Being the Default Parent — and Asking for Help

Being the Default Parent -- and Asking for HelpA few months ago, I was really stressed. It was of those times where you’re vibrating from stress and you can’t fall asleep because of your stress, and then if/when you wake up in the middle of the night you pick up right where you left off worrying (perhaps with a few more anxiety loops thrown into the mix for extra middle-of-the-night fun). The why doesn’t terribly matter, but it was a perfect whirlwind of traveling for a work conference (stressful!) right before taxes were due (stressful!), in a really complicated tax year for us (as I realized with a sinking feeling when I sent them off to my accountant on April SEVENTH), with upcoming knee surgery (torn ACL!), and the added stress of getting enough blog content in the bank so that I could actually HAVE the surgery and recover without feeling like I was ducking tomatoes the whole time. And I was the default parent.

My husband, darling that he is, kept saying, “Hey, babe, let me know what I can do.” I did ask him to take care of a few things here and there: You pick the paint color we’ve been going back and forth on! Please take care of X purchase! Look into Y issue! But: I never asked him to be the default parent… And stuff fell through the cracks. (It wasn’t big stuff; J. turned in an empty assignment because no one helped him with it. But it still was enough to make me feel like a truly lousy mother.)

Now: Here at the blog, I feel like we talk about the concept of “the default” parent a lot. I even have the original Huffington Post article on a loop to come up every so often as a Facebook or Twitter post — that’s how good I think the article and concept is. But guess who I’d never discussed the concept with? My husband. So from the airport gate, on the way to my conference, I sent him a slew of text messages basically giving him a heads-up that I was going to send him an article and I needed him to read it, and I wanted us both to be on the same page about this. “To be clear,” I wrote, “I’m not pissed at you! You’re great! Wonderful! There’s just a bunch of hidden assumptions and sexism regarding women always being the default parent, and I need you to read and process this so that if I say something to you like, ‘I need you to be the default parent right now,’ then you totally get what I’m talking about and you can do it.”

Have you realized that you’re the one who’s the default parent? (“If you have to think about it, you’re not,” the original essay says.) If so, have you had a conversation with your spouse about it, or tried to distribute tasks and responsibilities more evenly between the two of you? 

Further reading:



  1. Lorelai Gilmore says:

    Wait, you ended on a cliffhanger! What happened next? What was the response to your texts?

    • Anonymous says:

      +1 Inquiring minds want to know!

      • Kat G. says:

        Ha, sorry – he was great (or at least had totally forgotten about it by the time I was back from the conference three days later). But after that I had knee surgery where I spent 3 weeks on crutches and several days pretty doped up and the world did not stop turning m, and even now it feels like I can rely on him to do a lot of stuff maybe I was doing before that. I’ll have to ask him if he ever read/processed the idea of trading/assuming the role of default parent.

        As others have noted letting go of the control that comes with being the DP is the hardest part – we should talk about in a future post. Sandberg wrote in Lean In you should let your partner put the baby’s diaper on their head if it means he’s doing the work – but if it means you’re cleaning poop off the couch/rug because of that delegation… (Just to run with Sandberg’s example…)

        • Anonymous says:

          If your partner put the diaper on your baby’s head and the baby pooped on the couch/rug as a result, why the heck would you clean it up?

          Part of learning is dealing with consequences!

  2. Wow, those were all good articles. The metafilter one makes me table-flippingly enraged. But also grateful. The section about how women do all the EL which is a huge burden, but we also get strong deep friendships out of it in a way most men don’t. I have really experienced that this summer in an unfortunate family crisis. Women have been with me every step of the way. It has been inspiring. I have also never been angrier at some of the men in my life after seeing how useless they’ve been. Absolutely zero initiative. They just stand there and stare blankly or say “what can I do” but when assigned something, half ass it, do it wrong, or don’t do it at all.

