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The Default Parent Syndrome: More Than Just a TikTok Trend

Explaining the phenomenon and exactly what to do about it.

Key points

  • The Default Parent Syndrome has become widely popular on social media, highlighting a common struggle for many mothers.
  • Being a "default parent" can be physically and emotionally taxing and can have negative consequences for one's partner and children.
  • Key strategies such as effective communication, shared problem-solving, and seeking professional support can help manage the negative effects.

The other day, I was scrolling on TikTok when I stumbled upon a video where a woman was describing a phenomenon that she referred to as “The Default Parent Syndrome.” I found the concept fascinating and started to talk more about the Default Parent Syndrome on my own social media.

It quickly became apparent to me that the Default Parent Syndrome was more than just a TikTok trend and rather an actual experience that was eating away at the well-being and mental health of millions of mothers every single day.

What is “the Default Parent Syndrome”?

  • A default parent is typically one who is “first in line” when it comes to caring for children, child-related responsibilities, or home-related tasks. Assuming that there are two parents present, the default parent is more likely to carry the bigger load in parenting.

  • A syndrome can be defined as a group of symptoms that consistently occur together, a condition characterized by a set of associated symptoms, or even a characteristic combination of opinions, emotions, or behaviors.

When we place both of these concepts together, we can see how the Default Parent Syndrome is more than just an individual problem; rather, it is a systemic and collective experience in which there is a bias toward women and mothers in providing primary care for parenting and home-related tasks. This bias is largely the product of decades of patriarchal cultural history that has continued to evolve in various ways throughout our time.

What is most interesting is that today, many women and mothers who struggle with the Default Parent Syndrome will acknowledge that their male partners are “engaged” within the home, “excellent fathers,” and also very supportive; however, these same women continue to report feeling burdened and overwhelmed by the default parent role.

So there is still something happening that is not allowing us as a society to completely dismantle the Default Parent Syndrome despite how much the role of “father” has evolved within traditional heteronormative partnerships.

Who is more likely to experience the Default Parent Syndrome?

In my work with women and mothers, I’ve noticed that there are certain qualities, characteristics, and circumstances that may place someone more at-risk for experiencing the Default Parent Syndrome. These include:

  • Identifying as a woman or mother within a family system.
  • One or one’s partner having more traditional gendered norms regarding parenting.
  • One or one’s partner growing up and observing the woman or mother within a family system be solely or mostly responsible for parenting and household tasks (regardless of whether she was partnered or not).
  • Struggles with guilt and anxiety if/when one’s attention shifts away from parenting or household tasks.
  • Difficulties communicating one’s desires or expectations to others.
  • Challenges with people-pleasing, particularly within relationships with one’s family.
  • An ongoing struggle with perfectionism.
  • One or one’s partner growing up in a family that upheld more patriarchal norms regarding parenting and household tasks.

What are the consequences of the Default Parent Syndrome?

For the default parent specifically, four extremely common consequences include:

  • Chronic fatigue and burnout
  • Feelings of resentment toward partner and children
  • Diminished ability to care for oneself
  • A significant decline in mental health

Many don’t consider that there are also negative consequences for other members of the family who are not the identified “default parent.” For instance, the “non-default parent” may experience:

  • Unrealistic expectations regarding the default parent’s capacity
  • Emotional disconnection and distance from the default parent (who is most likely to be their partner)
  • Decreased quality in parenting skills or caregiving, which can also lead to ruptures in relationships with children

Similarly, the children who live within a system where the Default Parent Syndrome exists likely will experience:

  • Unrealistic expectations regarding the default parent’s capacity
  • Diminished expectations for the non-default parent, adding to the level of burnout and overwhelm that the default parent likely feels
  • Decreased quality in relationship with the default parent due to the parent’s level of fatigue and frustration
  • Decreased relationship quality with the non-default parent due to lack of opportunity for contact and care

How do we begin to dismantle and unlearn the Default Parent Syndrome?

Dismantling the Default Parent Syndrome requires intention, commitment, patience, and cooperation between all members of the family. Here are five steps to begin doing so with your partner.

  1. Acknowledge that it exists. We can only dismantle what we acknowledge exists. This will require a real, honest, and ongoing conversation with your partner about this syndrome showing up in your family and how it feels for you.
  2. Identify how it manifests. Once both you and your partner are on board about the Default Parent Syndrome being something that does exist within the home, it’s time to really identify how it manifests or shows up. This means really understanding and communicating the ways in which one parent may be carrying more of the load and the effects of this for everyone involved.
  3. Create a shared vision for the home. This is the time to identify and share what you both envision for your family and your home. What values align? Have any values changed? What shared goals do you have for the family? This helps to ensure you both are on the same page about the “bigger picture,” which comes in handy as you work toward change.
  4. Set goals for how to “undo” the norm. Now is where the real work begins! Let’s set some goals for what will change. I recommend starting small and not beginning with more than one or two goals at a time. Establish one goal for each partner to work toward.
  5. Monitor and progress forward. Be sure to set up a system for how your goals will be monitored and tracked. It would work well to set times when you and your partner will come back together to review the progress and talk through any obstacles or changes that need to be made. Once those goals have been met, go ahead and set new ones.

Best of luck!

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