During the year, dozens of to-do tasks inevitably flood the family calendar. From back to school shopping, PTA meetings, sports forms, doctor visits, flu shots, remembering to buy new winter boots when they go on sale, coordinating car pools and play dates, the endless list of things to buy, plan, and schedule… All these child-related tasks (and more!) often fall to one person in two-parent families: the default parent.
What it means to be the “default parent”
Being the default parent is exactly what it sounds like–whenever a child-related task arises, you are the parent managing it, the primary point of contact. In many cis-gendered, two-parent households, women find themselves disproportionately called on to manage caretaking tasks for children (thank you, patriarchy!). Everything from physical labor (like giving baths, daycare drop-off and pick-up, reading books), organizational tasks (cycling out wardrobes, remembering birthday parties, managing shopping for gifts and games, arranging playdates and other activities), and emotional care (setting and holding boundaries with children, researching developmental milestones, comforting your children and engaging with them during play and recreational activities) falls to this one parent.
As my husband and I have navigated parenthood together these past few years, we’ve made a conscious effort to raise our children as equitably as possible—yet, even with our best intentions, from time to time we still find ourselves slipping into siloed roles when the chaos of daily life takes over. His job allows for very little flexibility in schedule (he even had to return to work the day after our youngest was born—as he works in a job that doesn’t offer paid paternity leave) so for the past few years, I’ve often found myself in the role of default parent.
Managing day-to-day life as the “default parent”
My default parent role is largely due to my flexible schedule as I am self-employed and often work from home. However, this flexibility has also meant that extended maternity leaves for me have transitioned into work days dominated and shaped by the needs of our children and other caretaking tasks. Whether there is a daycare closure, a doctor’s appointment, or a sick day, my schedule absorbs the need.
The invisible labor of a default parent is mine to manage too: when the seasons change and the family’s wardrobes need to be rotated, I manage the shopping, storing, donating, and rearranging of clothing. I research and compare notes with girlfriends about the best way to potty train, sleep train, and transition to “big kid rooms”. Nearly all phone calls from doctors, family members, and daycare staff route to my phone, and I know all of our daughter’s favorite bedtime stories by heart.
Week after week, I set meal plans, rearrange pantry items, shop for food, cook the meals, and ensure that there is something for everyone at the table (picky eaters and allergic children included). Family vacations, children’s birthdays and holidays like Halloween and Christmas all fall under my purview—from planning and coordinating with family members, to shopping for gifts, outfits, and food, and sending the follow-up thank you notes. And this is just a snapshot, a drop in the bucket of the neverending to-do list that dominates my waking hours (and often my dreams as well!).
Choosing equilibrium over “balance”
In this season of life, the “balance” of our roles often evaporates. At the end of the day though, I often like to think that rather than trying to achieve balance in our family life, we’re working towards equilibrium.
While my partner works long hours out of the home (and then late into the night at home on his laptop), the mix of work-life and family-life tasks on my end often feels equally fulfilling. There are still times, though, when we both feel that things have shifted too far in one direction or another. That’s why, as we’ve worked our way through the many ages and stages of parenting our children, we’ve begun to search for ways we can both contribute more equitably in the many ways we want to.
Adjusting roles as our children’s needs change
My husband and I often talk about our shifting roles through each stage of childhood as each of our little ones has swiftly grown from newborn to baby and toddler. Though I often wear the “default parent” hat in our household, there have been times when our roles have switched—most notably when I was pregnant with our son.
During that season, my husband took over numerous childcare tasks so that I could rest and have time for myself, and I quickly missed our daily rituals of bath time and daycare pickup. After I gave birth to our son and was able to pick up her small body again, I was shocked by how much she had grown in just a few short months, and grieved the time together we had lost as my priorities inevitably shifted and my ability to devote all of my time to her had changed.
And so I have to confess—in large part, I love being the default parent. I revel in being intimately involved in the steady rhythms of my children’s lives. At the same time, being the default parent is often hard, exhausting, and, even in an ‘equal’ partnership, incredibly lonely.
It’s easy to feel defeated and alone on the difficult days—when our baby is teething and wants to comfort nurse for hours on end, and the laundry hasn’t been folded (or washed) in a week, our toddler is in a full-blown tantrum because the water in her bathtub is too wet, and a work deadline is rapidly approaching.
Strategies to work toward more balanced parenting
Thankfully, my husband and I make a point to frequently check in with each other. We run through the gauntlet of household tasks, review our bandwidths, and plan for how we can move forward together.
This summer, as my maternity leave came to an end and our second child began attending daycare, we began examining how our roles had once again shifted. We began identifying strategies we could use to continue moving toward that ever-elusive equilibrium.
1. Speak up when we need help
The first thing we’ve committed to over the past few years is to speak up when we need help. Whether one of us has a work trip coming up, a family event that is important to us, or needs a little more support in a daily task, we make sure that we clearly name our needs rather than assuming our partner has become clairvoyant.
For example, my daily schedule has become quite complicated because throughout the summer I’ve needed to travel for long weekend work trips, while also continuing to balance our son’s healthcare needs and specialist appointments during the week. As I saw work trips approaching, I would share with my husband what would specifically make my life easier as I prepared to leave town, especially when it came to things he could take off my plate (i.e. Can he make sure the car is serviced and ready to go the night before? Can he take on bedtime routines and school drop-offs? Can he finish the laundry so I can focus on packing?).
2. See something, say something
When we’re in the thick of it, it can be easy to get caught up in the daily minutia without taking the time to fully care for ourselves as parents. Whenever we notice that one of us isn’t sleeping/taking time for exercise/realistically prioritizing household tasks that can wait (and so on), we make sure to gently remind them that we need and are worthy of care, just like our children.
3. Shift the balance
A lot of default parent labor is added to our plates little by little—being the only parent to breastfeed the baby may lead to being the only parent who knows how to soothe the baby and put them to sleep. This can lead to you being the only parent who knows how to do bedtime, and so on.
As second-time parents, we could easily recognize the signs that one of us was taking on a disproportionate amount of care work, and we could work quickly to address it. For us, this looked like me relinquishing our son’s bedtime routine so my husband could put him to sleep, in exchange for me taking over our daughter’s nighttime care. While I was up nursing through the night, my husband would wake up early with both kiddos and allow me a little extra time to rest before we moved through the morning routine as a family.
Finding this balance can also look like putting the non-default parent’s phone number first on school and doctor forms, tasking the non-default parent with going to children’s birthday parties, or taking time to assess the myriad care tasks the default parent manages, and reassigning them to the other parent for a time. Bonus: they might even realize they like the task, and (added bonus!), the default parent can enjoy some much-needed time for self-care.
4. Realize that some balls may need to drop
Every so often, my husband and I will touch base with each other about how our priorities are shifting. When we were navigating pregnancy and newborn stages, my focus was invariably on home life with our children, and I was able to take a step back from my freelance work and photography to accommodate that shift. As he moves through the academic calendar, we’ll go through periods where his schedule is alternatively more or less flexible, allowing for more or less family time.
As we juggle responsibilities and shift schedules to meet our ever-changing obligations, we each make sure we’re clear about what is important for us during each season–whether it’s to meet a deadline for work, help one of our children through a transition, focus on reaching out to family or dedicating a little more time to our own relationship as a couple.
Nora Roberts put it perfectly when she said, “The key to balance and juggling is knowing which balls are glass and which are plastic.” As our family life shifts and changes, we’re able to keep our eyes on the proverbial prize and ensure that we know what we’re working towards together and as individuals. That way, if a ball gets dropped, it’s never a disaster, and we’re less likely to mind when it inevitably does.