    The thing that I think is the hardest is that my husband does not recognize “emotional labor” as a thing that exists or if it does, thinks it is of minimal importance. We had a huge blowout fight after weeks of this family crisis (which I handled with zero help from him) when I just needed to vent and he was tired of hearing about it (well, so sorry, but try DOING IT. Believe me, I’m sick of that too). And he told me its not like what I was doing was “hard” and it occurred to me that I had never told him about the emotional aspects of what I was doing. And how I had to support other people and talk them down when they were upset, etc. And he was all “well, I just wouldn’t do that.” Like it’s that easy. No. If you don’t do the emotional part, people don’t trust you. If you don’t make the friendly phone call to the hospice nurse. If you don’t thank and thank again the caretaker and calm her down when your idiot uncle is a jerk. He just wouldn’t “do that” because he’s never had to. It was like we were from two different planets.

  3. HRHNYC says:

    I’m the default parent. It’s not by choice, exactly, but when I do relinquish some of the control it makes me feel less connected to my kids. I kind of enjoy some of the default parent stuff, maybe because I work long hours so I’m home less. When I go on a work trip, my husband picks up the day-to-day default parent stuff pretty easily, but he doesn’t do any of the long-term default parent tasks.

    • Anonymous says:

      I feel the same way, pretty much. Billing nearly 250 hours for a few months in a row has made me finally give up and my husband finally assume some of the default parenting. I must say I miss it and it is hard to relinquish the sense control and connectedness that comes from having everything a handle on everything! I am also working hard not to criticize things that he doesn’t do my way — e.g., not buying certain veggies organic when I have told him a million times, letting the kids get through a week without washing their hair, etc.

  4. I’m less than a year into this parenting thing but I think what’s hardest for me is the need to either delegate specific tasks, which in itself becomes work, or letting go completely so that I don’t care what happens. Mr. AIMS is super progressive, doesn’t believe in gender roles, yadda yadda, but in the morning the best we can come up with is he dresses the baby but I have to lay out the clothes, or he feeds the baby but I have to say what she’ll be eating and/or make it. And all this requires some prompting from me, which is also a pain. But if I just say “you deal with it,” she’ll be dressed in something too cold/warm or eating something less healthy than I would make/put out. I realize that part of the problem is I keep doing it so he never gets a chance to figure it out but it’s also harder to let go than I ever anticipated.

    I think inherently there is some measure of judgment that I self impose if my kid looks like a mess or whatever and so I feel invested in having her look cute and clean and seasonally appropriate in a way most dads do not. And I probably feel a certain amount of societal guilt/responsibility to ensure she eats something healthful so that just feeding her yogurt from a pouch feels wrong to me in a way it may not to her father. I think a lot of this hopefully gets easier as the kid gets older because there is less to control and more concrete areas to delegate (vs. just tasks). But I also think some of this is so emotionally loaded – I have friends who just do not want to give up being the default parent and what can you do there?

    • Closet Redux says:

      Yes, the delegation is so much work and often isn’t worth it to me. I hate sounding like a “nag” or a “mother” or (to put it in less gendered terms) a “micromanager,” and the result is often enough not up to my standards that I would rather just do it myself. It’s annoying enough to have to ask someone to move the laundry to the dryer when we all just heard the timer go off (or am I the only one who can hear it?), but the hassle of having things shrink because my husband STILL cant remember to take out the things we air-dry, well…. I’ll just do it.

    • I’ve seriously thought about making a chart for my husband with the temperature and required clothing. Eg above 70 = shorts and tee shirt, 50-70 = long pants, below 50 = coat, below 40 = hat and mittens. Never got around to it though.

      For breakfast, DS eats the same thing every day (baked oatmeal, a batch lasts almost a week). If we run out of that, DH is on his own and I’ve just accepted that dry toast counts as breakfast those days. Fortunately daycare gives them a snack / second breakfast early in the day so I’ve leaned to live with it.

  5. Clementine says:

    Okay, so my husband has extended work travel. The flip side of this is that when he’s home, he doesn’t have to go into an office and handles the vast majority of the house/family stuff.

    I am (obviously) the default parent when he travels, but he takes on the role when he is home. We did have a breakthrough moment though. He was doing something and I was criticizing/correcting (I think I was critiquing the last time baby was changed and that he wasn’t changing frequently enough) what he was doing and he looked at me and said, ‘Do you trust me as a parent? Because right now, your words and actions are saying that you don’t trust me as a parent.’

