Why I Wish I Hadn't Complained About Being The Default Parent

by Marjorie Brimley
Originally Published: 
Three kids sitting on and around the table helping their mom, who is the default parent, make food.
Stefanie Harrington Photography

I’m so over reading articles about the “default parent.”

I get it – if you’re a mom, you probably feel the burden of keeping the family afloat. You have to schedule the doctor’s appointments and make sure to plan for the birthday parties. You are always the one that adds “milk” to the grocery list, and you are the one who plans the meals. You put the kids to bed and then still feel like there are a thousand other things you need to accomplish before you actually hit the sack. Many of the daily, thankless tasks fall to you because you are the default parent.

I understand how you feel because I was once like you. I once shared that viral article about the “default parent” with my friends. We discussed it at length, and I remember telling them that I was definitely the default parent, and that it made my life “impossible” at times.

For many years, I was in charge of a lot of the tasks that are part of running a household with kids – meal planning and camp sign-up and getting the right sized diapers. I also worked outside the house, but since my job was more flexible than my husband’s, I took on the role of the parent who usually stayed home with a sick kid. But my life wasn’t “impossible.”

My life was messy, and imperfect, but it was great. I just wished I had stopped more often to think about that, rather than spending so much time focusing on who last vacuumed the living room. Because now I’m not the default parent any more. I’m the only parent. My husband is gone – robbed from us after a short battle with cancer – and I’ve been left alone with three young kids. Those “default” things I used to do seem like nothing compared to the enormous task of raising kids on my own.

Being the default parent in an otherwise happy marriage means that you have the luxury to complain about who takes the kids school shopping or remembers to get their hair cut before picture day. It means that you know that your partner carries some of the weight, even if it’s unequal. It means that you know you won’t have to make every decision alone, even if you make some of the decisions alone.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t strive for more equality in our relationships. I’m not saying that it’s fair that in heterosexual relationships women usually take on larger roles at home. What I’m saying is that while the work of the “default parent” is annoying, it’s not even close to the same amount of work that you have to pull when you are truly a single parent.

What’s so difficult about being a single parent isn’t the stuff that I complained about when I was the default parent. It’s actually not that hard to make sure that all of the school paperwork is completed and that the kids do their homework. It’s frustrating and time consuming, to be sure, but it’s not actually hard.

What’s hard about being a single parent is getting to the end of the day and having nothing left, but knowing that there’s no one else to read stories before bedtime. What’s hard is going to every single first grade baseball game because there’s not going to be another parent there for your kid. What’s hard is always being the one to carry your youngest child, because he won’t go to anyone besides a parent – and there’s only one of you.

It’s knowing that there’s no break. Ever. It’s knowing that when that phone call comes in from the school nurse you are definitely going to have to leave your job to deal with your puking kid. It’s knowing that when a child splits his head open on the coffee table, you (and only you) will be spending the night in the ER. It’s knowing that when a child wakes you up in the middle of the night, you are the only person who will be able to calm her.

I know it’s hard to be the default parent. Reflecting on the roles we play as parents is a good idea. But trust me, even if it’s hard, you’ve got it good if you’re the default parent. By definition, a default parent has a back up.

I wish I could transport myself back to a year ago, for many reasons. If I could only go for a minute, I’d choose to go back to when my partner would come home from work, scoop up all three kids in his arms and carry them upstairs to play before dinner. Sure, at that moment I had planned and cooked the meal we were having and had cleaned up more than a few disasters. But he was there, fully and completely, making all of our lives so much better.

This article was originally published on