The truth about being the ‘default’ parent – the last parenting taboo | #parenting

You may be at peace with your childhood, unbothered about third-party opinions, and expect your husband to be present and engaged in the minutiae of his kids’ lives – yet you’re still the default parent, as one acquaintance noted, ‘because you spend more time with them and do more for them’. 

And if that works, that’s great. No one needs to defend wanting to nurture their own children. For many of us, being the default parent works just fine.

But even women who are the main earners can find they’ve been assigned the role of default parent. And while some women are happy with that, others aren’t. Occasionally a supposedly modern man will emerge as hostage to his gendered conditioning – and have a tantrum because he thinks he’s doing the ‘lady’s’ job.

A friend who worked full-time would return home when her children were small, and her husband would declare, ‘I’m off to the pub!’ No washing or tidying was done, or dinner cooked. 

‘I’d do a day’s work and come home to a day’s work.’ Over time, happily, ‘We came to a much better understanding that these were “our” children, not “my” children, even though it took some tremendous rows.’

If you’re not happy, the first step is to articulate your expectations. Do you want your partner to take on more of the emotional or the practical load? 

Some mothers buckle under the emotional labour of having to remember everything – Stripy Tights Day, birthday parties. Others feel that’s their area, but unloading the dishwasher, ordering the groceries and putting the car in for an MOT is too much. Yet Dr Kilbey points out that few couples have practical conversations about how all the jobs are divided up.

Be honest, not defensive. ‘A lot of people tread the well-rehearsed arguments that they know don’t have a solution, rather than dealing with proper change,’ she says. It’s pointless complaining that he never comes home from work early when you know he can’t. Better to say, ‘I feel our relationship is unequal, can we talk about addressing that?’

If gatekeeping is an issue, it’s helpful to reflect on why you struggle to relinquish control. Is it that you don’t trust him – if so, a tactful conversation is due – or are you unduly anxious? 

Often the worry is ‘will he remember to feed them, put on their pyjamas, does he know where the Calpol is?’ says Dr Kilbey. But more anxiety-provoking is the question, ‘Will he nurture them, take care of their feelings?’ And some women secretly fear that if he’s marvellously competent, they’ll feel redundant.

Tough as it might be to accept, your child’s relationship with their other parent is independent of you, says Dr Kilbey. ‘You want that child to have a good relationship with the other parent because it’s in their best interest.’

This swiftly became apparent for us – partly through necessity. When our kids were six, four and two, my husband was the one who took them on day trips to castles and seasides, while I worked – feeling envious, a little insecure, but happy for them. 

Currently, he’s office-based, and I’m the parent at close range – ordering hair gel, chatting about girlfriends, making them tidy up.

Now I see there’s fluidity, and enough love that one doesn’t have to hoard it. You work out which parent is good at what, and by the time your darlings reach college age, your dual parenting isn’t flawless but it’s better choreographed. And your relationship with your children is all the feedback you need.

Eight ways change your ‘default’ settings

By Dr Elizabeth Kilbey

  1. Objectively reflect on ‘what does being a mother mean to me?’
  2. Ask yourself, what are my assumptions, what am I trying to achieve, am I trying to be perfect?
  3. Make time to discuss your parenting blueprint – and your partner’s – do they fit?
  4. Have an awareness of your part in this – if they offer to do something, do you take over, or criticise?
  5. If you’re overwhelmed, be clear about what’s not working and what the problem actually is.
  6. Be clear about what you need from your partner, what you want them to do more of.
  7. Unrealistic demands, such as ‘always be home by six’, create stress. Is there a compromise?
  8. Discuss what’s rigid and where there’s space for change. Be pragmatic.

Are you the ‘default’ parent? Let us know in the comments section 

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