How To Stop Being The Default Parent Once And For All

Doing too much of the emotional and mental work in your household? Here's how to make a change.

According to a new Gallup report released on Wednesday, women in committed heterosexual relationships are as likely as their partners to work outside the home, and yet they’re still more likely to do more work at home, too. Women are more likely to clean the house, prepare meals and care for children on a daily basis, Gallup said. And women report they’re doing more of the “cognitive” household stuff as well, like anticipating needs (e.g., buying and switching out clothing) and making decisions.

Of course, being the so-called “default parent” isn’t really a problem unless it’s a problem for the person doing all that work, whether they’re in a same-sex relationship, divorced co-parents, or something else. But when the weight of it all — the scheduling of doctor’s appointments and playdates, the cooking, the remembering which kid likes what and who has a big math project due tomorrow, and on and on — begins to crush one parent, it’s time for a change.

So how do you start offloading some of your emotional labor as a parent? And how do you make big changes without starting big fights? Here are five expert tips on making it happen.

One note: Emotional labor has been a big buzzword in recent years, and there’s some confusion about what it actually means. Some people use it to refer broadly to the silent, unpaid work done to keep households and families humming. Others — including the sociologist who coined the term — say we should stick more to its original meaning of needing to suppress your emotions while doing your paid job. We’re using it pretty loosely and interchangeably here with the idea of being the default parent.

1. To start, ditch the idea of a 50/50 partnership.

Conversations around fairness at home are often predicated on the idea that a 50/50 split is fair. And anything short of that kind of perfect split means one parent is being saddled with too much. But Eve Rodsky, a lawyer, mother and author of “Fair Play” — a book that helps couples divvy up domestic responsibilities — says 50/50 is basically BS.

“What is fair is not always equal, and what is equal is not always fair,” Rodsky told HuffPost. “Throw out 50/50.”

If you have, say, 100 different household and child-related tasks that have to get done in any given week, it’s hiiiiighly unlikely that one of you will take 50 and the other will take 50, and voila! What you need to do is sit down and proactively divide up tasks, really specifically spelling out what needs to get done and who is going to do it. Like: “You will own taking out the garbage and I will own getting the kids out the door in the morning.”

2. Have those conversations about who owns what task when you’re calm.

Conversations around resentment and domestic life tend to happen in the heat of the moment, says Rachel Sussman, a New York-based therapist and author of “The Breakup Bible: The Smart Woman’s Guide to Healing from a Breakup or Divorce.” But that’s the worst time and way to do it.

“You definitely want to approach it when you’re both calm, and you want to do it as soon as you realize you’ve started building up feelings of resentment,” Sussman said.

Try not to frame your points as complaints. Instead, frame them as observations — like, “Hey, I’ve noticed that I am doing a lot more of XYZ and it is taking a lot out of me. And I’m wondering if you have noticed that too?” “I” statements instead of “you” statements can also be helpful, according to Sussman.

Rodsky recommends weekly 20-minute check-ins. “You can communicate about your domestic life,” she said. “You can give feedback to each other when emotions are low and cognition is high.” Maybe you do it over tacos and tequila, Rodsky said. Maybe it’s while you take a run together, or are just sitting for a few minutes on the couch at home. Just set a time and commit to it.

“Ownership of a particular task means remembering it, planning for it, then following through — without needing to be reminded.”

3. Establish that if you own a task, you own it from start to finish.

“Having to remind your partner to do something doesn’t take that something off your list. It adds to it,” Rodsky wrote in “Fair Play.” Which is why it’s so important that when you divvy up tasks again, you set the ground rule that ownership of a particular task means remembering it, planning for it, then following through — without needing to be reminded.

Too often, conflict arises when the partner who supposedly owns a task steps in only at the execution phase, foisting all of the mental load on the default parent. So if it’s your job to bring oranges for halftime at your kid’s soccer game, then it’s on you to remember when the game is. It’s on you to plan when you’re going to get the oranges and get them ready without asking for guidance on how many or how they should be cut or transported to the game. And it’s on you to make sure they’re actually there on time — without your partner checking in on you.

4. Embrace a minimum standard of care.

Couples often argue not just about what needs to get done, but also how it “should” be done — as if there is some kind of universal standard. But the way you’d do something is not necessarily the right way. Nor should partners be let off the hook for taking on a task, then doing a truly crappy job at it.

If you’re going to try and swap tasks or lessen your load, it’s important to first agree to what Rodsky calls a minimum standard of care for that particular act. Would a reasonable person, under similar circumstances, do the task in roughly the same way as you? she asks. If yes, great! You’ve met the minimum standard of care. If not, you haven’t really done it.

“It’s really about couples recognizing that what is important to you may not be important to me, which is why you agree to a minimum standard of care,” Rodsky said. “You have to treat the home with respect and rigor.”

5. Honestly (and regularly) check your own resent-o-meter.

Rodsky urges people to really check in with how they’re feeling about the work they’re doing at home — and all of it, the mental, emotional, and physical load you’re carrying. She calls it your resent-o-meter.

Do you feel like you are doing way more than your partner? Does that upset you? It might not — and it might some times but not others. That’s why it is important to regularly check in with yourself and to really be conscious not just of the work you’re doing around the house and for your kiddos, but how you feel about it. According to Rodsky, creating and maintaining a more equitable situation is about “consciousness and communication.”

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