Acting as the Default Parent

Raising children involves minute-by-minute decisions and actions, and it can be difficult to share these responsibilities evenly. However, what do you do when it becomes clear that the roles are divided so unevenly that you are making nearly every decision, completing nearly every chore, and responding to nearly every one of your children’s requests? Psychologists call this “The Default Parent Syndrome” and note that it can lead to severe burnout or exhaustion and even a significant decline in mental health. Acting as the default parent can be so overwhelming and time-consuming that it prevents us from dealing with the root of the issue. We’re so much more powerful as a community of parents, so let’s talk about identifying and addressing “Default Parent Syndrome.”

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How to Identify that you are Acting as the Default Parent

Some signs that you could be acting as the default parent are:

  1. External caregivers (e.g., teachers, daycare administrators, doctors) always call you first, even if your partner’s number is on file.
  2. Your children always seek your permission or input, even when you are busy, and your partner is available.
  3. Your partner confers with you before making any minor decision involving the children (e.g., which items to buy at the grocery store or which clothes to dress the children in).
  4. You are responsible for managing the children’s schedules, including calling doctor’s offices to schedule appointments and keeping track of school or daycare events.
  5. Your partner needs to be asked to “watch the kids” or “babysit”.

Determining if Acting as the Default Parent is Part of the Plan

If your family has intentionally made the decision to have one parent serve as the default, that’s okay! Some families have to have a default parent for a variety of reasons including:

  • one parent having a job that keeps them away from the home for long periods of time
  • custody agreements
  • intentional, cultural definitions of gender roles
  • a parent’s limitations based on their physical or mental health.

If acting as the default parent is a part of your family’s plan, just make sure that you never stop communicating and adjusting the plan as needed. Your roles should be an ever-changing point of discussion that meets the needs of everyone involved. No matter what, it’s important to take care of yourself!

Addressing an Issue with Acting as the Default Parent

For the majority of us, acting as the default parent is not part of the plan. When this happens, it can cause burnout, resentment, and even relationship rifts. But how can we bring this up with our partner without seeming accusatory or angry? Psychology Today cites five major ways to “dismantle” Default Parent Syndrome, and I found these steps extremely helpful:

  1. Acknowledging the Issue
  2. Identify How it Manifests in Your Relationship
  3. Creating a Shared Vision for Your Family
  4. Set Goals
  5. Monitor your Progress

The basic premise is this: you and your partner should have an honest conversation about your roles. Use your journaling or meditation practice to reflect on the aspects of default parenting where more support is necessary. This helps you avoid vague conversations like “I need more help,” and encourages more actionable conversations like, “I’m feeling overwhelmed by managing the children’s schedules.” This can help your partner have a clear path forward for their support.

Finally, make sure it is an ongoing conversation. If you have the conversation, set a vision and goals, but you don’t see enough changes, try again. It can take time to change family dynamics and some partners will need a little more information on how to help. It may feel like a big task up front, but as your role continues to change it will be worth it!

Staying Mindful and Asking for Help

Acting as the default parent can lead to guilt, anxiety, resentment, anger, and more. If you’re feeling overwhelming emotions that impact your mental and emotional health, don’t be afraid to ask for help! Make sure to check in with yourself regularly to identify your own needs. It helps me to ask myself: “Would I worry if I knew my kids were feeling this way?” And if the answer is “yes,” I know I need to ask for help or support.

As you work through redefining your parenting roles, it’s perfectly normal for you and your partner to seek help from a psychologist or family therapist. The old adage, “it takes a village” is still true. The only difference is that it is much harder to build a village these days as we become more and more isolated. Don’t be afraid to make “village building” an intentional priority for your family. Making time to seek out professional help, parenting groups, or even just “parent friends” is not selfish, it’s a great way to make sure that your children have a strong and healthy support network.

As always, remember that you deserve help, support, compassion, and love! It’s important to take care of YOU.

xoxo Fil

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