Recently this article from the Huffington Post has been popping up on Facebook. It’s self-proclaimed satire but a lot of people seemed to relate to it. After reading it, I realized something that I’ve known to be true for quite sometime. I am not the “Default Parent”. Neither is my husband.
I recently visited some friends who had a baby. The mother turned to me and said at one point ” I didn’t realize how hard having a baby would be on our marriage. I find myself always being the one to care for the baby, when the baby cries, my husband doesn’t even seem to notice.” I’ve heard this from many, many moms and it’s mentioned in this article as kind of the beginning of becoming the Default Parent.
My family has not been immune to this phenomenon, once my husband was determined to be the one to get up with our son in the middle of the night, after I came back into bed with the baby, my husband marveled “I’m so sorry, by the time it registered to me that the baby was crying and I needed to get up you were already half-way across the room”. After pregnancy and breastfeeding, mothers often have a natural connection with baby already that seems to cause them to be the first to respond to baby’s needs. In fact, evidence has shown that this inclination to care for a distressed child is so strong it actually spans across species and female deer will even respond to a human baby cry. So yes, when the baby does cry you’re not wrong, you hear it differently than your spouse.
But beyond this, I feel like in many situations, particularly when both parents work, the Default Parent has a choice. When you’re both equally busy, and the baby wakes up from her nap you can stop what you’re doing, sigh internally thinking “Why does it always have to be me?” or you can turn to your partner and say “Honey, will you go get the baby?”. The would-be Default Parent can say “You have to take the day off work today to take care of Jr., I can’t”. “I think the baby’s diaper is dirty, can you change it?” and the ever common phrase in our house “I don’t know, go ask your dad”.
Maybe you don’t feel like you should have to ask, but if you really don’t want to find yourself as the Default Parent then you need to get beyond that and ask your partner to step in. I’d rather be a nag than a martyr and your partner also shouldn’t be expected to know you need help (or don’t need it, but would like it anyway) if you don’t say anything. We all know that parenting is hard work and we know that marriage is hard work and creating an environment where neither person feels taken advantage of is just part of that.
After 3 kids and nearly 9 years of marriage I can say with complete honesty that my son is just as likely to turn to his dad for homework help as he is to ask me. My husband has taken the kids to doctors appointments, talked to teachers, been to back to school nights, changed just as many diapers as I have, and has run plenty of errands with the kids in tow. He’s treated fevers, dropped kids off, picked kids up, organized playdates, stayed up nights, and wiped away tears, just as I have. Yes, we do it differently, we’re different parents, but neither of us does it better than the other. Over the years, we have each worked under the unspoken understanding that parenting is an equal opportunity obligation (and joy) for both of us.
Partly this has been due to circumstances, I am fortunate to have a partner who is a naturally enthusiastic father and who has a job that allows him to spend lots of time with our children (including being a stay at home dad the entire summer break). But this is also, in large part, a situation of our making. We’ve each encouraged each other to pursue goals outside just caring for our family, spend time out with friends, go on vacations, take breaks and, perhaps most importantly, neither of us have been afraid to turn to each other and say “It’s your turn”.
The parenting gig isn’t always even in our house. There have certainly been times where I’ve found myself in the Default Parent role (what I refer to as Parent on Duty) and there have been plenty of times where my husband has been the default. Inevitably, we will find ourselves in that position again at various stages of our journey as partners and as parents. But when we start feeling overwhelmed (and perhaps a smidgen resentful) we have to ask ourselves “Is this something we just need to power through, or am I not speaking up enough?”.
Often, I’ve found that all we have to do is ask.