Family, Kids & Relationships

Are you the default parent? Here’s how to tell, and how to find a better balance

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The “default parent” is the adult caregiver in a family with children who often ends up being responsible for the majority of the tasks related to household management, emotional care, and managing the kids’ lives and schedules. Because of persisting gender norms and expectations, the default parent is frequently the maternal figure in the family. 

Being the default parent can quickly lead to resentment and burnout if there’s no acknowledgment of the situation or attempt to re-balance responsibilities. The default partner might feel resentment because of one or more of the following situations— 

  • The assumption that one partner should be responsible for any given task without discussing it together;
  • Not feeling supported with daily parenting tasks and household responsibilities;
  • Contributions to the family and household not being acknowledged;
  • Parenting expectations being based on gender roles and norms;
  • Lack of compromise around parenting decisions and strategies;
  • Seeing the non-default parent enjoy more free time and flexibility;
  • Not feeling empowered to speak up about the burden of default parenting.

Am I the default parent?

If you’re wondering whether you’re the default parent in your family, try asking yourself these five questions

  1. Do I know whether we’re low on diapers/formula/juice/etc.?
  2. Do I update the kids’ wardrobe when they size up or the seasons change?
  3. Do I assume I’ll be part of handling last-minute child-related issues, like getting up with them at night or making same-day pediatrician appointments when they’re sick?
  4. If I want time for myself, do I first have to make arrangements (meals, child care, etc.) for the kids?
  5. Do the kids come to me first when they need help with something?

If you answered “yes” to most or all of these questions, you’re probably the default parent. It can be helpful to share these questions with your partner to help them understand all of the work that comes along with being the default parent.

How to find a better balance

There are plenty of ways to bring a better balance to your parenting partnership. Working together and having open communication can help neutralize any resentment that’s been building, while also helping the non-default parent feel more capable and empowered to make their own parenting choices.

Here are some tips to follow to restore the balance of parenting responsibilities in your family:

If you’re the non-default parent…

  • Think about the things that seem to happen automatically around your home—soap dispensers always refilled, folded laundry appearing in drawers, diapers always stocked in the right size, etc.
  • Ask which tasks would be helpful to take off the default parent’s plate.
  • Make a concrete plan for taking care of those tasks going forward. 
  • Share the plan with your partner. For example, you can say, “You mentioned that packing lunch for the kids is rough in the morning. I plan to take that off your plate by packing lunches before I leave for work, and adding any lunch items we get low on to the shopping list. Does that work for you?”
  • Initiate regular check-ins with your partner to talk about the changing needs of your family, how they’re feeling about the division of labor, and what they need your help with.
  • Create a shared family calendar and add everything that involves any family member in your household, so everyone is on the same page about scheduling, appointments, and travel plans.

If you’re the default parent…

  • Check in with yourself regularly. Take a few minutes each week to take note of your major stressors and any resentment you might feel building up. Taking stock of your mental and emotional wellbeing frequently can help you address any problems before they get too overwhelming.
  • Be honest with your partner. So many default parents (especially moms) live with constant guilt of not being able to do everything that’s expected of them as parents. This can make it hard to admit when they’re feeling resentful or overwhelmed by their responsibilities. You might start the conversation by acknowledging those feelings to help your partner empathize with you. You can say, “I’ve been feeling overwhelmed lately and I’m anxious to talk about it. Can I be honest with you about how I’m feeling?”
  • Give the non-default parent a chance to build their parenting skills. Sometimes, default parents can reinforce the dynamic by trying to control everything in the household, and may have a hard time letting other family members do things differently than they’ve done it in the past. Choose a few responsibilities you don’t feel too particular about to transfer to your partner, and let them handle it their own way.

Notice there are more tips here for the non-default parent. That’s because the default parent is already probably feeling stretched very thin, so taking the lead as the non-default parent in restoring the balance of responsibilities can be a crucial first step in the process. Taking on more responsibility has the added bonus of helping the non-default parent feel more skilled and confident in their own parenting decisions—a win-win situation.

Mckenna Saady is a staff writer and digital content lead for ParentsTogether. Before working for nonprofits such as the Human Rights Campaign and United Way, Mckenna spent nearly a decade as a child care provider and Pre-K teacher. Originally from Richmond, VA, she now lives in Philadelphia and writes poetry, fiction, and children’s literature in her spare time.