Treating “Default Parenting Syndrome” with Dr. Amber Thornton

How to identify and undo "default parenting"with Dr. Amber Thornton.

Treating “Default Parenting Syndrome” with Dr. Amber Thornton
Dr Amber with her husband and son.

Some of my most popular newsletters last year had to do with gendered relationships at home, such as how we work to achieve equal partnership, and how we negotiate division of labor and outsourcing. I’ve written about maternal gatekeeping and looked at how we can challenge the status quo of who's a "lead parent" from a dad’s perspective. But there’s still a lot more to say. I think this area is of such constant interest to me (and you!) for two reasons. 1. It impacts so much of our daily lives and has far reaching implications for our personal relationships and professional realities. 2. It’s a constant work in progress. Similar to parenting, as soon as you think you’ve mastered one stage of development, your kids grow and change. The same can be true for division of labor and partnership negotiations.

That’s why I’m excited to bring another voice into this ongoing discussion, Dr. Amber Thornton. Listeners of The Double Shift may remember Dr. Amber from our episode (The Moms are Not OK, Part 2) that discussed pandemic mental health challenges for moms. Dr. Amber is a licensed clinical psychologist, coach and the creator of Balanced Working Mama, a platform for millennial moms to prioritize their mental health, which includes a podcast and a robust Instagram community. She is approaching some of these thorny issues with concrete, tactical advice that I think you all will appreciate. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

To listen to my extended conversation with Dr. Amber as an audio newsletter where we tackle the mental load and the difficulty of giving up control of tasks, become a member. It supports this work and starts at $7/mo.

Katherine Goldstein: I was very intrigued when I saw on Instagram about how you were focusing on challenging this idea of “the default parent” as a 2023 theme. Can you describe the difference between a “default parent” and a “primary parent?”

Dr. Amber Thornton: That's a great question. “Default” and “primary” mean “first in line” to me. “Primary parent” might have a more positive vibe to it, as something that is consciously chosen and agreed upon. Sometimes with a default parent, this is something that has happened in an unspoken manner, it wasn’t consciously chosen.

Katherine Goldstein: So how our parenting roles shake out aren't just individual decisions that exist in a vacuum, but they have larger social context. So talk to me about “default parenting syndrome.”

Dr. Amber Thornton: This is a societal and cultural phenomenon where someone in a partnership who is often the woman-identified person, or is in the stereotypical "mom" role, is doing a lot more. Often because of cultural context, cultural upbringing, socialization, family expectations – all of that can lead her to being a default parent.

This is a very systemic issue where when people grow up as girls, if they become wives or moms, we’ve probably somewhere along the way been socialized to believe that our inherent worth a lot of it has to do with how good of a wife and mom you are, how well you take care of your partner and how much you can do without asking for help.

And when we think about men, and boys who become men, that stuff is not really as integrated into their identity as it is for women. Their self-worth might have very little to do with “how good of a father are you? How much time do you spend with your children? How much time are you doing the dishes at home?” If anything, it might be the opposite for them. So that kind of really feeds into this Default Parent Syndrome where wives and mothers start to just implicitly and unconsciously pick up more domestic and parenting tasks.

The default parent may see more of "the stuff" because their eyes have been primed to see all the work at home. Their ears have been primed to hear the kids, but it's not always the case for men. But the thing is, we don't leave it that way. We have to really figure out, okay, this is what we're dealing with now, but how do we change it?

Because this is not fair, it doesn't feel good, and there are so many ways that we can work to get out of these defaults.

Katherine Goldstein:  Also, some of our social policies, like for example if a man doesn't have much time to bond with a new child and is not home when a baby is born, that can set up this default parenting from the beginning. How is someone supposed to know how to do certain things if they've never had the time to learn?

Dr. Amber Thornton: Yes. I am often thinking about the psychological parts of things, but you have really helped me to have some language for the societal and political level of things, and I just love that because you're absolutely right.

Katherine Goldstein: So, what would you say are the stakes here? What would you say default parenting can cost us, personally and professionally?

Dr. Amber Thornton: So much. I think that it can cost us our mental health. Often when you are doing too much, which is often the case for a default parent, it leads to burnout, it leads to chronic fatigue, it can lead to anxiety, feelings of depression, oftentimes isolation, because maybe there isn't a lot of time or space for socializing.

