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The mental load of motherhood always piles up on Sunday

Much has been made lately of the mental load carried by the “default parent.” But how do you know you’re the default parent? If you’re not sure, then it’s probably not you—but here’s an illustration from our household nonetheless.

My husband Jon travels frequently for work—he’s gone some portion of three out of four weeks of the month. He left this morning in fact, for a brief, one-night trip. He packed last night at 9 p.m., and emailed me exactly one document before he left—his travel itinerary.

Meanwhile, I’m getting ready to head out of town for five days beginning on Friday. It’s a solo trip, purely for pleasure, and it will be the longest I’ve been away since our second child was born (she’s now three and a half).

I talked to my mom six months ago about helping with the kids while I’m gone. Before I leave, I will email my husband at least three documents: my travel itinerary, a detailed breakdown of our kids’ schedules (who needs to be picked up from which school when, what security tag/car sign is needed for each pickup, who has which extracurricular activity on which day, what needs to be packed for lunches, what forms needs to be signed each night, etc.), and a list of emergency numbers (pediatrician, babysitter, my travel companion in case I can’t be reached). The day before I leave, I will clean the house, do the laundry and go to the grocery.

Obviously, I am the default parent. This does not mean that I don’t miss my husband while he’s gone (I do) or that his absence isn’t noticed (it is). It just means that, when he’s gone, our household still runs in much the same way it does when he’s here.

Even when there’s no travel looming, the same routine plays out on a smaller scale.

Sundays are often my most stressful day of the week.

It starts in the morning with the grocery list. I comb through the refrigerator and pantry and make note of the staples we’re missing, then I flip through cookbooks, recipe cards, and Pinterest to figure out what we’re having for dinner every night.

I compile everything and make a list of what we need (organized by aisle in the grocery store, of course). Jon is responsible for adding exactly two things to the list—whatever he wants for breakfast and what he’d like to take for lunch each day. Then I hand him the list (and, ideally, at least one child) and he goes to the store.

While he’s gone, I check my phone’s Google calendar against the dry-erase one on the refrigerator door—is Jon traveling this week? Do I have any meetings? Do we have any childcare needs to cover? I make a note to ask Jon if he can be home early on Thursday; I have a board meeting that night.

As the default parent, I am the keeper of the pantry, the schedule and all sports accessories. But the funny thing is, I don’t ever remember a conversation when my husband and I sat down and decided that I was in charge of all those things.

Our marriage started out on 50/50 footing—I washed the clothes; Jon folded them and put them away. I loaded the dishwasher; he unloaded it. I made the grocery lists and gathered our tax documents; he took care of dealing with the cable company and taking out the trash every week.

Like many other default parents, my role has developed out of necessity and common sense. Three years ago, I switched to working from home. My hours are flexible and part-time; my husband’s schedule is far more demanding and rigid. Someone has to do all the things, and gradually that someone became me.

The truth is, I do not begrudge my Sunday burden. Logically, I understand why it needs to fall to me, and it’s become such a part of my routine now that I almost forget how much work it is.

Until I head out of town of course, and I have to write it down in list form. I won’t deny that I took a small amount of pleasure from the way my husband’s eyes boggled when he saw what will need to be done in my absence.

“Wow. Um, when do you get back again?” he stammered.

“Wednesday. Don’t worry; you’ll be fine.”

And he will be.

And so will the kids.

And so will I.

I'm taking a break from default parenting because I deserve it. It'll be good for me. And I think, in a way, it'll be really good for my husband, too.

Jennifer Batchelor is a writer, wife, mom, and Nashville native. She openly admits to being the messiest member of her household but makes up for it with baked goods. You can read more of her musings on motherhood, marriage, and the space for grace at That Batchelor Life.

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