The Default Parent

What does it mean to be the default parent?

If you’re a parent and you actively scroll through social media, you have probably stumbled into the parent side of content where parents talk about anything and everything from baby food recipes to the challenges of parenting.

Some parents who are new to the parenting journey are very raw and honest about the challenges that they encounter. One of these challenges that are widely spoken about is a phenomenon called Default Parent.

Experts and social media users alike are quick to identify that this is more than just a TikTok trend. The Default Parent phenomenon actually impacts parents across the world and experts are prepared to chip in their thoughts on this now popular topic.

To add to the discourse of Default Parents, we’ve gotten in touch with Kristy Khoo who is the Co-Founder of Telos Mental Wellness and also a licensed and registered mental health therapist to share her input on this topic.

Kristy Khoo, Co-Founder, Telos Mental Wellness

It is a term used to describe the parent that carries more or most of the child-rearing responsibilities that include managing the children’s activities and schedules.

What is the meaning of default parent?

Kristy Khoo: It is a term used to describe the parent that carries more or most of the childrearing responsibilities that include managing the children’s activities and schedules. It is also the parent that oversees home-related tasks on top of that, like chores.

What’s the difference between default parent and ‘Default Parent Syndrome’?

Kristy: The word syndrome means a set of recognisable symptoms that occur together and suggests the presence of a problem. Put together the word “syndrome” with the term default parent and you get a condition that implies that it might be a problem.

How does one become the default parent?

Kristy: Sometimes it’s a choice through intentional conversations between both parents. Sometimes it’s an unconscious or conscious occurrence that’s often left unsaid based on circumstances, dynamics between parents, each parent’s individual responsibilities and more.

Is there always a default parent?

Kristy: More often than not, there will be a parent that carries more of the responsibilities. Parenting isn’t always going to be equal. Which parent that falls on can change due to circumstances and through time. Mums do tend to be the default parent but that isn’t always the case. Then the question is, will it always be unbearable for that one parent?

Are there any positive or negative consequences of being a default parent?

Kristy: Being a default parent can bring positive or negative outcomes depending on the individual’s perception and experience of it. If a parent wants to be the default parent and finds it manageable, then it can lead to a positive or pleasant experience such as being involved in their children’s lives or being able to bond more with them. The parent might also gain a positive sense of ownership from carrying out the responsibilities of that role. If it becomes unbearable, then it can lead to feelings such as frustration, stress, anger, or resentment toward the other partner. It can also lead to tension between partners and children and that can change the dynamics of the whole family.

How crucial of a role do partners play in helping to deal with ‘Default Parent Syndrome’? / How important is it for couples to support one another in overcoming ’Default Parent Syndrome’?

Kristy: If being the default parent is unbearable for one partner, then it is very important for the other partner to provide support when and wherever needed to prevent the experience from worsening. Providing that support is not just helpful for that partner, but for every individual that can be affected in that household. An important component of supporting each other is to communicate with each other. They say communication is key and it couldn’t be truer.

If being the default parent is unbearable for one partner, then it is very important for the other partner to provide support when and wherever needed to prevent the experience from worsening.

What can family members do to help a parent who’s struggling with ‘Default Parent Syndrome’?

Kristy: Being observant and aware of the parent’s need for help is important. Sometimes, it’s important to ask the question(s) “how are you feeling?” and/ or “how can I help?”. It is more helpful to ask than to assume what one is needing or wanting. The person who knows best what they are needing or wanting is the individual themselves. By asking, family members also help create a space for the parent to share and express what they might be experiencing.

On top of that, it lets the parent know that their struggles are seen and acknowledged. From the parent’s sharing, family members can then empathise and know what further action or steps they can take to help based on the parent’s needs. Some examples of that might be to provide emotional support by actively listening to the parent, and validating their emotions. It might also be to provide practical support to ease the load for the parent like babysitting, offering to bring some food over, or gift items that the family needs so that the parent has lesser tasks on their plate to think and attend to.

How can one overcome ‘Default Parent Syndrome’ on their own?

Kristy: Being a parent on top of being an adult with growing responsibilities can really be tough. Some might feel that they have to struggle and overcome them alone only to feel burnout or exhausted. I believe no one is meant to struggle in isolation. Hence, as much as it is important for others to ask and check in with the parent, it is equally important for the parent to communicate with others whenever they’re struggling or find it unbearable. To seek external help and support from one’s partner, close ones, mental health professionals, or those who have expertise in the respective fields of parenting.

Are there any strategies one may use to prevent becoming a default parent?

Kristy: If one does not choose or want to be the default parent, practising mindfulness or awareness of self – what one is thinking, feeling, doing, and experiencing at the moment can help one identify if they are or aren’t becoming a default parent. Another strategy that was mentioned previously is to have frequent communication with one’s partner to help manage each other’s parenting expectations and balancing of responsibilities. Oftentimes, it’s hard to know what another’s internal experience is without it being communicated. Hence, communication is vital.

What can parents do to ensure a happy household remains while dealing with being a default parent?

Kristy: We first need to understand that happiness is an emotion that might not always grace us with its presence. The goal then might not be to maintain a happy household, but rather to create and maintain a supportive household. A household that is willing to help one another through the sometimes unavoidable family struggles. With that in mind, parents can then establish more realistic expectations, which in return, helps them reduce the pressure and harshness of their struggle to balance the different responsibilities on their plates.

When there’s more empathy and compassion towards self, parents are less likely to react to situations in a way that disrupts the peace in the household. Instead, with the help of emotional self-awareness and emotion regulation as part of the empathic process, parents will be able to respond in a way that maintains peace. It is also important for parents to acknowledge and validate their own efforts in carrying out their many responsibilities. It isn’t easy to be parents and acknowledging that helps give a sense of appreciation towards self which then leads to lesser felt unpleasant emotions. Another component of maintaining a supportive household is to communicate with family members when they’re struggling so that the members are better able to manage each other’s expectations and help one another where needed.

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