I'm My Kids' Default Parent But I've Made My Husband Intervene More Often

My two kids have always come to me for everything. But when they started calling me at work with their problems rather than turning to their dad who was home, I knew something had to change.

living room scene in which two kids go to Mom instead of dad
Photo: Illustration by Emma Darvick

"I'm sorry, can you please repeat that?" I asked and looked up at my colleague. My 9-year-old was calling me and I kept glancing down at my phone. I declined the call and began to worry. What if something terrible happened? I half-rationalized, if there was an emergency at home, my nanny would call. I tried to regain focus on the meeting.

But then, the phone buzzed with a text message from him asking me to call him. After a few back and forth messages, reassurance he wasn’t in immediate danger, I told him I’d call him a little later. One of my colleagues asked me, "What do you think?" I looked up at the screen again. Although my coworkers would understand the reason for my distraction, I didn't want to explain. Relieved my son was OK, I returned to thinking about pricing strategy.

When I finally called my son back on FaceTime, he described how a fight started on the playground. Our nanny restricted him, and he called me to protest. As I probed for details, I paused and noticed my husband's feet onscreen. This whole situation unfolded, while I was at the office and my husband was working from home. It never occurred to my son to ask his dad for help, even though he was right there. Sadly, I wasn’t surprised—this is far from the first time my children went to lengths to reach me over their father because i have always been my child’s default parent, no matter what.

Struggles of Being The Default Parent

When my kids were babies, then wobbly toddlers, I was the source of everything from kisses to milk. It was an exhausting and magical time warp of bonding. I didn't realize I would remain the center of the universe for my kids in the years to come. Am I honored? Yes. But, in a two-parent household, there is no glory in being the one who is always accountable and interruptible. Default parenting drains energy, patience, and presence.

On another occasion, my son couldn't get his shin guards on for soccer. He asked me for help, and I became irrationally upset. Just a few months ago he handled shin guards on his own. I thought the torch had been passed. While trying to corral my 4-year-old I said, much too sharply, "You've just turned 9, do you think your teammates need help with their shin guards?" He looked sad and said, "Please don't compare me to other people Mom." He was right. I felt terrible.

After all that shaming and rushing, we arrived at the wrong field, at the wrong time and missed the game. Skimming and overlooking important emails, like soccer updates, becomes another loss in the war against overwhelm. I've always had a lot of capacity but as the default doer, the mental energy spent on family logistics, competes with everything else in my working memory and becomes untenable.

I know I'm not the only mom going through this. Our society runs on archaic social norms. When moms are partnered, if it's with a dad, we tend to still provide most of the childcare, household work, and planning. Research also reveals that these moms do more housework than their single-mom counterparts. Our clever children, see all of this, so we often remain the wipers of noses and arbiters of disputes.

Something Had to Change

Just recently, my youngest rushed into the kitchen for iPad help. She had to step over my husband to reach me. I said, "Why don't you ask Daddy? I'm cooking and Daddy works with computers." The kids know my husband is a software engineer, yet his professional expertise hasn't changed their view that I'm the fountain of all answers.

But enough was enough and I finally started asking him for help. (Why didn't I think of that sooner?!) I told him to start paying more attention when the kids are struggling with something and to step in when necessary. It’s not in my husband’s nature to be attentive in this way and the kids aren't conditioned to seek his guidance. But he’s been willing to be more involved and things have been improving. When I call them in for dinner and they choose to ignore me, he backs me up and says, “Are you listening to your Mommy?” If there is clearly a sibling fuss happening in another room, he’s now likely to get up and investigate versus waiting for me to do so.

I'm determined to share the responsibility with my husband. I believe dividing the work including bedtime routine and dishes, not just the joy, will strengthen our family. The conversations are sometimes hard, and many couples abandon them, but marriage is long. And yet, it's worth the effort. My husband and I are committed to pushing past the discomfort to find better ways to support each other.

My kids still come to me for help first, but my husband has been jumping in and taking charge much more often. Maybe one day I’ll retire as the default parent, but until then, I will advocate for things to be more equal between us.

Leslie Forde is a full-time marketer for an education company. She also researches stress and self-care for mothers. Visit her blog at MomsHierarchyofNeeds.com and follow her adventures on Twitter @LeslieForde.

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