    That was my turning moment. Yes, I absolutely trust my husband as a parent. Does he sometimes do things differently than I would? Yes. Does he truly not believe that overalls need a shirt underneath? Why, yes. But he is an excellent parent and a different parent than I am and learning to respect that was really wonderful for our relationship and our parenting team.

    • Another R says:

      THIS +1,000,000! And how cool that Mr. Clementine had the insight and presence of mind to say that!

    • Running Numbers says:

      This! I have to remind myself that my husband is just as much of a parent as I am. He is kind enough to not provide me with “corrections” and I extend him the same courtesy. Different is not inherently bad.

  6. Anonymous says:

    You hit a nerve today, Kat! my husband and I had a spat about this, this morning. I am the default parent and I also work full-time. I came to the realization today that we need to have a serious discussion, because my current effort levels are not sustainable. As my kids get older, I am finding that this default parenting gets a little more complicated with more homework assignments and activities. I can’t do it all.

    What I tried to explain to my husband, is that I don’t want to always be asking for help. I want him to help plan and assume some responsibilities. Otherwise, I just feel like a delegator and he does not take true ownership.

  7. Up until very recently, I have been the default parent for our 3-yr old. My husband just began a year-long training program, and he now works ~30-40 hours a week compared to 70+ — and he’s become the default parent. This happened without discussion; he just has tons more time now so it made sense for him to be more involved. Ex: kiddo’s daycare is next to his school, so he does pickup and drop off almost every day; he has taken over scheduling appointments for dr and dentist; he schedules and attends extracurriculars (swimming and soccer, each once per week). It’s very weird for me to give up the control and closeness I have had with kiddo up until now (not to mention I have no idea who her little school friends are, don’t know other parents, etc.), but it’s been such a wonderful change. I realized I was going down the martyr road (I work full time! And I’m basically a single parent! Poor me!), and this is saving me from what I think would have become a lot of resentment. I’m hopeful that once husband goes back to a normal schedule, he’ll remain more involved than he was, especially because he’ll be more confident in his parenting abilities.

    • This. How do I stay out of martyr mode? How do I avoid the resentment? I’m working full time and essentially a single parent, what exactly am I gaining from this partnership??

      I don’t want to be default parent, but similar to AIMS/Closet Redux above, if I try not to micromanage, then I have to settle for less. One of the comments in the MetaFilter article addresses this – getting the homecooked meal at a reasonable time, PLUS the freedom from the emotional labor to get to that meal, is male privilege.

      It’s infuriating and I don’t know how to change it. I don’t want to have to settle for shrunken clothes because I refuse to re-coach him through the laundry every week. (And yet I feel the need to add the disclaimer that of course he’s awesome and wants to be an equal partner, because look! He’s doing the laundry! And he does the grocery shopping! And mows!)

      • Wish I had an answer. When kiddo was only six months old, I posted on this s i t e about having lots of resentment because I felt like I was doing EVERYthing for the baby. And the advice was to think about husband’s contributions, even if those contributions weren’t directly care-related. That was a bit of a light bulb moment for me, because husband actually was doing as much as he could (which frankly wasn’t a ton), even if hardly any of it was hands-on childcare (e.g., ordering diapers and other supplies from Amazon without me prompting him, cooking dinner while I breastfed, etc.). It helped, although the dynamic didn’t change. And I’ve had varying levels of stress and resentment about being default parent since then. To be honest I suspect we will revert right back to me being default parent next year, which is going to be even more challenging because by then we’ll have two kiddos…

      • NewMomAnon says:

        So I know this is a very specific response to your bigger question – but on the laundry, it really helped my ex when we started subdividing laundry more specifically. So there was a hamper for laundry that could be washed in hot water, another for darks, and a third for delicates. I had a number of lingerie bags that I filled with items that needed to air dry, so he didn’t have to remember which items to remove before he threw the load into the dryer.

        For grocery shopping and meal planning – we had a small coupon box of index card with different dinners on them (ex was a picky eater so there weren’t that many options). The cards listed cooking instructions and all the ingredients needed. At the beginning of the week, one of us would pick out cards for the entire week, check whether the ingredients were in the cupboards or fridge, take out our standard grocery list which had breakfast and lunch items carried over from week to week, and add the missing ingredients. Then I would go grocery shopping because I kinda love grocery shopping. Then we split up the dinner cooking responsibilities, and the person who didn’t cook did the clean up.

