Can We Stop Being the Default Parent?

As a mother of two, I spend quite a bit of time with other working couples with young children now. Just recently, we spent a wonderful weekend getaway at the Hershey’s Chocolate Factory Park in Pennsylvania with other family friends, leaving behind the weekly grind of work, home, and the unremitting weekend chores that has become a staple of life in America. Kids enjoyed the outdoors, pajama parties, we enjoyed mixed culinary skills, wine, and chitchat, and of course the joy that comes from witnessing your little ones negotiating play with their newly learned vocabulary. However, even in the midst of this relaxation, something I realized recently is that for all of us mothers in the group, these weekends hold no exception in our parenting workload. Why is it that while the men enjoy jamming with their guitars in front of the bonfire, us women are still the ones inside putting the kids to bed? Why are we mothers, in every situation, still the default parents?

Numbers Show That Women Are The Default Parents

The default parent, should it even need defining, is exactly that: the parent that takes on responsibility for the childcare need of the hour. Now the fact that women perform more childcare, or any other care work for that matter, is not new. But if its not new then why do we pretend like we live in a ‘post gender discrimination’ world? Increasingly these days, the privileged, urban dwelling families from the middle and upper echelons of society (pick any country) study and read about gender issues – but how often do they talk about it in their households? It is more of a thing ‘out there’ that happens in other people’s households. And why are we, apparently enlightened women, not doing anything about it? After all, we earn and control our income, are aware of gender biases - at least the ones we read about in theory, have the ability to challenge norms if we so wish, and live increasingly in smaller nuclear families with fewer traditional conservative influences from the older generation.

In fact, if you want more evidence in addition to Arlie Hochchild’s book, the statistics show that the majority of us working women are still very much confined to the traditional gender division of labor. A team from the University of Oxford looked into changes in the housework gap in 19 countries from Western and Eastern Europe over the past 50 years and found that women continue to do, on average, two hours more of housework per day than men. In the United States, working mothers with children younger than eighteen, in 2013 spent an average of 14 hours per week on housework, compared with fathers’ 8 hours, and spent 11 hours per week actively engaged in child care, compared with fathers’ 7 hours. Globally, on average, women work thirty-nine days more a year than men, with India topping the list.

The Double Standards

The problem though is not just that women do most of the housework. It is also about the competing demands on our time. It is the ever-flowing nature of our tasks in comparison to men’s discrete tasks - which impacts our productivity, economic opportunity, and most importantly, our potential. In fact, we are expected to do it all if we wish to maintain our careers. The now popular term ‘mental load’ couldn’t be truer. We are expected to notice all things grocery, research pediatricians, plan healthy meals, monitor our children’s academic and socio emotional development, organize enrichment activities, play dates, social events, family trips, and so on, while also putting in the hours at work to maintain a steady career. Anything less makes us somewhat of a failure. Of course if men happen to carry out the same workload, and some (rare breed of) fathers nowadays do, they are lauded for their thoughtfulness and commitment for performing beyond their expected role.

Research carried out among Indian immigrant families in America demonstrates this exactly. Women who were the primary breadwinners with husbands on dependent visas experienced a huge sense of guilt caused by being absentee mothers. They voluntarily performed second shift labor. Moreover, the men described themselves as “sacrificial fathers” as they assumed the role of primary caregiver for the children. In contrast, in families where the husbands were the primary breadwinners, the women just did it all – the housework, the childcare, and there was no talk of sacrifice.

So the issue is not that men don’t parent. In fact, most of the fathers I know are extremely hands on. They take on whatever work comes their way and are very much in partnership with their wives. But in the end, the social expectation for women to be primary caregivers means working mothers usually end up being the ones adjusting our time, work, needs, and wants, to address the needs of parenting - which is work by the day, by the hour, and by the minute, and men are never in the parenting seat to this degree.

The Tradeoff and Its Impacts

What happens to women then? Faced with the stark trade off between quality child rearing and moving up the career ladder, it is still true that many women unfortunately end up giving up on the latter. In India, research shows that the majority of women actually quit work after becoming mothers. Only 18-34% of married women continue working after having a child. In the United States, despite the narrative that women opt out of the labor force these days purely out of choice, research has produced plenty of evidence that there is a significant proportion of women who leave because they cannot afford childcare or because of the time needs of parenting that is unsustainable with the work pressure they face.

Nonetheless, the point is – even among those women who remain in the labor force, the risk is that while we focus on keeping our heads above water, we will still end up normalizing stereotypical gender roles. Beneath the celebratory calls of battles won, empowered as we may be, we will end up adjusting our dreams and aspirations. And our marker of success will remain the impossible and dangerous discourse of being able to “do it all”.

So the more we address women’s equality without acknowledging the unfair expectation from women, the more we end up reinforcing the same old norms. The more we address women’s issues by providing maternity leave while ignoring the need for paternity leave, or by providing flexible jobs that are targeted at women only, the more we will pretend that we have come a significant way in achieving equal rights to men – only to remain predominantly under structures that privilege male needs over female needs and male power over female power. This is the source of our disadvantage, and the reason why so many women are left behind - in the household, in the workplace, in society.

We must therefore recognize the stakes – and stop this ‘not in my backyard’ syndrome. Gender issues are not just problems taught in gender class. They exist within our households and are perpetuated by our daily actions. We must fight discrimination and biases in the workplace in an organized manner but we must also continue to fight the norm within our households that praises us for our oh so godly motherly instinct. And whether we like the contention or not, we must also actively work to get the men in our households to share the burden and time commitment and the mental energy required to jointly raise children. Only when we are able to break off the shackles of expectations from women as the default parents, the natural holders of the parenting instincts, can we expect women to get a fair chance at achieving the aspirations they have for themselves.

Dikshya Thapa is a political sociologist. She is an independent researcher currently based in Jakarta, Indonesia. She writes on gender, social inclusion, governance, and the politics of development. She has a PhD from Brown University and an MSc from the London School of Economics and Political Science.