Your alarm goes off at 6:20 a.m. You snooze until 6:30, but you know that’s all you can allow yourself, so you drag your tired limbs from the warmth of your bed and shuffle to the next room. Then the next. And so on. You wake up all the kids, one by one, gently at first, then with a bit more emphasis because you know time is running short until the bus comes. You also give your partner a nudge and head downstairs to start the coffee pot.
While it’s perking, you let the dog out and assess the day—and the rest of the week. Who has what today after school? Later tonight? Who is bringing cold lunch and buying hot lunch at school? Oh, and you need to pick up that prescription today while you are out grabbing holiday gifts for teachers. And don’t forget dog food because you just noticed you’re running low. Before you’ve even taken a sip of coffee, you’ve roused five people (including yourself) and a pet, assessed the family calendar, and made several mental notes of all the things that need to happen. All of which are on your plate and your plate only. Sound like your morning? Hi! You must be the default parent.
The Default Parent Remembers All of the Things
In all households, especially households with children, someone must remember all the things. This person is the keeper of the family calendar, the one on standby and always bracing for calls from the school nurse and panicked texts from kids who forget their clarinet, science project, or lunch. They know when it’s time for well visits at the pediatrician’s office and immediately sense when it’s time for sick visits. They know when a big math test is coming up. Or when the science project is due. They know when parent-teacher conferences and tournament games, and theater tryouts are. They know the camp drop-off and pick-up times. And they make sure the camp T-shirts, sports uniforms, and theater costumes are clean and ready for each event.
The default parent knows every detail, task, assignment, test, reminder, game, performance, appointment, and outfit requirement that keeps their family wheel turning.
There’s a growing trend to split the job—someone might remember to schedule the flu shots and dentist checks while someone else knows when the kids have band rehearsal and are on hand to help with homework.
But in many homes, this arduous and exhausting job falls on one person’s shoulders. One person carries all the things, knows all the things, and is the one who usually drops off and picks up children from all the things.
Sometimes Default Parenting Just Happens
How does this happen? How does one person become the default parent instead of the other? In my case, it happened naturally since I was a stay-at-home parent, and my husband worked long hours and traveled frequently. I quickly became the one who remembered doctor’s appointments when the kids were little, so it seemed natural for me to be the one to remember orthodontist appointments when they became tweens. I knew the school schedule, and when pick-up and drop-off were, so I became the keeper of the after-school calendar.
And now, nearly 14 years into parenting, I remain the default parent because I’m the one the nurse calls first. I know when my son has theater this week and when he has robotics and when he has confirmation class and when he has plans with friends. I know when my other son has hockey practice and baseball practice and when my daughter has horseback riding lessons, birthday parties, and sleepovers. More than likely, I was the one who made the appointment, organized the play date with another parent, or signed them up for the activity. And there’s a good chance I will be the one driving them to the event and the one picking them up.
Husband Often Offers to Help
My husband offers to help with the pick-ups and drop-offs—a lot. But he’ll often say he can handle hockey practice on a Wednesday and then have a meeting run late at the last minute, so it falls on me. This is no one’s fault. It’s just how our household works, with one of us being the primary income source that pays the mortgage and funds our enormous grocery bill. (And that person is him.)
Furthermore, my husband is a fixer. So, if he sees me stressed and overwhelmed with my default parenting, he asks how he can help. He offers to take over some scheduling of things, some handling of tasks, and some remembering of things.
In response, I often say, “No, I got it.”
Because honestly, delegating some of the 900 billion tasks off my mental list and handing them over to another person? That’s something else I have to do. Another task. It might fall back on me anyway if his work takes priority, so it’s actually less stressful if I carry it all. That way, I know everything gets done on time, and we have our collective you-know-what together as a family.
But holy cannoli. Default parenting gets heavy sometimes.
The default parent doesn’t ever get to rest, do they? Like truly check out mentally. The default parent can’t turn off their phone because the school can call anytime. The default parent can’t “lose track of time” or get caught up in a lunch that ran long or hop in the car and take off for the day. The clock is always ticking in our minds because we are the ones responsible for school pick-up, followed by homework and sports, or rehearsal, or computer club or, or, or. It never ends.
My Brain Never Gets to Shut Off
Yes, the default parent in my home, the one who can never turn her brain off, who is forever stuck in a perpetual cycle of exhaustion because the hamster wheel in her mind keeps turning all night long? That’s me.
I am the one my children and husband know is always there. Although I appreciate the trust my family puts in me and accept the job with honor, that means I panic if I am without my phone even for a minute. What if someone needs me?
I am the keeper of the calendar and knower of all the things, which means I take on the responsibility of ensuring everyone gets where they need to be on time. I guarantee everyone registers for the next season of whatever sport they are doing. And that their uniforms are clean and they have cleats that fit or helmets that fit or whatever else they need that fits, and we all take our medicines, and they all have shoes without holes, and winter coats that zip, and they are all eating enough fruits and vegetables and, ugh, the boys need a haircut . . .
Having a Career is Tough
As the default parent, I can never fully immerse myself into a career because I always have one foot in the stronghold of parenting. I know I’ll have to call into work at the first sign of a fever or stomach flu or if there’s a snow day. I dread summer if I’m also trying the damn-near impossible task of maintaining a real job while making sure my kids get to camp and sports and play dates and the park and the pool and do all the things I so desperately want them to experience during the few short summers they get as children.
But despite the exhaustion, if you ask us default parents if we’d have it any other way, you know what the answer would be. I cannot imagine a world any different. A circumstance where I am not the first person my kids call when they need anything—a life where I don’t know everything on the family calendar. So yes, it might mean I don’t sleep for a couple of decades, but I also know that someday they’ll fly off and might become parents in their own homes. My calendar will look far less cluttered, and my brain will probably finally rest. And I’ll look back with pride, knowing I handled all the things. And my family knew when they needed Mom; she was always there.