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In heterosexual partnerships, moms are typically the ‘default parents’ who take on the extra duties of family life. Maybe it’s time for them to just say no.yokaew/iStock

On October 24, 1975, the women of Iceland went on strike for a day because they felt undervalued, overworked and, frankly, they’d had enough. Ninety per cent of Icelandic women refused to look after the kids, cook and work for an entire day and it brought the country to its proverbial knees.

The strike, known historically as Iceland’s “Women’s Day Off,” was deemed a success as the country took notice of the importance of women’s societal contributions. By the summer of 1980, the Icelandic people had elected their first woman president, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, who went on to hold the position for 16 years.

We haven’t seen anything quite this extreme in decades, but some wonder if it’s time. The term “quiet quitting” has been plastered all over social media and news headlines, referring to when employees only do the items they are contracted for and get paid for, working within their defined hours and avoiding any “extras.”

What would happen if the moms of the world decided to embrace the idea of “quiet quitting” and refused to do the extras?

“I think things would come to a screeching halt,” says Erin Pepler, popular parenting writer and author of Send Me Into The Woods Alone: Essays on Motherhood.

Unpaid labour of the ‘default parent’

The United Nations reported that women around the world “carry out at least two and a half times more unpaid household and care work than men.” As well, The New York Times ran an article in 2020 that stated, “If American women earned minimum wage for the unpaid work they do around the house and caring for relatives, they would have made $1.5-trillion last year [2019].”

But even without looking at the unbalanced distribution of labour in the home, Ms. Pepler says, moms are typically designated as the “default parent” in families with kids, a role that’s filled with unpaid labour.

The term “default parent” comes from the idea that there is usually one parent that shoulders the majority of the family responsibilities, from school lunches to organizing summer camps. In heterosexual unions, that is usually mom rather than dad. (Notably, a 2016 study out of Columbia University found that the division of labour in same-sex unions is more egalitarian.)

Ms. Pepler says the fact that moms are the first ones that get called or emailed for school and extracurricular activities is a societal issue that needs to be addressed, as it significantly contributes to overworked mothers.

“‘Can you volunteer your time? Can you bake something for the bake sale? Can you supervise this event?’ Those calls go directly to moms,’” she says.

Depleted mother syndrome

Ms. Pepler says she’s received backlash when writing about being the ‘default parent’ in past. Critics protest that she put herself as the main contact for the school or other activities, so it’s her fault. But Ms. Pepler doesn’t believe it matters whose name goes first on the form.

“That parent is typically the one that’s filled out the paperwork,” she notes. Family paperwork is usually mom’s work, since she is the traditional keeper of things like kids’ health cards and vaccination records. “Even if you put your husband first, you often get the call.”

Regardless of whether both parents have jobs outside the home, moms are often responsible for handling kid activities such as medical and dental appointments, signing up for programs or classes, buying speciality gear for extracurricular activities, responding to birthday party invitations and buying gifts for just about everyone.

Being the default parent has taken its toll over time and even spawned a term from psychologist Rick Hanson: “depleted mother syndrome.” In his theory, Dr. Hanson emphasizes how important it is for moms to regain the strength they need to care for themselves and manage their caregiving roles. But for many, that strength is sorely lacking.

Erasing gender-specific roles

“Maybe [quiet quitting] is exactly the revolution mothers need,” says Ashley Margeson, a naturopath in Halifax who specializes in burnout prevention and support, particularly in women.

She notes that moms can’t just tell their young children to fend for themselves. “It doesn’t work that way,” she says. But women could “hold a boundary,” saying “this is what I’m going to do” and putting limitations on the extra tasks they are willing to take on.

If moms embraced quiet quitting, it could open up the conversation about concepts like the default parent, whether it be within a household or within society.

“I do think because it’s the norm for women to do everything, it [can be] almost awkward for men to get into things like supervising the school dance or being the dance class volunteer,” says Erin Pepler. “We have to really normalize dads volunteering at all the things so it’s not a novelty.”

Ashley Margeson points out that the act of quiet quitting itself would be the responsibility of moms. “[It’s] still going to land on the shoulders of the person who is already shouldering that burden,” she says. “There is no one right answer to this issue. It’s multifaceted. It’s a conversation that’s ever-evolving.”

But she definitely isn’t opposed to the idea. In fact, like Iceland, it could have decades-long impact. Ensuring children are not taught gender-specific roles could also go a long way to changing the norm – maybe not for today, but for tomorrow.

“If we [moms] were to ‘quiet quit,’” she says, “we would be doing it for the next generation.”

Ask Women and Work

Have a question about your work life? E-mail us at GWC@globeandmail.com.

Question: My daughter graduated from university this spring with a degree in sociology. She did very well at school and loved the subject matter, but she’s having a hard time finding a career path. She knows how to work – she’s been a waitress part-time since her late teens – but she doesn’t really know what she wants to do long-term. How should she go about figuring out what kinds of jobs are the right fit for her education and interests? I want to help but don’t have the answers.

We asked Laura Barker, career coach at Laura Barker Coaching in Toronto, to field this one:

Since your daughter studied sociology, I would suggest asking her, ‘What were your favourite courses?’ Find the common thread in her preferred subject matter, such as relationships, institutions/social structures or academic research.

Then, turn the focus inward. To find a job she loves, your daughter needs to know her values. Meaningful, purpose-driven work will sustain her over the long term. Have her think of a peak moment in her life. What was she doing? Who was included in that moment? Where was she? How did she feel? Write it down and then ask, ‘What was important about that moment?’ That’s how she’ll develop a list of her values.

For example, let’s say graduation was a peak moment. One person may associate that event with announcing to the world they have their degree. For another, it was having family present to witness it. A third might say it was a crowning achievement. It’s the same peak moment but with three potential values represented: external recognition, family and personal accomplishment.

Now, ask her to imagine the type of environment she wants to work in. Does she picture herself in an office or out in the field? What if it’s both? What’s the percentage breakdown? How do she see herself spending her work hours? Is it educating, counselling, creating programs, researching? Each of these provide different career paths based on her interests.

Does she want to work in a big company with worldwide offices? That may be attractive if travel is important to her because she could potentially transfer to locations abroad. Maybe she wants to work for an NGO or non-profit and do more on-the-ground support. In either scenario, she can refer to her values to ensure they line up with the vision she’s creating.

If there’s divergence between the vision and her values, dig deeper. Let’s say she values family but her vision includes regular international travel. At this point, she needs to prioritize. What’s more important right now? Because she only needs to know the next step of her journey, not the destination.

Finally, let her know that a career ladder which goes straight up is a myth. Careers are more like a jungle gym – they go sideways, diagonally, forward, and backward. As long as she figures out her next move, her career will flourish.

Interested in more perspectives about women in the workplace? Find all stories on the hub here, and subscribe to the new Women and Work newsletter here. Have feedback on the series? E-mail us at GWC@globeandmail.com.