Tuesday, 14 April 2015

The Default Parent and parenting roles - Part 1

I have been considering (and writing about) parental leave lately. When talking about it with others, both mums and dads, as well as some who are also employers, I have come to understand that one of the central arguments within this whole debate, especially in Europe and Canada, where maternity leave has come to be taken for granted is equality in parenting. Equal parental leave surely equates to more equal roles when it comes to active parenting. 

While contemplating all this (an activity that usually happens between the hours of 3 and 4 in the morning, when baby O will not go back to sleep after his middle-of-the-night feed) I came across This article on the Huffington Post. It is all about "the Default Parent". It also got me thinking long and hard about mine, and my husband's role in parenting our two sons. 

D is a very involved dad. He chooses to be, having chosen a profession that gives him time to be with me and our two boys. I think that is the biggest investement we have both made in their future. That might mean that professionally he has had to make sacrifices and made choices that make us time-rich, but money-poor. For now and while the kids are small that is exactly how we want it to be!

Because of the different way that J joined our family, through adoption and not birth, I got to experience something that most mothers don't: I became the "other parent" while D was the "default parent". J was adopted from Ethiopia and I was not able to fly out there, due to pregnancy complications. It was not planned that way, for sure, but I think it made a huge and very positive difference to the way D and J bonded. 

D became dad in a hotel room. He was handed our boy with only the clothes he was wearing and very little understanding of his routines and needs (the carers at the orphanage spoke no English and D's Amharic was basic at best). He writes a little about his experience here

The result of two weeks of exclusive parenting (also known as being thrown into the deep end and having to swim) was that when D and J came back to Greece they had already done a fair bit of bonding. D was the default parent. I found myself the "other parent", outside looking in. 

For ages J would only go to sleep when cuddled by D. He would calm down only when carried in a sling by his dad. He would seek his dad when hungry or needing a change. I found myself in a supporting role and had to sit down with D and make a plan. We had to actively discuss our roles, and what we wanted out of parenting. 

We decided that it would be good for J (and also what we wanted, as parents) if we both became "default parents". We wanted to have equal roles in the upbringing of our son and we wanted J to be equally happy with either of us (or both of us together). That couldn't just happen. It took a lot of work from both. It took D being aware enough and willing to step back. It took me volunteering to get up in the night. It was an intimate dance of the three of us, taking turns, balancing and reassessing the whole time. 

In a nutshell: becoming an equal parent takes two! It takes willingness from the dominant parent (usually the mother in most families) to step back a bit and the will from the otehr parent to step up. 

Quite often when mothers "complain" about being the default parent it is in a way a "failure" of both parents. It is a failure of the one to give up and the lack of will of the other to take over. In most societies (definitely in Greece!) the mother is very happy to be the default parent and dad's get pushed out of their roles. A friend recently wrote to me saying: "It would be great if my husband could take a little more of the childcare duties but his parenting style is too permissive". My feeling on this is that dads are too permissive when they are "second in command". Then they become the fun parent, the weekend dad who gives treats and plays, not the one who disciplines, washes behing the ears and feeds the kids vegetables. 

One final thought: I am in no way saying that parenting should be equally split between mums and dads. That is for each and every family to decide for themselves. For us, it was a decision that we consciously made long before our kids joined us and it is a decision that I value each and every day. Especially when I have time to have a shower undisturbed! 


  1. Really interesting post (and beautiful photo of your son and husband!) I had never thought of this before, my husband is very, very hands on, but I guess I would be default as I work from home around our son and he's 9-530 Mon - Fri. I'm going to show him this though as it's really given me a lot to think about - great post.

  2. Thanks for the comment - I love that picture too!
    My husband also works 8-4 or 5 every day, so we have had to build that into how we manage to balance our roles. He does a lot with our son once home and also does bedtime with him. I have noticed a difference, however, between this balance when it comes to our other son (who admittedly is v v little still). Will be blogging about it in pa 2 coming soon!



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