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: 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 not to sue when your kids gets concussions, because they are going to get concussions. 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, dammit.
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 second grader can’t understand at all, making dinner (OK, 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 his or her 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 superhighway, 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 meltdown. 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 they are 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 and 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. Motherf***er. OK, 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.
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 who start doing blow.