Why are mums usually the ‘default’ parent?

Do you ever notice that a lot of parenting tasks default to you? 

Your baby cries out in the night and your partner doesn’t move a muscle. It’s just expected that you’ll do this settle.

Or, daycare calls (they have your number at the top of the contact list of course). Your kid is sick and needs to go home. So you go and pick them up – despite having as much work to get through as your partner does.

Or another (even more infuriating) example: Your partner calls to offer you a helping hand. They’ll pick your child up from school today so you can focus on that deadline. Great! “So what time does school finish again?” The fact they have to ask (even though it’s the same time every day) just reinforces that this is your job.

Many mothers work just as much as the other parent does. We can have high-profile jobs and get into leadership positions – but we’re still seen as the go-to parent, our careers secondary to our roles as mums.

Uh, what’s going on here?

Society has some work to do

Part of the blame rests on the snail’s pace of society’s shifting views. While women’s rights have come a long way in recent years and we’re enjoying more equity than ever before, it’s still a bit f*cked.

A recent Grattan Institute report asks: “Why do the work patterns of Australian women in heterosexual relationships and with children look so different from those of their male partners? Why is part-time work so common for Australian women?”

The reality is, many women work less than men because they’re the default parent. And as a result, we earn around $2 million less than men in the long-run. Not cool.

We could really use policies that “create room for men to take on the role of primary carer early in the child’s life”. For example, the paid parental scheme incentivises working women to stay home with their babies and dads to be the breadwinner, which is preferred by many families but also… kind of sexist. Can’t we share the caregiving and breadwinning evenly?

Workplaces aren’t helping the situation

We can also lay some of the blame on employers. Very few offer extra paid paternity leave to men to help them take part in caregiving. (Why would they, when there’s no government incentive?)

And while COVID-19 has certainly opened the discussion around flexible hours and working from home, there are still perceived disadvantages around finishing work early for school pickup, or working part-time to be more hands-on with childcare. What if workplaces could more openly support fathers in doing their jobs – both at work, and in their job as dad?

Families need to strike a balance

How you’ll divide the childcare responsibilities should be discussed with your partner before your baby is born (along with a few other very important things). Unless you talk about it openly, you may not understand each other’s expectations. For example, you might want to split tasks 50/50, whereas your partner may assume they’ll be primarily earning money.

What works for one family might be different to what works for another, so there’s really no proven formula for figuring this out. You might actually enjoy shouldering the mental load as the mother (awesome!). But if you’ve wound up as the default parent and you’re prickly about it, your family roles might need readjusting.

We need to advocate for ourselves

I was genuinely shocked when I found myself automatically the default parent. I couldn’t believe my career (which I’ve worked so hard on!) was deemed less important than my husband’s. Without any discussion. Especially because returning to work brought me so much joy, whereas my husband hates his job has not yet found his calling. 

I realise that we should’ve talked about this and set some boundaries before my son was born to avoid this shock. However, I’ve come to learn that I’ve got a choice here:

I can passively accept that I’m the easy-breezy reliable parent that will always be there for sick days, drop-offs and pick-ups, and managing life admin.


I can push back. I can say no. I can ask my partner to step up and share the load with me. Of course, this takes some discussion and compromise from both of us. It’s not easy. But it’s pretty bloody brave.

What I’m getting at is that so many women just come to accept their lot, when actually we don’t need to! It’s OK for you to not feel satisfied as the default parent. It’s OK to try to find an alternative and stick up for yourself.

While we can’t fix society and workplaces overnight, we can influence our own mindsets and the way our family structures parenting roles. Your needs matter too, mama. Your work is important. You’re more than ‘just a mum’.

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