There are few things that cause my stomach to turn over as quickly as an unexpected phone call from my kids’ school in the middle of the afternoon. Like many parents (or parents with anxiety, at least), I see the school name on my phone’s display and find myself holding my breath, anticipating that one of my kids is sick or injured. Sometimes, that’s exactly what’s happening, though there are plenty of other reasons the school has called me: Can I volunteer? Do I have time to help organize a fundraiser? Can I make a new lunch for my son, whose backpack was mysteriously crushed somewhere between our house and his classroom? Can I contact the person who owns the house behind the school because one of my kids accidentally broke their bathroom window during recess? (Yes, that happened.)
I’m always going to be there for my kids, and will always answer these calls and do what needs to be done. But at some point, I began to wonder, why don’t they ever call my husband?
It’s simple: I’m the mom, and therefore the default parent—inside of my home and out.
The division of labour in my house is not terrible. I cook dinner, my husband does the dishes. I do the grocery shopping and make school lunches, and he mows the lawn and takes out the garbage. We share laundry duties and many other domestic tasks. But the planning, organizing and communication associated with running a household and parenting small children—a lot of that is on me. Or at least delegated by me. And changing that feels like an uphill battle because even if my husband were standing there with his arm raised, offering to do his part and take on more of this role, most of society would look right past him and ask me to handle it.
If it involves our kids, I’m the one who gets the call. The subsequent action may get passed to my husband, but it goes through me first. I am the first point of contact, even if both of our names and phone numbers are on the list. I direct our lives like an air traffic controller, wondering if people know that my husband also has a cell phone and access to a calendar.
Moms are expected to do all the unseen things: booking medical appointments, managing extracurricular activities, anything to do with childcare or summer camps, responding to birthday party invitations, buying gifts for those parties, planning your own kids’ celebrations, communicating with teachers, renewing passports and health cards, filling out school forms (why are there so many damn forms?!), making sure there’s soap/toilet paper/diapers/vitamins/sunscreen in the house, and remembering which of the neighbourhood kids has a peanut allergy. The default parent makes sure everyone is where they’re supposed to be and has everything they need, whether that means their favourite lunch box snacks, bristol board for a school project or running shoes that fit.
A default parent doesn’t necessarily have a lazy partner, but they’re the family leader and decision-maker who delegates from the top down. And in heterosexual partnerships, it’s almost always the mom.
Unfortunately, even if we recognize this and work to change things within our relationship, the rest of society is still pretty stuck.
Women’s time is not valued the same way men’s time is, so the expectation is that we’ll spend it tending to others. We are the default parent because mothering is viewed as our key role in life. It is not exceptional when a mom offers her time and energy; it is the norm. To not offer your time and energy would essentially be delinquent because moms are conditioned to sacrifice and show up no matter what. We’ll answer the phone calls, be at all of the places and do all the things, even if we are working full-time jobs outside of the home, caring for aging parents or balancing other responsibilities. My kids’ school once called me because my husband dropped the wrong lunch bag off at the office. His number was right there, and yet, I found myself receiving and passing on this information as if I was his personal secretary.
Society defaults to moms, moms remain the default parent.
It’s 2022, and this is unacceptable. We need to take the onus off of women, particularly when we’re talking about unpaid labour relating to our families. Taking on tasks that have been delegated to you is not the same as sharing responsibility. The mental load needs to be shared, too. It starts at home, but for real change to happen, it also has to happen everywhere else.
We need to normalize dads doing the simple, everyday things that exhaust moms: planning, scheduling, knowing, communicating, anticipating, and putting out little fires as they go about their days. Men need to hone their soft skills, which are grossly undervalued in women and yet, critical to any sort of emotional relationship or advocacy as a parent. They need to join parent councils and volunteer just as much as the women in their lives. We need schools to call dads more often, and dads need to RSVP to a birthday party every once in a while or (gasp!) put their cell phone number down as contact for their own kid’s party. We need dads to take on more mental load instead of relying on directions from their wives because raising kids together means having a partnership, not a burnt-out CEO. We’ve come a long way in my house and I’m proud of that—but unless I turn my cell phone off or erase my number from all of the paperwork, it feels like I’m going to continue to be the default—at least for a little while.