How to Deal With Feeling Like the “Default Parent” as a Woman 

by | May 20, 2024 | Adulting, Anxiety, Counseling, Couples Counseling, Highly Sensitive People (HSP), Perfectionism, Self-Esteem, Single, Stress

How to Deal With Feeling Like the “Default Parent” as a Woman 

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Have you ever felt like society expects you to take on the load of being the primary caregiver of your children as a woman in a heterosexual relationship? You and your partner both have full-time jobs. And yet, if he takes the kids to their doctor’s appointments, he’s “super dad,” while you’re just a normal mom. The cooking of family meals and changing diapers automatically fall on your plate, even though both of you are perfectly capable and have your responsibilities to handle. You love your partner and appreciate all he does, but the mental load of feeling like the “default parent” gets taxing. 

If you relate to the above, you may be struggling with society’s notion that women have the innate responsibility to be the primary caregivers to their children. Of course, not all women feel this pressure, and not all relationships reflect this dynamic—especially if you’re in a same-sex relationship. However, it is safe to say that many women face this feeling of responsibility, guilt, and even resentment when they relate to viewing themselves as the default parent. Keep reading to learn about the origins of this societal pressure, the toll it can take on one’s mental health, and some tips for taking care of your mental health when in this position.

Why are Women Often Seen as the Default Parent?

Many historical reasons have led to society’s view that women “should” be the primary caregiver and/or default parent in a family dynamic. One of these reasons, which affects much of how we view gender in modern society, is gender roles. Gender roles are the expectations that society deems appropriate to put on men and women, based on cultural norms, traditions, and sentiments [1]. According to traditional gender roles, men typically take on the role of the “breadwinner,” or the one who brings back money to the family by working, while displaying emotions of toughness, bravery, and assertiveness. Women, on the other hand, are seen as the “nurturers,” who are supposed to take care of their children and teach them right from wrong, while displaying emotions of gentleness, sensitivity, and attentiveness. 

While these traditional gender roles are still present in society, we see much more deviation from these norms nowadays. Many women are breadwinners just like their partners or are the main breadwinners of their families. Many women are assertive, loud, brave, and tough. Not all women are the nurturing and sweet motherly figures society says they should be—and some fathers take on this role, instead. However, many women still feel stuck under the pressure to adhere to these traditional roles, especially if they have more traditional beliefs about how a family dynamic should and shouldn’t be. 

Workplace dynamics don’t make these gender roles any easier to ignore. According to statistics collected by AAUW.org in March 2024, it is still unfortunately true that women make an average of 16% less than men in America. This only instills the idea that women are less capable or less welcome in the workforce than men are, even in 2024. This, in turn, furthers the idea that women succeed more when they stay home and take care of the kids. Of course, being a caregiver is an equally hard job than a typical 9-5, if not harder, in many ways. However, this pressure for women to be the caregiver can go against many women’s career aspirations, as many have different dreams and goals than this.

Mental Health Toll of Feeling Like the Default Parent

People may try to fool you into thinking that being a caregiver is a much easier job than a typical 9-5 and that you’ve been dealt the “lucky hand.” This couldn’t be further from the truth in many situations. Sure, you may love being a full-time mom, but it can also be extremely emotionally taxing. Not to mention, many default parents aren’t even full-time moms and have their own careers and responsibilities to take care of. On top of a normal 9-5, part-time job, or entrepreneurial business, women are often expected to also be the primary caregiver without complaints. You may be able to swing it and ignore the emotional toll at first, but it will likely catch up to you in the future. 

Every mother will have a different perspective on how difficult their role is, but most mothers agree that being a mom is hard in one way or another. Some common stressors that default parents often experience include: 

  • Decision Making: The default parent often makes the decisions when it comes to taking care of the children, house, and family logistics. Decision fatigue, burnout, and stress about whether or not you are doing the “right” thing for your family can lead to anxiety. 
  • Emotional Labor: Raising children comes with many conflicts. Children, especially young ones, are still learning about the rights and wrongs of treating others, sharing, expressing their emotions appropriately, and making smart choices. The responsibility to deal with the ups and downs—-emphasis on downs—-of teaching your kid right from wrong often falls on mothers. This means that they have to deal patiently with many tantrums, arguments, and tears. The emotional well-being of family members being placed on your shoulders is a lot of emotional labor, coupled with the expectation to always be available, attentive, and calm. This can lead to increased stress and tension. 
  • Lack of Support: Even in partnerships where both parents are present, the primary caregiver may feel under-appreciated or unsupported, as a lot of their hard work may go unseen. This can lead to feelings of isolation or resentment.
  • Work-Life Balance Challenges: Individuals who are not the default parent may feel like they get to come home from their 9-5 and relax, unwinding from their busy day. Default parents, though, may need help taking time for themselves after a busy day of taking care of the children and/or typical career work. They may feel like they must always be “on” and ready to tackle caregiver responsibilities. Parents must be present for their kids, but it is also important for them to have self-care time, too. A lack of this can lead to burnout and exhaustion.

Tips for Default Parents [2]

Although it is ultimately important to take the best care of your children you can and make sure they receive all their needs, default parents need to take care of their mental health as well. Here are some tips on doing so:

  • Setting Boundaries: You may be struggling with feeling guilty for setting boundaries when it comes to your children or responsibilities taking care of them. Societal pressure may be deeply instilled within you, and you may feel like a “bad parent” for needing to take time for yourself. However, part of being the best parent you can be is ensuring that you take care of yourself so that you can fully show up for your children. To do so, setting boundaries, like scheduling alone time, taking naps, limiting working hours, practicing assertive communication, and prioritizing sleep will only help you in the long run. This will also give you a sense of control in a situation that may feel overwhelming
  • Asking for Help: There should be absolutely no shame in asking for help, especially as the default parent. Whether this be hiring a babysitter, asking your partner to take on more caregiving responsibilities, and/or delegating tasks like household chores, communication is key for taking the load off your shoulders. 
  • Seek Emotional Support: Along with asking for help with tasks comes asking for help with your emotional health. Being the default parent can affect your mental health drastically, which can be improved by support from people who care. Having a heart-to-heart with a loved one and/or seeking professional help through therapy will help ensure you receive the support you deserve. 

By setting boundaries and recognizing the hardships you may be going through as the default parent, you can better manage your time, energy, and mental health while keeping a positive family dynamic. You got this!

To discuss how therapy could help you during this season of your life, please contact me or schedule your free 15 minute consultation.

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