One thing that I often hear about is moms who are very disconnected from their desires, because there's not enough time or space to even know, “What do I like? What brings me joy?” That connection with ourselves often is really lost when we are in a default parent role. The relationship with your partner often is compromised because being a default parent can lead to resentment, it can lead to anger. A lot of unspoken expectations or a lot of unspoken issues. So that really can absolutely interfere with a happy partnership. But then also the relationship with our kids. There's a lot of discourse about conscious parenting and gentle parenting. It's really hard to do when you're overwhelmed and it's really hard to do when you're frustrated and when you're burnt out.

Katherine Goldstein: As you work with moms, this idea of “balance” has a lot to do with our professional lives as well. What are the stakes professionally for allowing “default parenting syndrome” to continue unaddressed?

Dr. Amber Thornton:  When you are in a default parent role, especially for a long period of time, it can lead you to compromise some of the desires that you have for your career. Because you may feel like, “where is the time, energy and capacity going to come from?” So, a lot of times moms maybe don't take the leap that they may want to or the risk that they may want to in their careers or starting new businesses because they already feel overwhelmed. But then also I think, for women who are working professionals, if you are a default parent, it may lead you to inequitably taking more time off or maybe having to leave work more often, and that can lead to you being passed over for promotions or other negative professional consequences.

Katherine Goldstein:  What are a few of your favorite tactics for getting the ball rolling with challenging default parenting, because this is not something that's gonna necessarily change overnight.

Dr. Amber Thornton: Okay, I recently created this guide, it's 27 Ways to Undo Default Parenting. And they're very simple strategic tactics that you can do. Recently on Instagram, I posted about being very direct in how you request help. For many women it can be so hard to just really ask for what you need. This happens at home. This happens at work. This happens in our friendships. Today I posted a reel about, and this one is a fun one, but it's powerful – redirecting your child's request for things. A lot of times moms will tell me, “my kids only come to me for things. It's like, they don't even see that there's another parent here.”

But little things like that over time when used consistently and persistently, in addition to just having a real honest conversation with your partner are all part of making meaningful changes.

Katherine Goldstein: So, my last question is that your advice around default parenting is really aimed at people with partners and presumes a baseline safe and loving relationship. I'd love to find a way to make this conversation more inclusive of people who are single parents by choice or have tough relationships or no relationship with a co-parent. So, what are some of these lessons that are applicable to them?

Dr. Amber Thornton: I want to be more creative about my thoughts about this too, because I have been getting some questions and there's tons of moms in my community who are single moms. With undoing default parenting, there are some skills that we can really pull out that can be generalized to other situations.

For instance, we just talked about being really clear in our communication, really being confident and comfortable with really asking for what you need. We need to do this with our partners, but also if you have a co-parent, yes, there too. But then also if you don't have a co-parent, how can we do this in our other supportive relationships – whether it's a community of other moms, or extended family members, how do you really get comfortable with asking for what you truly need?

As I get deeper into this, the default parent undoing, some of the underlying core values that can really be applied in many contexts are relationships.

To listen to my extended conversation with Dr. Amber as an audio newsletter where we tackle the mental load and the difficulty of giving up control of tasks, become a member. It supports this work and starts at $7/mo.

For tomorrow’s members-only thread, I’ll be asking you, where do you see yourself in this default parent conversation? Even if you don’t consider yourself the “default parent,” are there areas of parenting that you find yourself as the “default” that you want to examine? I’m especially eager to hear from moms without partners about what, if anything, feels applicable to them.

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Jan 27th Double Shift Member Hangout + Angela Garbes Event

DURHAM!! Come on out!! On 7pm Angela Garbes will be in town giving a talk on The Ethics of Now: a conversation on radicalism, justice, and mothering, through the Kenan Center for Ethics at Duke. It's at The Durham Arts Council downtown. Admission is free but first come, first serve – and The Regulator will have copies of Essential Labor there is you'd like her to sign a book. This event is free and open to the public!

Double Shift Members:  We’re making a full evening of it –Join me for a “pre-game” hangout at 5PM nearby to Angela’s event and we’ll walk over together and make a robust cheering section. Feel free to come to just the hangout, just the talk or both! Details should be in your inbox.

Want in on the fun and the deets to come to our IRL Durham hangout? Become a member, it starts at $7/mo


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