        • I have two laundry baskets – one is for stuff that requires special care and one that is general. There’s not a lot in the former so easy enough to do myself, the rest can be laundered by anyone.

          • Meg Murry says:

            Along the same lines, H and I each do our own laundry, because we each have things we are picky about (his expensive wool socks, my drying pretty much everything on low or flat, etc), and our kids don’t own anything that can’t handle being washed warm or cool and dried medium (or if they do, I separate it and put it with my special handling laundry).

            After our first year of marriage where we each ruined multiple items of the other’s clothing (he threw my jeans in with his laundry and wound up with purple chapstick on the whole load, ruining his best shirts, we each shrunk something of the other’s etc) we’ve found that the only way our marriage survives is that we each do our own laundry, and split the duties on kids clothes, sheets and towels.

  8. Due in December says:

    This is something DH and I have been talking about / trying to navigate as I’ve hit a breaking point a couple of times since the baby was born in December. I have the same issues everyone is talking about in not being willing to “settle for less” in areas I really care about. So we’re trying to think of discrete areas that can be totally his responsibility to manage / worry about / stay on top of. So far, we have:

    – Car…he is responsible for all things car-related (including making sure it is full of gas at all times, scheduling and going to appointments, etc.)
    – Scheduling and taking the baby to doctor appointments and when the time comes, dentist and other appointments
    – Doing all vet-related stuff

    And I think he is going to be the “volunteer” parent for daycare/school because he has a non-traditional schedule (so some time off during the week) once that becomes an issue.

    I’d love other ideas for discrete areas of responsibility. I do finances, general scheduling, most emotional labor as to remembering birthdays/anniversaries/other family milestones, planning vacations, paying bills, meal planning, grocery list creating…

    • Anonymous says:

      What about baby laundry and putting it away?

      Not sure if you’re still BF but when I BF’d DH was responsible for washing pump parts/making sure I had everything I needed to pump at work. I figured it was a fair divide because I actually had to spend the time pumping.

      • Due in December says:

        We basically divide baby laundry, and I’m now only supplementing with BF. But having DH do laundry (heck, maybe ALL the laundry) is a good idea…especially as we are doing cloth diapers :)

  9. NewMomAnon says:

    Has anyone seen Jonathan Mann’s Youtube video about realizing he was a “Sh*tty Feminist” because of his failure to support his wife after their baby was born? I’ll link to in a response. I’ve had several guy friends watch it and realize that the guy is them.

    I really encourage moms to give up all control over child care once in a while. If your kid is dressed in clothes that are too cold, they’ll tell dad and he’ll have to figure out a solution or risk the kid’s wrath. And he’ll learn for next time. If they eat processed chicken nuggets a few times a month, they’ll be OK. And if hubby shrinks your sweater, it’s OK to let him know that’s not acceptable but you still expect him to continue doing the laundry. He isn’t doing laundry as a favor to you; it’s his responsibility. So he can’t give it back. But he can outsource it.

  10. anne-on says:

    Yup. I lost it on my husband when he said “He was doing better than every other dad he knew”. Yeah, but those dads have SAHM wives, I work full time and travel, if that’s the best you can do why should I work?
    Sigh. It was a pretty big fight but he’s stepped it up since then. It didn’t help his case that I pointed out that when he travels he comes home to a clean house, laundry done, all family appt’s handled, mail/packages sorted and put away/etc. When I travel I come home to a messy home, take out in the fridge, groceries needing to be replenished, piles of laundry waiting for me, and husband exhausted from ‘doing so much!’.

  11. MDMom says:

    Ugh yes this is a constant issue. I am the default parent and it kind of has to be that way right now because my husband’s job has long hours and is not very flexible. He also has a longer commute. I recently got the opportunity to go part time and I jumped on it, but I feel like it’s going to cement the default parent thing. Basically I’m mostly just giving in to it because his career (in medicine) is unlikely to get much more flexible soon, though hours should improve after next year. I am often jealous of women whose partners have more flexible schedules, but I knew what I signed up for in marrying a doctor and having our first child during residency. I do try to make a point of carving out areas/times where he can be completely responsible for stuff.

