First Things First: What does it mean to be the default parent?

Father and son going to kindergarten - stock photo parent child school tile / Getty Images

The other day, I was at my kids' school, deep in conversation with my wife and another parent. Then, here comes our 6-year-old daughter, on a mission. She goes right around my wife to ask me if she could go play on the playground. My wife responds, "Hey, I'm right here, and Dad is talking." This didn't faze my daughter at all. She had a question and thought I had the answer. My wife and I are very much partners in parenting. Still, we recognize that I often serve as the default parent.

- What does "default parent" mean?

Default means a preselected option. We all know what parent means. So what's a default parent? They are the one who carries the load in parenting (assuming there are two parents present). According to a 2014 Huffington Post article, they're responsible for their children's emotional, physical and logistical needs.

If you're the default parent, you probably already know it without having to think about it. Your child comes to you when they need anything (sometimes physically bypassing the other parent). You're the one who coordinates the schedules, sets appointments (and makes sure they get there), nurses injuries, ensures all school needs are met and serves as the first point of contact for school or day care. You also feel the pressure to take the lead on anything new that pops up, like school meetings or appointments.

- How does one become the default parent?

Sometimes being the default parent is a choice. There is an intentional conversation, and one parent chooses that role. But more often than not, it falls to one person without a conversation happening. If only one parent works outside of the home, the other parent may become the default parent. And yes, while moms tend to be seen as the default parent, that isn't always the case.

- Is there always a default parent?

More likely than not. One parent may always carry more of the load. Parenting will not always be 50/50, depending on your work schedule, but that doesn't mean it has to be unbearable for one of you. Being intentional about communicating with your spouse is the only way to ensure you're both sharing the load.

- Our family's example

Here's what parenting looks like in our situation. My children are both elementary school age, and my wife works at their school. I have a more flexible schedule. So I schedule and take the kids to doctor and dentist appointments. My wife would tell you that she can count the dentist appointments she's made on one hand. I have served on the school PTA for five years. Until she started working at the school, I served as the primary contact for my son's teachers. I take responsibility for my son's sports schedule.

My wife coordinates the family calendar to ensure we don't overbook ourselves. She's the go-to for our kids when they are sick, but I often stay home with them if they miss school. We are fairly evenly split on household chores.

Am I really the default parent? My wife would say yes. Our situation was created mostly by circumstances. Do I do everything? Not by a long shot.

- What challenges arise for the default parent?

Let's start with the fact that parenting is difficult in and of itself. There's no way around that. Being a default parent makes it even harder.

Here are just a few challenges that arise for the default parent: exhaustion, burnout, feeling neglected and unheard, feeling guilt when taking time for yourself, resenting your partner.

All of this can also negatively impact your relationship. The challenges affecting the default parent can cause issues with communication and intimacy. If left unaddressed, the default parent's frustration can evolve into contempt, which is hazardous for the relationship.

If you find yourself as the default parent and you're not sure how you got there, it's time to address the issue in your relationship. It all starts with communication and resetting expectations.

Mitchell Qualls is vice president of operations at family advocacy nonprofit First Things First. Email him at mitchell@firstthings.org.

photo Mitchell Qualls