Nancy Colier
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How Did I End Up as the Default Parent?

Whose life gets canceled when the kids need help?



  • When a child needs something, often the assumption is that it will be Mom who stops what she’s doing and attends to them, rather than Dad.
  • Stay-at-home moms feel guilty asking for help or participation from their working husbands.
  • Women are often positioned as the “default parent,” in part because of long-entrenched and traditional gender roles.

Occasionally, the same issue comes up so frequently in therapy that I’m compelled to write about it. In this case, it’s the issue of the default parent. That is, who becomes the go-to parent for the kids, the parent whose life gets canceled when the kids’ needs arise.

Over the nearly 30 years I’ve been a therapist, I’ve worked with countless stay-at-home mothers. When the baby comes home from the hospital, possibly because Mom is nursing (and biologically bonded from the pregnancy), she immediately becomes the default parent. When the baby needs something, the assumption is that it will be Mom who stops what she’s doing and attends to the child. Mom’s got the magic elixir, the breast, which the baby wants and needs.

What’s interesting, however, is that this same assumption, that Mom is the default parent, often gets played out even when the baby is formula-fed and no breast is involved. And furthermore, it’s still in play when the child is in elementary school and has long since been eating hamburgers.

Gina’s story

Gina has a 1-year-old (all names are changed). She was a successful marketing executive but has been working as a stay-at-home mom since giving birth. Her husband, who makes enough money to support the family on his own, leaves for work at 7 a.m. and returns at 7 p.m. During those hours, Gina takes care of her daughter. When the baby is napping, she does laundry, cleans the house, shops, gets dinner ready, and does the umpteen other tasks that go into running the home.

When Gina’s husband comes home from work, the assumption is that he deserves a break. After commuting and working a long day, he should get to relax, stress-free. He shouldn’t have to take care of the child. And so, when the baby fusses, the silent agreement is that, despite the fact that Gina has stopped breastfeeding, she will continue to attend to the baby’s needs. This is her self-chosen job, after all.

As part of their unspoken agreement, Gina’s husband periodically gets drinks with friends or colleagues after work, and returns home a couple hours later than normal. He takes two- or three-day business trips out of town because it’s important for his work. The assumption is, whatever arrangements and extra burden that requires on her end, Gina will just make it work. Discussion on the issue happens rarely, if ever.

When Gina wants to see a friend after her work day, or go on a short trip, her husband appears bothered and put-out. While he says that she should take care of herself, do what she needs to do, when it comes to actually doing it, he resents her not being available and putting herself ahead of the family. He is bothered by having to cover for her while also having to work his demanding job. Couldn’t she arrange to have her mother or a sitter watch the baby, or invite her friends to the house so that she can socialize while also keeping an eye on their daughter?

Zoe’s story

Zoe, another stay-at-home mom, has a 4- and 6-year-old, both of whom are in school until noon and 3 respectively. Zoe had been a busy lawyer before she quit her job to stay home with the kids. She has a husband who runs his own business, and who also supports the family financially.

After six years of staying home with the kids full-time, she started feeling the itch to be around adults again, to feel challenged intellectually, and possibly re-enter the professional world. She adored her kids more than anything and also needed to think about “more than just what to pack the kids for lunch or what laundry detergent made the pajamas softest.”

And so, Zoe courageously decided to enroll in a course at the local university to feed her craving for intellectual stimulation. The class met three mornings per week when both kids were in school, so she figured she could make it all work without “damaging the kids.”

Zoe was thriving on the experience of learning new things again. Meeting other students after class to discuss the material was exciting and revitalizing. But then the pandemic returned with a new variant and new vengeance; every other week, her kids were being sent home from school because someone in the building tested positive.

Zoe’s class was important to her and a big step in the new life (and possible career) she was building. And yet, when the kids’ school sent them home to quarantine, despite the fact that her husband could leave work whenever he wanted to, the unspoken understanding was that Zoe would give up her class and whatever other plans she’d made for the day to take care of the kids. She was the parent whose life could be canceled.

Stay-at-home moms and guilt

Stay-at-home moms feel guilty asking for help or participation from their working husbands because, as they see it, it’s their job. Just as their husbands do their jobs for the family, so too, they should be willing to do theirs.

But what about outside of working hours, when the fussing occurs before 7 a.m. or after 7 p.m. when both parents are ostensibly off-duty? Then whose job is it to take care of the child, when both of their day jobs have clocked out? Is Mom still the default parent after hours? Is a stay-at-home mom a job without an off-duty option? This is where the more shadowed and subtler assumptions about who should be the default parent kick in, and where it all gets fuzzy.

Women often feel guilty asking their working husbands to help or sacrifice work time because their husbands are the ones making the money. (I don’t have enough research on lesbian couples when the stay-at home parent and working parent are both female or non-binary.) While never explicitly stated, the understanding in heterosexual families is that the person whose work earns the primary income is the person whose time must be protected. In a nutshell, whose time matters. Of course, if a family’s financial safety relies on the income from one parent and that safety would be sacrificed by him/her giving up work, then it makes sense during working hours that the non-earning parent cover the child care. Worth noting however, is that women get assigned the role of the default parent where this is not the case and financial safety is not on the table. This is why, every day, I hear a woman asking the question: How did I end up as the default parent?

The effects of traditional gender roles

Women are assumed to be the default parent in part because of long-entrenched and traditional gender roles, where women are the caretakers of the family and stayed home, while men worked outside the home. So much in our society has evolved with regard to these roles however, in the family, work force, and larger society. And yet, our ideas about whose job it is to be the default parent have lagged behind the rest of our progress.

One mom posited that women are the default parent because of an underlying belief that a man’s time matters more than a woman’s. Another mom suggested that it’s because stay-at-home moms don’t technically earn money but only save money from being spent, and are therefore considered less valuable in the family system. And another asked, “Is it because being a mom is considered who we are, and therefore more important than anything else we do?” The conversation is too broad and complicated for this space, but it’s worth asking yourself: Are you the go-to parent, the one on-duty for all things child-related, before, during, and after work hours? And most importantly, did you sign up, and do you want that role?

We need to challenge assumptions

What makes this role of default parent particularly tricky is that it goes on behind the scenes; it’s not acknowledged or discussed. But it needs to be; we need to acknowledge our shadowed (and archaic) assumptions, to be aware of how responsibility is being assigned in our family, and why the agreements are such that they are.

Furthermore, we need to acknowledge that a workday exists for both the parent who works out of the home vs. in the home and, that what goes on outside those hours is to be negotiated. We need to be conscious and intentional about what we’re valuing and prioritizing as individuals and as a family; perhaps our wellbeing, growth, or joy is more important to us than money? Or maybe not.

The point is, if you are wondering how you ended up as the default parent, and if that’s not okay with you (and even if it is), it’s a legitimate question, and one that needs to be brought into the light.

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