The Default Parent™
Are you the default parent? If you have to think about it, you’re not. You’d know. Trust me. The default parent is the one responsible for the emotional, physical and logistical needs of the children. Spoiler Alert: It’s typically the one with the uterus.
The first time I knew I was the default parent was when our first child was napping and Dan and I were painting the guest room. When she cried, he didn’t, even for a second, pause what he was doing and consider getting her. At this point, we both worked in the corporate world and we were engaged in the same home project. It was a level playing field, well, if you didn’t count the fact I carried and fed her for nine months in my body, which would make me slightly ahead in the not being the one to default to her arena. I thought, well this is bullshit.
What is the Default Parent?
Fourteen years later, I’m still the default parent. Now I work part-time from home with my own consulting business, so it makes a little more sense, but it’s still kinda bullshit. Mum, mum, mum, mommy, mom, mom, mama, mommy, mom. All. Day. Long. I handle the needs of all three of our kids from: activity sign-ups, transportation logistics, doctor & dentist appointments, friend and boy issues, hurt feelings, school fundraisers, gift buying, haircuts, clothes shopping, and thank you note writing, which, incidentally, is the work of the devil. I also manage the organization of drawers between seasons to see what fits. This is a crap job that only the default parent even knows exists.
Default parents know the names of their kids’ teachers, all of them. They fill out endless forms, including the 20 page legal document necessary to play a sport at school, requiring a blood oath to not sue them when your kids gets a concussion, because they are going to get a concussion. They listen to long, boring, intricate stories about gym games that make no sense. They spell words, constantly. They know how much wrapping paper there is in the house. The default parent doesn’t have her own calendar but one with everyone’s events on it that makes her head hurt when she looks at it. They know a notary. They buy poster board in 10 packs. They’ve worked tirelessly to form a bond with the school receptionists. They know their kids’ sizes, including shoes, goddammit.
Shout out to the Back-up Parent
And by the way, this blog is in no way a competition between husband and wife for who has it worse. My husband is the default earner, the default lawn mower and the default spider killer, which all come with equal stress and dissatisfaction that he is welcome to blog about. He’s also incredibly helpful and an awesome husband and parent. But, in my defense, the lawn and spiders don’t say “mommy” a hundred times a day, and his boss doesn’t come on vacation with him. Just sayin’. And he’d be the first to admit that I got the short end of the stick. His face hurts when I rattle off only the few things I manage. So, he helps a lot. But, in terms of logistics and administrative duties, he’s the back-up parent.
There is a bit of difference between the default parent and the back-up parent. Lily has jazz on Monday nights. I know she will get there and get home, despite Gracie having tennis at the exact same time. The logistics are on me. No problem. I got this. Sometimes, I get a call from Dan eager to help. These calls typically start out with, “What time does Lily get out of jazz?” I already want to punch him in the face. It’s the same time EVERY week! And while he’s chatting with me lackadaisically about how he can “help,” I’m simultaneously showing a crying George how to borrow in math, a concept a 2nd grader can’t understand at all, making dinner (okay, fine, boiling pasta), and trying to return one last work email. So, yes, on occasion, it works out that Dan’s work schedule, and running schedule, make it so he is literally driving right past Lily’s dance studio at the exact moment in time she needs to be picked up. Helpful? Yes. Default parent? No. Default parents don’t operate on happenstance.
Being the default parent, at least in my case, is not about the husband being an asshole, it’s that kids don’t contemplate proximity or sensibility in looking for help. They look for the default parent. Me. I’ve been in the shower and put my daughter’s necklace on. She walked right through my room, past her dad and went to me. True story. Even my husband was like, “Hello. I’m right here.” I’ve taken exactly five showers in my house without being bothered by a child and their immediate need. I’ve blown up balloons in the shower, unknotted shoes, put on band-aids, signed report cards, and braided hair. I know…lock the door. I’m a dumbass. But they’d tunnel in. I’m sure of it.
Forget the information super highway, default parents are the real deal in data storage and retrieval. Unknowingly, we walk around our houses taking mental pictures of where everything is. We see a headband on the bathroom floor and our subconscious knows that information will come in handy to avoid a complete tweenage melt down. I was once in California for work and got a call asking me where George’s sneakers were. And here’s the worst part…I knew. The stuff that the default parent is storing in their brain is in direct correlation to the amount of wine she is drinking. Too much.
What’s troubling is there seems to be no meaningful escape for the default parent. They don’t get a break unless they physically remove themselves completely from their families…and throw their phones in a lake. Even when they do get a weekend away, they leave a detailed spreadsheet of daily activities organized by event time with notes. They arrange carpools, playdates and leave a wrapped present for the birthday party. The non-default parent? They just leave. Incredibly, they just kiss us goodbye, and leave. Mother f——. Okay, deep breath. Serenity now. The only dream left for the default parent is to contract a highly contagious, non-life threatening virus. But, even then, we know the children will find us in our quarantine tent to ask us to open a jar.
