Some people are probably wondering “What in the world is a default parent?” but I’m guessing most households have one. In talking to people, both clinically and personally, over the years, most often the default parent is a mom. This is not to say that dads aren’t good parents because they usually are and are super important. The reality is, though, that most often mom is the default parent whether she is staying at home with kids, working part time or working full time outside of the home.
So what is a default parent and why does it matter? To over simplify, the default parent is the one who is “in charge of” most of the small details of parenting and it might mean the parent to whom kids turn for the majority of things that come up in life. As an example of the latter, when kid wake up in the middle of the night needing something which side of the bed do they go to usually, mom’s or dad’s side? When kids are looking for something lost who is asked to help them find it? When notes come home from school or something needs to be brought in to school, which parent do the kids expect will take care of it?
Here are some examples of the default parent being in charge of most of the small details of parenting: Often the default parent is the one who is keeping track of necessary appointments, getting them scheduled and kids taken to them. The default parent is likely the one keeping track of birthday parties either for their own kids or the birthday parties to which their kids are invited. They are planning and buying, decorating and either baking or picking up the desserts. The default parent is the one who knows where the gymnastics competition is being held and when, what gear must be brought along, how transportation will work and who makes sure that appropriate food is also packed for the long day along with water bottles.
The default parent can sometimes be the parent who is most consciously aware of the need to teach specific things such as religious and moral values, manners, good relationship skills and good hygiene. It’s the parent who knows there is actually a job around trying on kids’ clothes a few times a year, replacing outgrown things and taking care of whatever doesn’t fit anymore. The default parent may be the one tracking the kids’ reading minutes each day or whether there is enough lunch money in the student account. The default parent plans ahead to figure out what camps the kids will attend during the summer, registers them and figures out transportation. Ok….you totally get the point right now don’t you? Do you recognize who is the default parent in your home?
What does it matter whether there is one default parent? It’s about mental energy and sometimes feeling exhausted by all the managing, orchestrating and tracking. It’s not uncommon for the default parent to feel taken for granted and without a good way to explain exactly why it doesn’t feel good. I often see women who feel resentful of being primarily responsible for all that goes into being the default parent and I see men who then feel resentful of how much time moms are devoting to the kids. Frequently, neither of them totally understand that if both parents are equally taking on the mental energy and action for all the little aspects of parenting, then there is more time and energy for the couple to focus on each other.
In reality, it’s a disservice to both moms and dads (and kids!) to have one default parent. Too often, the assumption implicitly is that dads’ jobs are to discipline, “help out” with things like homework or cheering at kids’ events, and to be the “entertainer” (e.g., being silly, playing sports, stretching the limits). These are all important roles to be sure and they, like all the others involved in parenting, should be shared. Kids need both parents to be actively involved at the macro AND micro levels because doing so gives the message that even the minutiae of their lives matters to both mom and dad. It’s important to dispel the notion that much of parenting is moms’ realm or that only moms are competent or efficient enough to manage the details. Parenting is a huge job and neither parent should be saddled with the majority responsibility of it. I hope you will share your own experiences and views below.
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