After venting about how I was coordinating some kid-based activity from 50 miles and 90 minutes away from the action, all while my spouse was zero miles and zero minutes away from the action, my co-worker sent me an article.
It was like reading about my life.
In her article, The Default Parent, M. Blazoned discussed what so many of us parents (usually the female ones in heterosexual relationships, or the biological parent in queer relationship) face in our daily parenting lives: being the default parent.
The default parent is the one responsible for the emotional, physical and logistical needs of the children.
She starts the article by noting that if you have to wonder about whether you are the default parent, you probably aren’t. The default parent knows that they are the default parent. No definition required. No wonder. All understanding.
If you aren’t a parent, perhaps you are not aware of this phenomenon. Here’s more details:
Default parents know the names of their kids’ teachers, all of them. They fill out endless forms, including the 20-page legal document necessary to play a sport at school, requiring a blood oath not to sue when your kids gets concussions, because they are going to get concussions. They listen to long, boring, intricate stories about gym games that make no sense. They spell words, constantly. They know how much wrapping paper there is in the house. The default parent doesn’t have her own calendar, but one with everyone’s events on it that makes her head hurt when she looks at it. They know a notary. They buy poster board in 10-packs. They’ve worked tirelessly to form a bond with the school receptionists. They know their kids’ sizes, including shoes, dammit.
This is me. All day, every day. Even when I’m not doing the physical act of parenting, even when I am not there, I am constantly doing the mental act of parenting. It’s exhausting. And even when your partner parent is awesome, even when they are helping, that exactly what it feels like: help.
And by the way, this blog is in no way a competition between husband and wife for who has it worse. My husband is the default earner, the default lawn mower and the default spider killer, which all come with equal stress and dissatisfaction that he is welcome to blog about. He’s also incredibly helpful and an awesome husband and parent. But, in my defense, the lawn and spiders don’t say “mommy” a hundred times a day, and his boss doesn’t come on vacation with him. Just sayin’. And he’d be the first to admit that I got the short end of the stick. His face hurts when I rattle off only the few things I manage. So, he helps a lot. But, in terms of logistics and administrative duties, he’s the back-up parent.
“He helps a lot.” It’s like he’s the employee and the default parent is the employer. When the sh!t hits the fan, it sprays all over the default parent. The Back-up Parent is shielded by the Default. Safe.
But I know that often, being the default parent is the fault of the default parent. At least it is for me.
What I realized early in my parenting life is that I enjoy being in control. From the moment those children were conceived, it’s been on me to provide for their needs. The simple act of going to and scheduling prenatal appointments started the whole default parenting. Breastfeeding made me feel so powerful and important. And, even after nine years of parent, I’ve been loathe to give that up. It’s a little awesome to come home and hear, “Mommy’s here!” For many of us default parents, we stay the default because we like the power – and the attention. So while we complain about how unfair it is, we perpetuate the syndrome, both (sub?) consciously and continually.
(Now, for some default parents, there is no back-up. Single parents don’t have a choice. So some of this doesn’t apply to you, at least not when it comes to having the back-up parent do more. But if you have older children, it may apply. One of the best gifts you can give your children is the ability to take care of themselves. So you start small. Think about how you can adapt the following tips to fit your situation.)
So how do we break the cycle? Here’s the top four things I do:
1. “Ask your father” (or “Figure it out yourself”)
When a children bombard me as soon as I walk in the door with all their requests and issues, my first response is, “Ask your father.” One way the default parent perpetuates the cycle is by engaging in it. If you constantly answer the question, sign the paper, listen to the story, you are teaching the kids, your partner, and yourself that the right way to get what you need is to go through the default parent. Break the cycle. Refuse to answer. And if it’s something a kids can figure out for themselves, make them do it. How big is the universe? How do you make lemonade? How many words exist in the entire galaxy? “My name is not Google.”
One of the best things I ever did was make my children do chores — and lots of them. Some people say that their kid’s only job is to do well in school. I 100% disagree. In our family, the kids’ job is the same as the parents’ job — to do your part. Yes, doing well in school is just as important as the parents doing well on the job. But it’s not a substitute for helping the family and contributing to the community. My kids are not the center of the universe. They are the planets that circle the Sun, with the Sun being the concept of “family.” We are all in this together. So let’s act like it.
3. “Can you call [insert back-up parent’s name here]?”
One thing that bothers me to no end is when the school secretary, after school administrator, activities coach, or even family friends call me to discuss/coordinate some kid thing when my husband 1) is closer, 2) has more information and 3) is most able to facilitate whatever is going on. I work full-time, 50 miles and 90 minutes away from home. My husband works and my kids go to school less than one mile apart from each other and less than two miles away from home. So when the school calls and says a kid is sick and needs to be picked up, my first response is, “Can you call their dad?” What I used to do is take the message, call my husband, tell him what’s going on, then call the school and say he was on his way. No more. Cut out the middle man, the middle man being me. And sometimes, I’ll ask the secretary to hand over the phone. “Are you really sick? Okay, but you’ll spend the rest of the day — and night — in your bed, resting. And if you are too sick for school today, you’ll likely be too sick to do [insert whatever fun thing is coming up in the nest few days.]” “Oh, you’re feeling better? Great.”
4. “I’m leaving/napping/unavailable.”
Sometimes, it takes distance to rewire the family ecosystem. Since I began working full-time, it is simply too much to have to think about school lunches and immunizations and permission slips and homework and paying the babysitter and food planning and after-school activities and birthday parties and paying bills. It’s too much. If I want to avoid a break-down, both physically and mentally, I have to leave, mentally and physically. In leaving, I put the onus for staying alive on my kids and on my husband. If they are hungry, they’ll have to find something to eat. I’ve finally gotten my husband on the school email list, so if a permission slip needs to be signed, he can do it. If you kids don’t pack your lunch, you won’t eat. No clean socks? You’ll have to wear dirty ones and maybe next time, you’ll wash your clothes. The cell phone bill didn’t get paid? Well, once you can’t send any text messages, you’ll go online and pay it. There’s no soap? CVS is right down the street. Leaving forces folks to figure out how to survive, at least in the short term, without the default parent being there to remember everything. Remembering that kids need to eat is necessary for everyone’s growth and well-being. And the default parent can enjoy a cup of coffee, read the paper or take a nap (with earplugs) without being bothered.
As a family, everyone has to understand that the only way we all thrive is when we all take responsibility for keeping the family going. When one person drops the ball, it’s up to all of us — not just the default parent — to pick it up. Better yet, we all need to be juggling the balls together.
So if you’re the default parent, guess what? You can do something about it. And if you don’t, it’s likely that it’s all your fault.