Survival of the Species
Look, parenting is tough all around and both parents are contributing in meaningful ways. I get it. Good to keep in mind that I’m not an expert on parenting. I’m sitting in my kitchen, wearing fuzzy socks, writing about the mythical idea in my head called, the default parent because it took me a long time to figure out why I was so damned worn out. I honestly think the default parent is a good idea and probably necessary for the survival of the species. Otherwise, kids would be left places, doing blow, and the whole operation would fall apart. But it doesn’t change the fact that the scope and volume of managing this many lives and details comes with a surprisingly huge emotional and mental exhaustion that is unique to the default parent. It deserves to be understood…and named! Otherwise, we are going to be the ones that start doing blow.
No surprise, this fabulous little gem of a piece was written by a woman, and I’m guessing a mother. Thanks, Alex Borstein. It’s a winner…every time.
NOTES: Yes, Defaulters can be men! If you are upset that I’ve undervalued your role as a parent, please remember we are not in a relationship. My husband is thrilled he never has to think about wrapping paper.
You don’t realize how good you have it, even as the default parent, as long as you have a backup patent. As the only parent, you would have been painting that room by yourself, tending to your daughter and doing everything else around the house. Every. Single. Thing. Mowing lawns. Killing spiders. Everything. I was a “default parent” when it came to many things, but when my husband died, I finally understood how much the “backup parent” really does.
Of course you are right and have a completely valid perspective on this…and I’m so very sorry about your husband. I can’t imagine doing it alone either as a single mother or a widow, or widower…I know a dear sweet man who lost his wife, but did find the humor in his being the true Default Parent without a backup. If it makes you feel any better, I do know how good I have it. I have an incredibly engaged husband who is a wonderful dad and really awesome human being and I really tried to make that clear in the blog. Understandably, for your situation, reading any blog joking about the challenges of parenting will have a very different tone. I get it. That said, I’ll always look for the funny and laugh at life and things and I don’t think that makes me ungrateful at all. All good vibes to you as you super mom it over there. I’m rooting for you!!! And may anyone reading this take a moment to really appreciate the back-up parents in their lives and how fortunate we are to have such issues. xo
I don’t have my own kids yet, but I have helped raised my younger ones. The last one now sixteen still calls me mommy sometimes.
Love this. I read this a month or so ago when it was published through Huffington Post. Recently my husband and I switched roles – I returned to full time work and he is taking some time off, though our 3yo still attends day care more times a week than he did when I worked part time and ran the house!
I googled “default parent” as I was hoping to get some tips as to how one switches the role from one parent to the other, but alas instead found a number of articles referring back to yours! Congratulations on your success and I hope it leads to bigger things as you are well worth reading.
Coming home from a very stressful professional role then having to argue with a 3yo about eating, bathing and going to bed, I’m now being told by the same 3yo that he wants a new mummy as I’m grumpy! I’m not at all ungrateful about my hubby’s contribution – he cleans, keeps up with the washing, cooks, takes care of sticky situations (so glad I was able to pass the baton on all those things!) – I would just like to think there was a way to switch the default parent role so I could spend less time juggling appointments in my head, taking note of the location of all items when I walk into a room to save an issue arising later, check the pantry and fridge for items we are running low on, think about what clothes I need to pack away and what clothes I need to replace in my growing boy’s wardrobe and generally be less grumpy and my little boy will love me again like he used to when I wasn’t working full time. I’m going to email your blog to my hubby and talk with him about it. We have an awesome relationship so he will get it. Thank you so much! xo
My daughter sent this article last night, saying that now she knows what her title is! I told her I totally related with it and felt that I was the”Default Grandparent”! I posted it on facebbook and a friend of mine (a Great-Grandmother) said she could also relate to it. A wonderful article!
Thanks! So happy to see it’s making another round on Facebook and love the multi-generational appeal. Tell your daughter it gets easier as they get older…or different anyway! xo
This was so real and hit the nail on the head. I think I’ve caused a disturbance laughing so loud at my desk. I really appreciated your wit and the honesty in giving people like us a name! While I know we all appreciate and love our families to death… sometimes “default parents” have no escape or relief; because, we are also managing the life of the back-up parent. It’s so nice to not feel alone with thoughts like these 🙂
Please don’t stop writing blogs, this was a pleasant release and I totally relate. Now let me get back to calendars, work emails, and returning phone calls of my own hectic life before something falls apart.
You must be in tune with the universe because your comment was just what I needed today! I love that you just found The Default Parent now, after all the hub-bub and reminded me it’s a pretty cool blog! I’m blogging…so stay tuned and I hope I can nail it again! xox