Being the ‘Default Parent’ Is Hard—Here’s How to Avoid Burnout

written by JULIA DELLITT
Source: @fulchersunfiltered
Source: @fulchersunfiltered

For those in the know, default parenting is more than just a viral social media trend—it’s a real challenge with significant impact to one’s mental health and wellbeing. Here’s what you need to know about being the “default parent,” why it’s incredibly hard, and how to make adjustments so you can be the best possible version of yourself.


What does it mean to be the “default parent”? 

Definitions range, but the “default parent” is often the person within a two-partner family unit who serves as the first point of contact for anything involving child-rearing or household needs. (Note: shout-out to single parents who are always default and also deserve more support!)

“Default parent syndrome refers to a situation where one parent (often, but not always, the mother) becomes the go-to person for all matters related to the children, from attending to their day-to-day needs, to managing their schedules, health, and well-being,” explains Dr. Ryan Sultán, Director of Integrative Psych and Research Professor at Columbia University. “This is not a clinically recognized syndrome, but it is a common societal and family phenomenon.”



Are moms always in this role?

While it’s important to avoid stereotypes or generalizations, the icky truth is that this work typically falls to the mother figure. Case in point: my wonderful, progressive, husband had never even heard the phrase “default parent” before—whereas I felt it deeply in my tired mom bones.



“It’s almost always the mother, and people largely fall into this role because of deeply-rooted sexism about what it means to be a mother or father,” adds Nicole Arzt, a licensed marriage and family therapist who specializes in working with parents. “Society naturally assumes women look after children and men work, even when the woman is also working and/or the father might be staying at home. Women, at times, also feed into this stereotype by assuming the majority of work at home. While most mothers commiserate over the shared experience of mom guilt (i.e. not being as present with their children as they’d like to be or not being good enough), few fathers express having this experience.”



How do you know if you’re the go-to parent?

Right now, I can tell you the exact location of a soccer shirt, a pair of kid sandals in the right size for summer, the lovey for bedtime that technically needs washed from a Gatorade spill two days ago, a school enrollment form, a crumpled birthday invitation from the bottom of a backpack, and back-up boxes of bulk macaroni and cheese. At any given moment, my brain is rattling through a list of upcoming doctor and dentist appointments, friend drama, haircuts, thank you notes, sports sign-ups, the last time the floors were cleaned and who has clean underwear.

Disclaimer: my partner and co-parent also does all kinds of things for the kids and our home. It’s just not usually his number one priority, whereas as “default parent,” I feel the relentless pressure to juggle every ball perfectly. Additionally, before I’m met with a chorus of “Why did you even have kids if you didn’t want to take care of them?”—that’s not what we’re talking about. I love my children! They are precious! I was also interrupted 65 times while writing this paragraph as the kids completely ignored their available, willing-to-help father in the other room in favor of me as default, which turns my brain into scrambled eggs with a side of fury.

Also, if you’re reading this and thinking, Hmm, I don’t believe I am the default parent, congratulations. You probably aren’t, which means it’s a good time to ask your partner what you can do to proactively help the household and child-rearing run more smoothly. 


What are the relationship or family consequences of having a “default parent”?

“Default parents can harbor anger toward the other parent,” says Arzt. “They risk burnout as a parent, and they may suffer in the workplace if they’re working. The other parent also may miss critical bonding opportunities with their children, which can impact the family unit as a whole.”

Dr. Sultán also notes that physically, this parent may have less time for self-care or rest, leading to exhaustion, increased stress and feelings of resentment. All in all, the consequences aren’t great, which is why it’s important to mitigate and make adjustments wherever possible.



What can couples or caregivers do to better share the parenting load?

If this issue feels like an impossible challenge to address, know you’re not alone—again, “default parenting” is a structural problem (thanks, patriarchy!) with generations of societal reinforcement. However, experts encourage parents and caregivers to start by openly talking about roles, responsibilities, family values and expectations.


Discuss the division of labor regularly

“It’s important for parents to regularly discuss delegating and division of labor as it applies to the home and children,” says Arzt. “Even if one of the parents isn’t working, that shouldn’t mean all parenting duties are delegated to them. Parenting is a 24/7 job with no breaks, so it’s essential that parents work together as a team to ensure home life is running smoothly.”

According to Dr. Sultán, this might mean alternating who takes the kids to school or doctor’s appointments, sharing the responsibility of cooking meals or helping with homework, or taking turns being the one who gets up with the kids at night. It could also involve emotional aspects of parenting, such as comforting a child who’s upset. 


Parenting is a 24/7 job with no breaks, so it’s essential that parents work together as a team to ensure home life is running smoothly.


Adjust based on current needs

In my experience, “default parenting” may also be applicable to certain seasons of life. When I gave birth to my third child, for instance, my husband absolutely was the default to our older children while I ran point on the baby. We try to split the load in terms of who is “default” and who is “back-up” for different needs. He is now listed as first contact for school phone calls (one of a handful of dads, might I add) and I take the lead on all health-related kid needs. Admittedly, I’ve also had to relinquish control a little bit, and let him parent how he sees fit versus micro-managing certain things.

“In the end, the goal should be equitable, not necessarily equal, parenting, taking into account each parent’s strengths, resources, and availability,” adds Dr. Sultán. “Both parents should be knowledgeable about and involved in their children’s lives, so they can share the joys and challenges of raising their children.”

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