Podcast Episode 6: Coping when you're the default parent

by The Mum Tribe Podcast

In this week's episode, I'm chatting about being the default parent and sharing some tips that I've found useful in coping with the mental load that comes with being the default parent.

Join the discussion on Instagram (@mumtribenz) and Facebook.

Episode transcript

Hello everyone and welcome to episode 6 of The Mum Tribe podcast! I’m flying solo today, talking about something that I’ve been thinking about a lot and have spoken to a lot of other mums about. Being the default parent, and how to cope with the immense mental load that comes with being the default parent.

So often it’s not just mums that feel this load though. I’m speaking from my perspective as a white woman in a heterosexual relationship, and I acknowledge that there are so many different dynamics in relationships and people’s lives. So I’m just going to refer to this role as the default parent or the chief household officer.

So anyway, what am I even talking about when I say default parent? Maybe you haven’t heard this term before but it’s something you’ve felt. Maybe you’ve felt the overwhelming pressure and mental load that comes with fulfilling this role but you didn’t know how to describe it to anyone. Well I’m going to make it a bit easier for you and break down the role of default parent into three key areas.

The first is remembering.

The default parent is often the mum, and we’re the chief rememberers. We remember when the baby woke up from their last nap, when their vaccinations are due, how old they are, when their birthdays are, what they like and don’t like to eat, what their friend’s names are, what their friends’ parents names are, what their teacher’s name is, what day they need to take a shared lunch, what day they have playgroup and so on.

And that’s just the stuff relating to the kids! In my household I also remember when my husband’s parents’ birthdays are, when our niece and nephew’s birthdays are, when the dog needs his shots, what plans we have for the weekend, what day we’re flying up to Auckland, what dates my husband needs to take off work for this trip and that trip.

I could go on for hours, but that wouldn’t be a very interesting podcast so I’ll stop there. But being this keeper of the keys is hard mental work. Our brains are stretched to capacity but we still have to stuff more in. On top of remembering all that, I also run two businesses so I have to remember allll the things relating to that as well.

So if you’re in this position and you’re the chief rememberer in your house, I’ve got a simple but game changing tip for you. Use a calendar. It sounds so simple but so many people don’t do this and rely on their memories. I used to rely on my memory but recently decided it’s just a matter or time before I forget something important like when a flight is or something. It doesn’t have to be fancy, it can be a printed calendar or a calendar on your phone. Add all your household events in there. I mean everything. We’ve got a Google calendar and both my husband and I have access to it so we can add things into it. Important dates, appointments, travel, events, all of it is in there and we can both easily access it from our phones. Try it, it’ll change your life I promise.

So the second key area of being the default parent is decision making.

To add to the mental load of remembering all the things, the default parent is usually responsible for most or all of the decisions that need to be made in relation to the child and the family.

If I was to count the number of decisions I make in a typical day I think I’d be pretty shocked. It’s not always big decisions either, it’s often the micro-decisions that can be really draining. What are we having for dinner? What should we do today? What are we getting everyone for Christmas? What should we have for breakfast? When should we take the dog for a walk?

Those mundane seemingly simple decisions can compound and feel like a really big deal. Decision fatigue is totally a thing, it’s absolutely exhausting to have to make decisions all the time. Especially for me, I’m not a person who likes making decisions. I’m totally that person who scrolls through Netflix for ages or can’t decide what takeaways to get. So I personally find I get overwhelmed really easily when a lot of decisions are falling to me.

Recently I’ve really felt this one because we’ve had some really big, weighty decisions to make and those still fell largely into my lap. So on top of all those micro-decisions, I was grappling with making really major decisions that I felt so scared I was making wrong.

My advice here is to delegate. I need to get better at this personally, but I’ve tried it a few times and it’s worked quite well. The key to delegating these decisions though is you have to be okay with the decision being different to the one you’d have made. You don’t get to not make the decision and then be mad about the outcome.

So if you delegate the decision for what takeaways to have for dinner, it’s not going to be helpful if you say no to everything your partner suggests. Truly delegate, let go of the decision making authority and free up your mind for more important things like what to watch on Netflix tonight.

The third aspect of being the default parent is the day to day care of the child and running of the household

Most of the time, it’s a particular parent who does all this work, and it’s almost always the same person who does all the remembering and all the decision making. They’re the one who always knows when something is running out and puts it on the list rather than waiting for it to finish and THEN putting it on the list. They make sure there’s plenty of all the staples in the fridge, enough nappies for the next morning and enough food to make lunches the next morning.

The default parent also usually makes those lunches, packs the bags for daycare or school, does the dropping off (and sometimes picking up).

Obviously this isn’t always due to the other partner or parent being lazy and not pitching in. In our case for example, my husband starts work at 6am every day so he is up at 5 and out the door by 5.30. The morning routine is up to me because I’m the only parent here. If he works late, pick up and afternoons are up to me too.

The obvious advice here is to share the labour equally, but what if you’re in the same boat as me and you just can’t do that? I’m still figuring that one out completely but the main thing I’ve been trying to do is just making my husband aware of all that I do. Because honestly sometimes you just want a thank you or a little recognition for your work.

Your kids are unlikely to give you any kind of thanks at an early age, and I have this potentially controversial opinion that they shouldn’t have to. You had those kids and you are now committed to raising them and caring for them. But you can ask for gratitude from your partner for how much you do. Just make sure you’re equally as thankful when they do things for you.

If you are in a position to be able to share the labour equally, then make sure you make it super clear who owns what. Saying “we’ll do 50/50 each” really does nothing because nobody knows what is expected of them. We have a bit of a thing going where my husband takes care of the morning routine on the weekends because I do it all week. This started off as an unspoken thing and it’s just carried on. Some days I’ll sleep in, but even if I get up he’ll still take care of giving Isla breakfast, getting her dressed for the day and all that.

If you find yourself starting to feel a bit resentful, check in with yourself. Ask yourself if you feel like you’re doing more than your partner and how you feel about that. Does it upset you? If it does, bring it up with your partner in a calm way and have an adult discussion about it. It’s not helpful if you’re feeling resentful about everything you’re doing, because you’ll just end up feeling more and more overwhelmed until you eventually break. And nobody wants that.

So let’s check in. How are you feeling? Are you the default parent in your household? I hope some of the tips I’ve shared in this episode will empower you to make some changes if you’re feeling overwhelmed or resentful about your role as default parent. It can sometimes feel like there just isn’t any other way to do things, and that can feel stifling. Let’s carry on the discussion on Instagram and Facebook.

I hope you enjoyed this week’s episode. Don’t forget to subscribe to The Mum Tribe podcast wherever you like to listen so you don’t miss an episode. See you next week!