It is increasingly difficult to scroll through stepmom support groups and not see mention of HCBM, high-conflict bio mom. Some divorced women truly are high-conflict, no doubt about it. But others are just petty, or they’re moody. Then you have the control freaks (takes one to know one – I’m the biggest control freak out there!), and others just really struggle with change.
Unless she has physically assaulted you, vindictively falsely reported you to authorities, alienated her ex-partner, or some other very offensive behavior that has been highly intense or repetitive, she may not actually be worthy of the term “high-conflict bio mom.”
Before you click away, hear me out.
No single one of the things on the list below makes her behavior high-conflict. Can we agree to only use “HCBM” only when it’s appropriate instead of just classifying those ladies as “truly HCBM?”
The more we stepmoms villainize the bio mom, the less seriously society will take us. Want to boot the evil stepmom narrative as much as I do? It starts here.
7 Actions that Do Not Qualify her as a High-Conflict Bio Mom
Telling her children not to call you “Mom”
Perhaps she’s insecure, or maybe it’s because she’s concerned your relationship may not last and she doesn’t want her children to get hurt (I’ve been there as a child of divorce), or any other reason, but it is completely within her rights as their mother to request they not call you, “Mom.”
Setting that boundary alone does not make her high-conflict. If there are threats made alongside the request, that’s a different story. But simply stating that they should not call you “Mom” does not in itself make her high-conflict or a bad co-parent.
Parenting differently than you do
Like it or not, so much of parenting isn’t black and white. Yes, there are studies to defend limited screen time and studies that promote the merit of a balanced meal and a consistent bed time. But if your child gets a little more screen time, a little less nutrition, or a little less sleep, it isn’t the beginning of the end for him. If she chooses to set different punishments or expectations that don’t align with those in your home, that just makes her parenting style different – not inherently wrong.
Yes, neglect and abuse are wrong. I don’t feel like I should even have to say that. There are some situations where there are definitely wrong ways to parent. But there are also different ways to parent that aren’t wrong just because they’re not the same as how you do it.
This is sometimes the toughest one to truly see. You chose your house rules for a reason, right? You believe in them wholeheartedly. So when someone sets different rules, that is going directly against your highest held beliefs and values, and that can be infuriating and discouraging.
It’s easy to see her dismissal of your rules as a personal attack, but it’s not. It’s simply her choosing to parent differently than you do.
Wanting to talk to her ex instead of you
This one is HARD. You keep the schedule in your house, you know what’s going on more than your husband does (frankly, he’d be lost without you, am I right?), and yet, she still refuses to coordinate schedules with you.
If the ex refuses to communicate with anyone other than her ex, that doesn’t make her high-conflict. It is completely within her rights to only communicate with the person she chose to co-parent with. She did not have a child with you, she didn’t divorce you, she doesn’t technically share custody with you. She shares custody with her ex, your husband.
So no matter how inconvenient it may be, no matter how snarky it makes her appear, she is within her rights to communicate with the father of her children instead of you, and this behavior does not make her high-conflict.
Enforcing Right of First Refusal if the Court Order doesn’t include you
If your husband’s child custody court order doesn’t include you in the right of first refusal clause and your stepchild’s mom chooses to act on that right in the child’s father’s absence, that does not make her high-conflict.
So if your husband has to work and the kids could have stayed with you but will instead be going to their mom’s house, try not to view it as a personal attack on your or your character. She’s not doing anything to you or questioning your capabilities in any way; she is just trying to spend more time with her children, and no one can fault a parent for that.
Not returning the kids’ clothes
This might be the single biggest stressor for stepmoms globally: when stepmom purchases new shoes or clothes for the children, sends them to mom’s house looking sharp, and receives the children back in tattered clothes or shoes that aren’t the right size. When it’s perceived there’s a black hole at mom’s house where all of the nice things stepmom has purchased go to die, she tends to think this makes mom high-conflict.
It’s entirely possible mom is too busy, too distracted, not detail oriented enough, not careful enough, or too focused on other things to send clothes back. This behavior can make her a multitude of things, but high-conflict is not one of them.
Requesting a reasonable schedule modification
Does the mom refuse to follow the court order and subsequently ask to switch days? She says there’s a birthday party, a family gathering, or other event she’d like the children to attend and requests to move some days around.
This behavior does not make her high-conflict. (Granted, if this becomes a pattern, it could become very irritating and could require some very strict boundaries) But if she’s asking for a reasonable schedule modification that would allow the children to be included in an event they’d want to attend, then that’s not high-conflict at all!
Keep in mind, you have the right to refuse her request. You are not obligated to accommodate schedule modifications; however, before taking this course of action, I’d recommend practicing empathy for your stepchildren. If you don’t have anything planned and they’d benefit from the switch, go for it!
Refusing to accommodate your schedule modification
In the same way that you’re completely within your rights to reject a schedule modification request if it isn’t possible or optimal for you, she is also within her rights to refuse a request from you.
Before you jump to the conclusion that she is high-conflict for denying your logical request, understand that she may have other plans and simply can’t accommodate your request. It’s best when you share parenting (actually, it’s best in all relationships) to assume positive intent.
No matter her intention, refusing to deviate from the court order does not make her high-conflict.
Yes, sometimes she really is a high-conflict bio mom. And sometimes you may be a high-conflict stepmom. I know that I’ve definitely struggled with high-conflict thoughts personally.
But in the spirit of debunking stereotypes and eliminating stigmas, let’s stop using the phrase “high-conflict bio mom” unless she truly fits the bill.
PS: Have you joined our challenge to change the narrative for moms and stepmoms?
5 thoughts on “What if High-Conflict Bio Mom isn’t Actually High-Conflict?”
So glad you found it helpful, Jaime!
Unfortunately, our situation does include a HCBM. She has attacked me for three years, calling me the WORST names possible and I’ve not done or said anything to her. She constantly tells the child I’m a liar and a bad person and tells her to tell me she hates me. She gives her daughter the silent treatment, tells her she doesn’t love her and that she’s not her mother anymore, and tells her to pack her bags when she finds out her daughter drew me a picture or something ridiculous like that. It’s truly been 3 years of hell. I’d LOVE if my situation had a bio mom who acted like the above! I’d totally respect that! But when they are truly high conflict, it’s like living through a nightmare.
So sorry you’re dealing with such a high-conflict situation, Margaret! Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries!