When I was younger, my grandma, mom, and aunts prepared children’s plates at family dinners while the dads sat in the living room watching football and shooting the bull. The women also set the table, made the food, cut the food, and did the dishes while dealing with the kids’ meltdowns and meeting their needs. Occasionally you’d hear the men holler at us kids for causing a stir, but their interactions didn’t tend to go beyond that. The moms did all of the heavy lifting while the dads relaxed. I can see that these women in my life were what we now refer to as “the default parent.”
It didn’t bother me back then. After all, how could it? It was all I knew, and you don’t know what you don’t know. But now that I’m a mom who has navigated the sexist dynamics of the same family dinners, I’ve grown tired of the men having their fill before the women even have a chance to sit down.
Because it isn’t just family dinners, is it? This narrative is a staple of everyday life for mothers. Someone in the household is the default parent. And if you have a uterus, I’d be willing to bet that you won’t need to fill out an online questionnaire to determine that it’s you. Because just like everything else that goes on in your household, this is something else that you “just know” too.
We are the ones our kids run to when they need a drink, even when we’re doing fifty other things, and our partners are sitting down. It might take us a minute to remember how old we are, but we can tell you what foods our kids will and won’t eat without missing a beat. We know what days our kids have practice or appointments, and we work out the details of getting them there, even when our schedules are already tight.
The default parent understands the ins and outs of each child’s specific wants and needs, we hold the family’s emotional baggage, and we iron out the logistics nobody else wants to sort. We do enough. Some might say (I would say) we do too much.
Because contrary to popular opinion, this isn’t something moms ask for when they decide to start a family; this isn’t an aspect of parenting that should “come with the territory.” And it’s unfair that so many mothers govern every part of their family’s daily living while too many fathers only lend a hand when they feel able. Or worse, only when mom asks.
We shouldn’t have to ask our partners for help when our surroundings scream that we are drowning. If the house is a mess, the kids haven’t had dinner, and mom’s been wearing the same sweater for three days, the responsibility of pointing these things out shouldn’t fall on the default parent.
It feels like we are the only ones with eyes for our kids’ wants and needs. And when our partners ask us to delegate everyday tasks that haven’t changed since our inception of parenthood, it makes us assume even more responsibility that we don’t need. The result leaves moms bone-tired and stressed out, and it makes us not even want to ask for help. Because somebody has to do these things, and we don’t understand why we can see it but our partner can’t.
So we deplete ourselves completely while dads skate through life, through their children’s childhood, without ever knowing the complexities of day-to-day life with them. And yes, I know, “not all fathers,” but clearly, there are enough of them if we have to disclose that information.
I feel strongly enough about this topic to call these flawed family dynamics a generational curse. So many of us grew up like this, causing these narratives to descend on us from generation to generation. Little girls become mothers who are, by nature, the default parent, and young boys turn into fathers who spend far too much time in a state of oblivion, receiving praise for their minimal effort. Kids take note of what they see. And when they grow up, they model this gender-specific behavior that is so toxic.
Unfortunately, the default parent can’t break these generational curses without putting their children on the back burner or, quite literally, leaving their significant other. And beyond that, it shouldn’t be up to us to solve yet another problem anyway.
Moms everywhere need dads to step up. When the kids wake up in the morning (or in the middle of the night), we need dads that get up with them without being asked. We need fathers that dress their kids in the morning without needing a pat on the back. We need dads who have calendars filled with their kids’ appointments and don’t always rely on mom getting them there. And for the love, we need dads who dish out their kids’ plates at family dinners and give mom a chance to sit down before her food is cold.
If I were to describe what we need most perfectly, it would be for dads to be a little more like moms. If not for their partner, then for the kids — because moms can only do so much.