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{In Reflection} Recognizing the Default Parent and Rebalancing the Family

by Tara Lindis-Corbell

photo: lauren rosenbaum

This generation's fathers are more active in the lives of their families than in preceding generations. They are more affectionate with their children, participate more in the activities that populate children's lives, read more about parenting and are more conscious about the choices and issues facing parents than ever before. I know this is true. When I talk to women of my mother's generation or my grandmother about their lives in early parenthood, I am reminded of a time when only mothers got up in the middle of the night to comfort a child having a bad dream, that men were not allowed in the delivery room, nor did they change diapers. I am then told I have no idea how good I have it.

Indeed. My husband gets up in the middle of the night when my son wakes up. He was present and active at both births of my children and attended pregnancy midwife appointments with regularity. He changes diapers and even helps with the toilet training. He takes his children out on outings, on bike rides, to the park or museum, or spends an entire weekend out on the front sidewalk turning a refrigerator box into a subway car with the neighborhood children.

Yet nonetheless, my husband and I have been having an ongoing argument. To sum up, we've been discussing gender roles and how we both feel we have found ourselves -- much to our own shock and surprise – trapped in traditional gender role definitions. The realization came one day when my husband reminded me of how much I love being a mom. I shot back, “I do LOVE being a mom. I HATE being the default parent.”

photo: deidre caswellNeedless to say, this is an argument that – like the layers of an onion – keeps unfolding and unfolding, and this has become an argument that no one has won. However, it has evolved into a discussion and yielded a constructive conversation. We note with curiosity that the US Census Bureau, in its most recent report, still, too, assumes the mother to be the “designated parent” while a father who watches the children when the mother works is “a childcare arrangement.” We comment and rant how it's not just paid maternity leaves that are insufficient, but paid paternity leaves as well. Rather than complain about how I'm the one researching summer swimming lessons and babysitting options, we both talk about how the current corporate culture of expecting employees to work 80 hours a week and penalizing them if they don't certainly doesn't make it easy for anyone to be a good parent or spouse. We point out that we both do more around the house and with the family than we give each other credit for, and this is a sad truth of many of the marriages we know. We ponder, surely there's a way to provide for our family while still getting what we need for ourselves and being available for our children and spouse?

I caught myself off guard when I declared I was tired of being the default parent, but suddenly, clarity about the stem of my frustration started to emerge. I started to vocalize some of my irritation, about why I felt taken advantage of, even when my husband thanks me often for being a great wife and mom. I found myself able to point to the gray areas of our life about where we allowed some implied ideas about parenting and gender to dictate how we did things, and mostly, just out of habit or without thinking. I started listing those grey areas and began to understand why I felt worn down, when my husband didn't. I noticed it in the details, that when I pack for a trip, I pack the clothes for everyone (except my husband - though I'm guilty of setting aside his clean clothes out of the laundry) and the toiletry items and I do it while being responsible for both children, whereas my husband just packs his suitcase. All by himself. No children unfolding his clothes as he puts them into the suitcase or anything.

How else was I the default parent?

Traditional places like while my husband attended pregnancy midwife appointments without fail, he had met the pediatrician only once (when my daughter was three days old) and the dentist never. My husband could call on the way home from work and say he was going to stop for a drink with friends, while if I wanted to do something sans children, it had to go on the calendar weeks in advance. If my husband said he was going to work on dinner or do some other chore around the house, I automatically took the children. If I was going to work on dinner or some other chore around the house, I automatically took the children.

Admittedly, this is an age-old argument. We have stopped arguing mid-sentence to lament that the whole thing feels like a complete cliché. As a breastfeeding mother of children who don't take bottles, I'm not able to leave for more than a day at a time, though my husband can travel for a week. To be fair and honest in disclosing our lifestyle, while I used to teach university English Composition and Literature, I no longer work outside the home. Any writing I do happens during “off hours” (aka when the children are sleeping). My husband works hard, and, as an engineer, can support a family of four, something that would be much harder for me to do on a writing and teaching income. My husband also wants a break and time for himself – where he's not working or having to be responsible for children. This is fair, and I agree necessary for overall happiness, but how to fit it into the schedule? When the workday is already long and I too want a break?

When I tell my friends that we've been having this argument-turned-discussion, they gather around, curious, fascinated, then describing similar default parenting tendencies in their own households: their husbands just jump in the shower, while they have to announce they would like a shower and make sure someone is watching the children and stove before finally departing for the bathroom, or on a father's mid-week day off, he assumes he won't be responsible for children, yet a mid-week day off for us means we find someone to watch the children or we hang out with our kids. Or that our husbands view their work as work, but when we go back to work after having children, our husbands view our work as a hobby – even when the income it provides contributes to the support of the household.

My husband and I have realized that it's not that our marriage or home isn't working, but that we're in the family dynamic change (aka growing pains) that occurs after the birth of a second child. We've realized we're not the only ones with these complaints, that many people share the same concerns. What started as an argument – likely when one or both of us were overtired, frustrated, under-showered, hungry, or worn down after a three-year-old's meltdown – has become an inquiry: like how is it my husband just commits himself to something and assumes we'll just work out the schedule while I check it and arrange for all the details first before saying I'll do anything sans children? Are these differences just specific to us or are they implications of gender differences? Do they reflect socialized ideas about expectations of each gender?

photo: robyn s. russell

I don't know. But I'm finding that now that we've recognized we're both tired and frustrated, we're able to talk more about what we want and what we need for ourselves and our family. We've realized that the current attitudes and expectations around work and family make it difficult for everyone to feel like they are getting their needs met. I've realized that while it's easier to point the finger at my husband for “taking advantage” of me, I assume that I'm supposed to be with the kids just as much as he does. And in fairness, while I may complain about being the Default Parent, he is the Default Breadwinner, and the expectations of that role can feel just as confining and exhausting. My husband and I are getting better at asking for what we want and need as well as negotiating the schedule, so we both feel like we win and get what we want; he goes to a concert one weeknight, while later in the week, I go sit and have a glass of wine with my sister.

Most of all, we are learning that our argument about the roles we've found ourselves in can become a conversation about how to create the roles we want. We've started exploring a variety of options for our working lives as well as our family life; maybe my husband increases his free-lance fee for when the work goes past 6pm and ends up taking away from family time, maybe we take on making some meals ahead or meal planning to simplify our evenings, or maybe my son can hang with the neighbor kids for a few hours during my daughter's nap time so I can catch up on the things I didn't get to when the kids were sleeping. The family/work dynamic can look a lot of different ways; we just forgot we have a say in how it works for us.  

Tara Lindis is a former English Professor, and now a mom and writer. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children. Visit her at her blog, Occassional Observations.


Reader Comments (2)

via marriage geek-
this balancing act is not unique to you certainly. I think it is especially difficult when one parent is staying at home with the kids, rather than both working. But of course there is some gender bias issues as well. I often to resent being the default parent, but I'll have to start seeing my husband as potentially resentful and default breadwinner. Thanks.
Sep 4, 2012 at 12:23 PM | Unregistered CommenterBridget
As the mom and default breadwinner in our family, I can see the several of the things you mentioned, but some of them reversed, in our family. In a way, my husband is the weekday default parent, and I am the weekend default parent. I guess that gets us a little more balanced, but there is still room for resentment all around if things go unchecked. The website Equally Shared Parenting has a nice set of tools that can help you and your partner objectively evaluate who is doing how much of what in the areas of Breadwinning, Childraising, Housework, and Self Care.
Sep 7, 2012 at 9:19 AM | Unregistered CommenterJennifer R.

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