor looking for a step family, trained counsellor, I would say, is a very important resource. and a coach is excellent for learning skills, learning strategies. We all have our perspectives and you could combine coaches. You do not have to work with one coach. and there are plenty of books out there. I would steer women more towards the current books because there’s been so much research and it’s less likely to be, taking a slant from a more traditional approach, like trying to be the mother, trying to be the super stepmom. And then, thirdly, I would say, well, my website go to I’ve put together a DIY kit, a starter kit, so that you can test it out. What does this planning look like? What does it feel like? how am I doing in terms of my stress level with these big challenges? What are these big challenges that might be making dinner time difficult, that might be making the car ride difficult, that might be making my conversations with my partner so difficult? What are the underlying challenges? What’s going on? And so I have some assessments on my website you can take for that as well. And I’m putting together a course very excited about.

Laura Jenkins: Oh, that’s, that’s terrific.. Are there any final tips, Iishana, that you’d like to share before we wrap up our discussion?

Iishana Artra PhD: It’s like my final tip would be perception. It’s about perception. So something that extreme athletes know, is that once they’re in the middle of it on that glacier or jumped out, they’ve jumped out of the plane, whatever it is, right. Just like when we’re in step family, we’re in, we’ve made a commitment, we’ve moved in our furniture, we’re paying half the rent, whatever it is, we’re in. Right. So at that point, one thing that you can control is your mind, and you may need help to do that, but that is the one thing you can control. And that stress is a matter of perception. It’s a matter of perceived threat. So when we can shift our perception, it’s amazing what gets unlocked, what potential gets unlocked. So I have a motto that is perception, not perfection.

Laura Jenkins: I love it.

Iishana Artra PhD: Yeah, aim for that.

Laura Jenkins: Love it. It’s so true. It’s all what’s up here, isn’t it? And controlling the controllables.

Iishana Artra PhD: Yes. And it sounds easier than it is. So that’s why that circle of support is so absolutely.

Laura Jenkins: Oh, well, Iishana, it has been such a pleasure speaking with you today. Where can listeners go to connect with you or, reach out if they’d like to get in touch or access any of your tools?

Iishana Artra PhD: Oh, yes. come on over. to I-I-S-H-A-N-A. So two I’s, And if you want to learn more about those six big challenges, the five keys and something I call the, ah, eight queendoms, there’s a definitions page and you could just add a forward slash definitions. Also, if you take the assessments, those are all in there as well, and they’re in the ebook. Very empowering.

Laura Jenkins: Amazing. Thank you so much. Well, we will point to all of that in the show notes. Well, I’ve so enjoyed our chat once again, thank you so much for your time.

Iishana Artra PhD: Thank you for having me.

Laura Jenkins: Thanks for listening to the in the Blend podcast. The show notes for this episode are au and if you like what you heard, be sure to subscribe and please rate and review in your podcasting app. You can also follow me on Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.