    Practical tips:
    -when my husband is home on weekend, im not shy about making plans to have lunch with a friend or similar so that husband is alone with baby (16 month old) for at least an hour or two. It is so important to do this regularly and because of his work schedule, the only time it can happen is on weekends.
    – meal kit services (home chef, blue apron) really helped get husband involved with dinner. Now he has no excuse for not cooking- ingredients are labeled and there are step by step directions.
    – I’m very careful with language- husband doesn’t “babysit,” domestic related tasks he does are not “favors” or “helping me,” and I don’t ask if he can stay with baby while I go to lunch I weekend, I just tell him I’m going.
    – as others have said, I try not to criticize or micromanage his parenting decisions.

  12. Meg Murry says:

    My husband is the default day to day parent, to the point where I know he’s getting annoyed and I need to step back in – he works from home so he handles getting ready in the morning, daycare/school dropoff, lunch packing; and lately I’ve been working late so he’s had to handle pickup as well and start dinner. I used to be better about leaving work at a reasonable time to make daycare pickup at least a couple days a week, and I need to get back to that.

    On the other hand, no matter what I do, if I’m home, my kids see me as the default parent to ask for things. Like the story in the original HuffPo article about the kids walking past dad to go ask for mom’s help when she’s in the shower – my kids do this kind of thing. For instance, if both of us are sitting in the living room, they will automatically ask me to get them whatever it is they want, or they’ve walked *right past* my husband who was in the kitchen to come up to the second floor where I was in the bathroom to ask for something to eat or to sign a permission slip or to ask where XYZ is, never mind that their father does most of the cooking anyway. At least we’ve finally managed to make “you have to knock first and wait to be invited in” stick so they aren’t bursting in on me anymore, but I still don’t need a kid knocking or whining outside the bathroom door.

    And I’ve told my story more than once of having to re-train the school not to default to calling all of my contact info before trying my husband – it’s taken some time, but it’s finally sticking.

    We have a few specific chores that are “ours” -he loads the dishwasher, I unload; he does all yard care and snow removal, I buy all children’s clothes; etc. But there is definitely some overlap, which is how we both wound up buying toilet paper on Amazon one day apart and both came home from running errand with cases of La Croix and then had to figure out where to store 96 rolls of TP and 72 cans of La Croix, and in the meantime we had no paper towels, napkins or tissues.

  13. In addition to the annotated, organized version, the original MetaFilter thread on emotional labor is excellent too: Read it if you want to have many instances of “YES! Exactly! That is EXACTLY how I feel!”

    • Oh my god. This is so powerful. I don’t even know what to do with this, other than frantically email it to my 2 best friends (one male, one female). My husband NEEDS to read this but… not sure how it will go over. Wow. Thank you for the link.

  14. Anonymous says:

    So in addition to the default parent issues related to chores/school/long-term planning, I struggle with the fact that I am the preferred parent. At night, the kids want to hang out with me, and so my husband basically lounges around from dinner until bedtime while I am hanging out with the kids. Which I love to do, except when I need to work at night they won’t play with him. Help?

    • Another R says:

      Have him do more nights/bedtimes not fewer! He doesn’t get off the hook, that’s just perpetuating things. Leave the house and do your work at a coffee shop X times per week if need be.

  15. These are all really great articles.
    You know those fake babies they send home with high schoolers? They should let married couples thinking of having a baby borrow those to work out these issues ahead of time.
    I went from being a marriage where I was the default EVERYTHING to a new marriage where we share the load, especially the parenting load.
    This happened because it was something I intentionally looked for in a partner- someone that would truly be a partner and share in the load. This was easy for me to do because my son was already in the picture when I was with my new husband. Those conversations are harder to have/anticipate when you’re with someone before you have a child, and I think that makes it really, really tough.

  16. I am definitely the default parent but a lot of it has to do with my perfectionism issue. I also do it because I want my daughter to always know how much I was there for her with everything. I love how organic this post is. It takes a lot of courage to put your issues out there especially when they relate to your personal relationships. I recently wrote an article about dealing with household chores and marriage (the default cleaner):

    I would love some constructive criticism from a fellow blogger :)

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