What You'll Learn
- How Having a Baby Impacts Relationships
- Why Relationships Often Struggle Due to the Invisible Load
- What the “Default Parent” Means
- How the Default Parent Can Help Create Change
- How the Non-Default Parent Can Help Create Change
- Why Children’s Emotional Needs Often Fall to the Default Parent
- How to Express Your Needs as the Default Parent
The idea of the “default parent” can be hard to explain. We feel it in so many moments—when we’re the go-to snack getter, baby soother, homework helper, and tantrum navigator.
When we feel ourselves being opted into this role with no autonomy or say in the matter, it can feel awful—especially if we see our partner with seemingly more freedom.
We might feel overwhelmed, exhausted, and torn in a thousand directions all the time—and this often results in resentment building toward our partner.
But that underlying frustration can quickly turn into a game of keeping score, which rarely leads to productive conversations. In many cases, we fall into a pattern where one person feels responsible to manage the other partner, resulting in a lot of tension and conflict.
The truth is that the real problem goes beyond what our partner is or isn’t doing. It even goes beyond the distribution of labor itself—to a need to be seen, acknowledged, and understood. If we want to break out of the patterns and change the way the labor is shared, we have to learn to see those needs.
Today, I’m chatting with Erin and Stephen Mitchell, founders of Couples Counseling for Parents. Erin and Stephen have unique insight into this topic, not just as a couple who have struggled with the invisible load in their own relationship, but as therapists who help couples navigate the transition into parenthood.
I couldn’t wait to discuss the impact being the default parent has on our relationship and what we can do to break patterns and make real change in our homes.
How Having a Baby Impacts Relationships
Like so many couples, Erin and Stephen found themselves struggling in their relationship after having a baby. They fell into many of the same potential pitfalls new parents often experience—scorekeeping, arguing about who was more tired or doing more work, and communicating with resentment and defensiveness.
They were surprised to find themselves in this situation. With a background in therapy, and all the tools and skills for communication, they had navigated previous changes in their relationship with relative ease, able to see each other’s perspectives. But parenting changed that.
This is something that many of my clients have gone through. They might feel ashamed or frustrated to find themselves unable to work through conflict. Issues like the invisible load, being the default parent, or clashing parenting styles often feel abstract until having a baby.
Stephen pointed out that when you become a parent, you experience a new relationship with new dynamics—and that comes with a big learning curve. We need new skills and new strategies to navigate it.
Erin said that we often experience major bumps in the road before becoming parents, but our capacity is different. Once we’re experiencing sleep deprivation, the overwhelming invisible load, and new dynamics in the home, it becomes a new world.
We’re often not even aware of what’s contributing to our overwhelm or frustration—much less how to express those things productively.
Erin shared a story of how before having children, Stephen would often leave a glass of water in the windowsill. She used to joke about having to carry it to the kitchen. But after having kids, that glass of water didn’t seem like a joke—it felt like a burden he was placing on her.
We feel the weight of the invisible load. We feel the resentment and the unfairness. But we don’t know why it feels so heavy, or how to communicate it.
Why Relationships Often Struggle Due to the Invisible Load
Erin said that when she tried to communicate what she was going through to Stephen, things fell apart more often than not. It often came out as criticism—her pointing out things that he wasn’t doing. This led to defensiveness and unproductive conflict.
This is a cycle that many of us go through—and it often stems from miscommunication. Erin pointed out that what she was really wanting to express were her needs—but she didn’t feel like she had the language she needed.
Stephen said that he had to accept that her expressions of how challenging and difficult things were didn’t mean she was accusing him of anything. She was trying to tell him that her experience was different—while she knew that his life had changed, it felt like he still had many pieces of his old life while she was sacrificing so much. Stephen couldn’t understand at first that Erin really needed him to see and acknowledge what she was going through.
What he didn’t realize is that even when he was working long hours, he was not physically present for so much of the daily parenting and childcare. She was being defaulted into an experience he couldn’t fully grasp.
We often don’t even understand that what we’re really trying to communicate is our needs and our experience. It can feel like our partner is doing something to us. When we struggle with our invisible labor and we don’t know how to explain it, it can come out as criticism and blame and start to take a toll on our relationship.
It often takes a lot of work for us to learn how to express what we’re really feeling and needing.
It often takes a lot of work for us to learn how to express what we’re really feeling and needing—and it takes work for our partner to be able to hear us.
What the “Default Parent” Means
Defining the default parent can be tricky. Erin defines it as the person who doesn’t even get to go to the bathroom by themselves. Stephen defines it as the person who is always asked or assumed first.
For example, he shared that even when he and Erin are both in a room, the kids will walk in and ask her for help (something that many of my clients experience).
He said that the default parent is the one who is chosen first for not just household tasks, but also managing the kid’s lives, and providing emotional care as well. This often falls to moms, largely due to gender norms, social expectations, and pressure to be and do more.
That mental load, the constant being “on,” and the ongoing decision-making and emotional labor is often what exhausts moms. But this labor is called invisible for a reason—it’s very hard to see, even to the person who is carrying it.
Erin pointed out that it wasn’t until Stephen quit his job and found himself at home more that he began to see and understand the impact of the load. He realized that even when he was physically present as often as Erin was, she was still the one everything was automatically falling to.
It finally clicked for him—he started to understand what the default parent meant and why the role was so exhausting.
