I sat up and took notice when I read the opening sentences of M.blazoned’s blog post about being the default parent: “Are you the default parent? If you have to think about it, you’re not.The default parent is the one responsible for the emotional, physical and logistical needs of the children.” Now with apologies to my wonderful husband who has to take a train into the city every day so he can deal with office politics while getting work done, too, I’m going to claim the title.
Not that it’s a badge of honor. I’m a working mom so when I allow myself to think on it I find it pretty irksome. I may not be visibly parenting during every minute of every day, but you can bet that in any given moment in the back of my mind I am keeping track of something having to do with the kinds of things default parents do. We’re the ones who:
- Make the annual well child appointments. Keep track of when they are since they’re made months in advance. And get the kids to them.
- Register kids for school, know the teachers’ email addresses, and keep track of the school closure dates.
- Know where this toy is and that sweater is and whether it’s time to buy more tear-free shampoo.
- Oversee daily homework and the enrichment work some schools send home for parents to do with kids. Make sure homework actually goes back to school.
- Oversee the family calendar. Schedule the playdates. Find things for the family to do together. RSVP.
- Make the school snacks and lunches. Remind the owners of the snacks and lunches to actually take them.
- Deal with the tidal wave of school papers that are sent home every day, filing or recycling each as necessary.
- Plan who gets what for birthdays and Christmas. Buy the things people get for birthdays and Christmas.
- Plan the birthday parties and holiday parties. Plan the menus for those parties. And in most cases, buy and make the food and decor.
- Know the kids’ sizes, shop for what’s needed when new seasons roll around, and keep the next seasons/sizes organized.
- Know where the library books are and when they need to be returned.
- Fix the toys that get broken. Get rid of the toys that don’t get played with.
- Take the calls and get the emails from school, the coach, the dance studio, the doctor, the dentist, etc.
- Find out about classes or community activities. Figure out how to work them into the kids’ schedules.
- Keep track of which days are specials and what needs to go to school on a particular day.
- Make sure the markers haven’t dried up (or buy new ones). Make sure there’s paper and paint and crayons and pencils.
It’s not just about little people who always go running straight to mama whenever there’s a problem or someone needs more juice. It’s not about who responds faster when the kids are crying. That you can fix over time with some training – and some acceptance. And some of the above tasks only apply when you have young kids. But just think about how many people in your kids’ lives who aren’t little will also go running straight to mama whenever there’s an upcoming appointment, playdate, holiday event, or field trip. Why aren’t more dads getting the school phone calls and the texts about weekend meetings at the playground?
Some of it is just logistics. Of course I take my kids to all the well child visits and dentist appointments and will pick them up from school when they’re sick because I work from home and my husband works 40 minutes away. But some of it is still the result of outdated expectations. Like how I’m the one who periodically goes through the kids’ clothes to pull out what doesn’t fit. And then I collect it, bag it up, and figure out where it’s going next. And then I coordinate a donation pickup or pick a time to drop off handmedowns with a friend.
Sometimes I ask myself: Why do I handle the family’s social calendar? Why do I buy the presents and do the RSVPing when birthdays roll around? Why am I the automatic overseer of my daughter’s homework? And to expand on that, why am I the one who puts vacuum and mop the floors (and in winter, the car) on my weekly to-do list?
Honestly, I have no idea how that happened. Just like how I have no idea what would happen if I just didn’t make the time to find all the hats, scarves, and mittens every September in advance of the first really cold day of the season. I’d like the think it would pop into my husband’s head to do it but what I think would happen is that the first really cold day would roll around and everyone would be asking me where the hats, scarves, and mittens are. Now I’m an old fashioned kind of girl so if I wasn’t a working mom I don’t think I’d have a problem being the default parent, but I don’t have any choice but to be a working mom. You’d think that would somehow result in a more equitable arrangement but that doesn’t seem to be the case in my own house or in the homes of other working moms I’ve talked to.
In one thread discussing the original post, there was a lot of outrage from people who felt like they were being called out as the non-default parent. Mainly dads, but some moms, too. Most acknowledged that they don’t do the kinds of things I listed above but they would… if only they were asked. Because they are more than willing – like my husband – to do any and all of that stuff as long as someone asks them to.
And that, I think, is the main difference between the default parent and the non-default parent. A mom and a dad (or two moms or two dads) may do equal amounts of chores related to children, but typically one will be in charge of the family’s minutia. The other will gladly carry out orders but won’t feel any day-to-day responsibility for keeping things running smoothly. The other will almost always know what needs doing and just do it because having to delegate to a co-parent can feel like a whole other chore.
When I think about what it’s like to be the non-default parent, this springs to mind: I don’t know that my husband has ever asked my young daughter if her homework was done. Whether because it’s not something he even thinks about or because he expects that I have probably handled it by the time he gets home, it’s a good example of what it means to be the default parent or not.
As the default parent, your list of responsibilities is actually an entire household’s list of responsibilities. Homework, dusting, car maintenance, insurance, passports, cookies for the bake sale, Christmas gifts for the in-laws, and whoops, your youngest needs mittens so now you’re mitten shopping during your lunch hour. The non-default parent can go through life confident in the knowledge that all these things are just magically getting done.
Honestly, I don’t begrudge my husband his role. Because how nice does being the non-default parent sound?