Yes, a “default parent” is a thing

Shortly after our son was born, I started to feel little bits of resentment and jealousy well up inside of me toward my husband.

Don’t get me wrong – my husband was an amazing first-time Dad. He would drive across town to the donor milk bank and sit in the parking lot, waiting for it to open as I sat with the baby at home, crying because I physically could not feed my new baby boy enough myself. He would cook dinner every night (a thing he still does) and did all the shopping. Before the birth, he even got his own monogrammed diaper bag, and a “tactical baby carrier.”

So why, in an ideal situation with a supportive partner, did I still feel resentment and jealousy toward a man who was text-book perfect as a father? In one of the many fights he and I had over what was a stressful transition in our lives, I finally figured it out as I yelled: “Yeah, but you don’t have to ASK!!!” – I was the “default parent” and it was making me feel trapped.

All the things my husband could just go out and do in a carefree way the same way he did before the baby was born – shopping, business meetings, washing cars, a quick run to the bank – seemed like things I would never do again without an added logistical feat. I had to either find someone to watch the baby, ASK my husband to watch him, or pack up all the (now seemingly superfluous) baby accouterments with the baby just to accomplish the simplest of tasks.

Even though my husband readily embraced the mentality that it wasn’t “Dad is babysitting,” it was “Dad is parenting” the default still fell to me.

It was a sticking point I couldn’t get past: could I go and do the things I had before? Yes, but I was the one who had to coordinate it. I was the one to ask “Hey, can you take the baby for an hour while I go to the store?” While my loving husband would wake up, jump in his truck, and go do the things that needed to be done – secure in the knowledge that I had the baby.

Because my husband and I hadn’t anticipated or discussed any of this ahead of time, we had no plan for it. We had planned for our financial lives, discussed our parenting styles, talked about our priorities, religion, our values, diets, our health goals, even what kind of education we wanted our child(ren) to have. We had plans and thoughts on everything – except for who would be the primary parent.

My husband and I are partners in so many parts of our marriage. When we were married (and still today) we work comparable hours, and we make similar incomes. Although we discussed the option, we never considered that either he or I wouldn’t continue our work as before. We both love what we do and are equally dedicated to our careers.

I read articles at the time about “mental load” and although they came close to describing what I felt, it wasn’t exactly right. My husband and I are equally bad about so many of the mental load logistical issues in our lives, (sorry to all the people who didn’t get birthday/wedding presents – or even a Christmas card this year). In many ways my husband is my logistical superior.

At the time I talked to several friends about the resentment I felt. At first, it seemed silly and frivolous to feel that way. I had/have the ideal partner with whom to navigate parenthood. Most women would rejoice over a husband as helpful and thoughtful as mine, (and one who COOKS none-the-less). However, particularly those friends of mine who were trying to navigate the transition from “working woman” to “working mom” understood this feeling of becoming the “default parent” without deliberation or conversation.

Did the baby get sick? I had to either juggle to figure it out or ask my husband if he could pinch hit. Don’t get me wrong, he did when he could, but it fell to me to figure it out. I was the ultimate baby backstop. Did our childcare provider cancel 15 minutes prior to her start time? I had to reschedule meetings or find something else last minute.

Eventually, the baby started to feel less like my little bundle of joy, and more like a ball and chain. It was a situation that was bad for the baby, and bad me, and bad for my husband.

There was no way that I could make up his income to stay home, nor could he do the same for mine. Also, neither of us wanted to give up our careers. They’re a big part of our respective identities. We’ve decided that we both want it all, which means we have to work together to get it.

Ultimately, after much consternation and more than a few tears (from me) we came to a solution. My husband is the “default parent” on Mondays and Fridays – and I am the default on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

For us, that means I pack important meetings and work on Mondays and Fridays. I usually go in early and work late those days.

We still ask one another to fill in. If the nanny cancels on Monday my husband now asks me what my day is like – not the other way around. He takes the baby to school on Fridays. If something comes up on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday I ask him if he can help. I have also gotten better at calendar invites and planning things in advance, which has helped our marriage immensely.

For me, it’s a huge pressure valve to know that at least two days a week I can guarantee that I will show up on time to a meeting, and maybe even have some mascara on – like the pre-baby me used to do.

Balancing work, marriage, children, hobbies, pets, faith, and even an occasional shower is hard – but the more you have plans, even if you have to change them later, the less conflict you will have in the middle of it.

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4 thoughts on “Yes, a “default parent” is a thing”

  1. Great read. Eye opening I try to help as much as I can but this all makes sense about the resent she feels when I run off to have fun or go “nerd out” on some video games for a few hours.

  2. YES!!! This is great!! I love your solution and I wonder what that might look like in my life. My husband commutes to Denver everyday…so with a 4 and 6 year old, I’m always the default parent and I feel like I do EVERYTHING.

  3. I love this idea! Not yet a parent or married but it seems like an elegant solution to the mental and logistical loss. My parents used to do a version of default switching: my mom did day care drop off in the morning so she was responsible for getting baby fed and dressed and out the door, and my dad did the pickup, so he’d have to leave at a certain time and made dinner most nights.

    1. That’s great! I think everyone needs to figure out what works for them – I didn’t even know it would be an issue for us because it wasn’t a thing I had ever even heard of before. (Typed Friday morning while the Husband committee is upstairs getting the baby dressed for school) 🙂

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