The red dot on my phone haunts me several times a month. I’m buried in work, and when I come up for air, I see I’ve missed a call from the school nurse. The voicemail is always waiting. The message is concerning my first-grader: “He’s fine… I’m sorry you didn’t answer… He wanted to say hi.”
“Hi, Mom. I’m on my way back to class. I love you.” Click.
And this is where my heart sinks. And my blood pressure creeps up.
Related: I’m the default parent
We are clearly struggling to do it all when a society that expects everything of us gives us nothing.
I’ve told the nurse multiple times to please (please) contact my husband first. He’s more available, and if our son needs to be picked up, my husband can go. I missed her calls two days in a row just the other week.
The nurse, who is doing an extraordinary job, says she’ll try to remember. She’ll find out if I can update our son’s school records to request my husband be called first. I can empathize that it’s difficult in the moment to remember which parent to call, but it will take more than filling out a form to break the assumption that mom is always the main caretaker and the main parent. Even if she’s earning the family’s income. And that’s why I keep getting (and missing) these calls.
This year’s State of Motherhood Survey by Motherly tells me I am not alone: Among survey participants who are currently employed, 47% of Gen Z and millennial moms say they are the primary breadwinner in their family. And that’s up from 37% in 2018. But as the number of primary income earners rises, their shouldering of tasks and the ‘invisible load’ doesn’t lessen. The report says primary income-earning moms still handle a majority of household chores (50%), almost half are in charge of bills and finances (48%), and a whopping 70% oversee scheduling medical appointments for family members.
But just because moms can do it all doesn’t mean we should.
There is nothing inherent in our genders or our positions as moms that makes us better than our partners at scheduling playdates, communicating with teachers, planning parties, overseeing the flow of laundry or answering calls from school nurses.
But society expects it, and we keep trying to do it. No wonder burnout is still high. This year’s survey found that 38% of moms felt burned out, an improvement from 43% the prior year. But that’s still a lot of moms who are exhausted and finding no way out. Many sadly say the balance is too difficult. According to the survey, 23% of the moms said they didn’t think it was possible to combine motherhood and their career. That’s up from 17% the prior year.
Is it any wonder that moms are still leaving the workforce or deciding not to come back as we grapple with continued childcare issues and the pressures of doing it all? What about single parents who may not be able to choose between income and childcare? And these issues aren’t just for heteronormative families. Same-sex partners also grapple with assumptions about default parents.
We are clearly struggling to do it all when a society that expects everything of us gives us nothing. We have no infrastructure in the form of affordable childcare, livable wages for care workers or national paid leave. Shouldn’t unpaid labor in the home be counted in our country’s GDP? Women are angry and movements are starting.
We have to break the cycle of expectations—society’s and our own. Of course, that all takes work.
In my home, we have been very deliberate about transitioning my default parent status to my husband. He was burnt out and needed a change. I was slammed with work, last-minute deadlines beyond my control and trying to run the household.
My dream, I told him, was to be Don Draper. I wanted to work all day, and then sit down at the dinner table and be fed, just like the mid-century ad exec on “Mad Men.” I wanted to be blissfully unaware of all of the things. (Did Don Draper ever beat himself up for missing a nurse’s call? Lucky for him, no voicemail back in those days!)
With that as our guide (OK… mine), we decided my husband would take a sabbatical from work. We recognize this is an enormous privilege. As default parenting transitions to him, we’re encountering biases from society and from ourselves about who should be doing what.
Here are three things we have implemented to help make the transition easier:
- Tell others. We’re sharing that my husband is the point of contact for all scheduling. He’s modeling the changes we’re seeking by engaging with dads directly to schedule. I’m slowly breaking my own biases and not automatically reaching out to moms first for playdates. Instead, I’ll message all parents at the same time.
- Create systems. We’re letting technology help us reduce the mental load. My husband has set up a series of apps and reminders so that we can communicate about what needs doing/buying/completing in a way that doesn’t require an immediate answer from either of us.
- Give up control. This one’s for me, and it’s the hardest when you’re a type-A perfectionist. But I know giving up control is the key. He doesn’t need to check in with me on decisions. He can just do it. Clean clothes may take longer to be put away than I would like, but it gets done. And I feel less burdened. (Sometimes I’ll ask myself: “Would Don Draper even think about clean clothes? Nope!”)
Three months in, we’re all happier. I’m better able to show up at work and in the home. My husband feels more ownership of our home life and can be more involved in our son’s burgeoning Little League career.
After the last missed call from the nurse (sore throat) that night, we explained that I feel bad I’m often working and don’t see the calls. But there’s a solution.
“You are Daddy’s job now,” we say. “The next time the nurse wants to call us, ask her to call him.”
My son smiles. He is his father’s job!
Our son benefits from these changes, too. He gets the best of both of us: more games of UNO, more viewings of ’80s classic movies and more togetherness. And best of all, we’re modeling for him that if he becomes a parent, he should take an active role in his family’s life—no matter what society expects.