How the Default Parent Can Help Create Change
Even once both partners begin to see and understand the impact of being the default parent, breaking out of the pattern is difficult. For many couples, these patterns were laid down as early as postpartum (or even before). But the work to break the pattern might not begin until many years down the line.
During all of those years, the patterns become stronger—and resentment also builds up, often resulting in a shutdown in communication. It can even feel as if it’s easier to just do things ourselves than explain to someone else how to do them. But this can keep us unintentionally trapped in the default parent role.
In many cases, our partner is capable and willing to take on more of the load.
In many cases, our partner is capable and willing to take on more of the load. But we have to break the pattern. Erin said that it was helpful for her to begin redirecting questions, requests, or tasks toward Stephen in a neutral, non-passive-aggressive way.
For example, if the children asked her what was for dinner, she might say, “I don’t know, see what your dad thinks.” If Stephen asked when the children had an appointment, she would encourage him to schedule it.
Because she did this in a neutral way, focusing on setting boundaries rather than lashing out, it began to move the needle.
How the Non-Default Parent Can Help Create Change
Breaking away from the default parent role is often like building a muscle for both partners. The default parent needs to be willing to sit in discomfort and let their partner step in, and the non-default parent needs to take initiative.
Stephen said that it was important for him to understand that when Erin redirected questions or tasks his way, she wasn’t criticizing him or insulting him. Instead of a knee-jerk reaction of defensiveness, he started to see it as a chance for him to understand what was going on and help make a change in the home.
Sometimes the non-default partner feels frustrated because they don’t think they caused the dynamic. Other times, they might even blame the default partner for creating the situation. But the truth is that both partners contribute to the role, along with outside expectations and gender norms. When partners can start to work together, they can both find more freedom in their roles.
Stephen pointed out that the non-default partner has a responsibility to listen to and hear their partner, and to do their part to start to shift the dynamic. Even though it isn’t their fault, they need to be aware of how they contribute to it. And they need to be a very active part of the solution.
He said that one of the biggest things the non-default parent can do to help the dynamic is to practice curiosity instead of that knee-jerk reaction of defensiveness. Being curious and listening helped him remove the emotion and start to understand what Erin needed, and how he could show her that he heard and understood her.
Why Children’s Emotional Needs Often Fall to the Default Parent
When you are the default parent, anything your partner does that might unintentionally create more labor for you can be triggering. For example, being told to take “me time” while knowing that you need to plan for childcare, prep meals, or handle other mental labor to take that “me time.”
Stephen and Erin said that another one of the common things that frustrates default parents is when their partner makes parenting choices that will create more labor for them.
For example, when one partner doesn’t respond with warmth or empathy to the child, the default parent might feel angry, because they know that this will cause more dysregulation for the child and make their emotional labor harder throughout the day.
This can be a tricky situation to navigate. On the one hand, we don’t want to get in the habit of holding tightly onto our own expectations. If we want our partner to be able to step in and build their own knowledge and expertise so that we can stop being the default parent, we need to be willing to let go of control and give them a chance to do things in a different way.
But Erin pointed out that when it comes to the emotional needs of the children, default parents aren’t always trying to hold onto control. They often know what the children need and what will result if those needs aren’t met.
There might be times when we have to watch our partner struggle to learn how to soothe or respond to the kids. But true shared autonomy and labor matter.
One partner shouldn’t carry all the knowledge.
Stephen said that one partner shouldn’t carry all the knowledge—if one partner is reading a parenting book or taking a course, ideally their partner should be too. This creates buy-in across the board and prevents one parent from having to essentially do emotional clean-up after their partner.
Not everyone has a willing partner—and change takes time. Erin shared that creating a family value system together allowed them to establish what they wanted for the family without micromanaging each other.
The more we can approach the problem of having a default parent as a team and be open about our needs without blame, the more we can work together to create the family and parenting dynamics that allow everyone to feel seen, heard, and appreciated.
How to Express Your Needs as the Default Parent
As the default parent, it’s important to spend time reflecting on our own needs. This can be hard, especially when we feel like we’re drowning. It took Erin many years before she was able to articulate what she was experiencing.
As the default parent, it’s important to spend time reflecting on our own needs.
But for her, a simple acknowledgement from Stephen that what she was going through was real, valid, and true, went a long way to melt the ice that was preventing closeness in the relationship.
When she understood that what she really needed wasn’t necessarily a role reversal or even a 50/50 divide in labor, but just to be seen and validated, the conversation changed. She was able to present her needs and feelings in a more productive way. And in turn, Stephen was able to make changes to help her meet those needs.
Erin was quick to point out that she didn’t want or need Stephen to blame himself or grovel for what he was or wasn’t doing—it was more about acknowledgement of what she was going through.
Through understanding her needs, she was able to change the way she approached the subject from pointing out what Stephen was doing wrong to saying, “I’m hurt. I feel unseen. I need to share this experience with you because it’s hard.”
If you find that your partner is defensive or shuts down during tough conversations about labor in the home, starting by focusing on your needs and shifting the communication to “I” statements might help.
Awareness and acknowledgement, on both parts, are a big first step toward breaking away from the default parent role. Once you have that, it becomes easier to start shifting things in a way that feels fair and equitable to both partners.
If you and your partner need help communicating, or if you are feeling stuck on how to open up the conversation about the default parent role, working with a mom therapist can help! Book a FREE 15 minute virtual consultation today!