Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series of posts on motherhood in the legal profession, in partnership with our friends at MothersEsquire. Welcome Jamie Szal back to our pages. Click here if you’d like to donate to MothersEsquire.
At 4:30 p.m. on the first day of Kindergarten, I got a message from my husband: “The Lady is back at school. They put her on the wrong bus.”
Of course, my Type-A mom brain ran into anxious overdrive wanting to be sure she was not traumatized by her very first day of school. I mean, she’s already the last drop off of the route, and we spent a while getting her psyched up for long bus rides. (Let’s be honest, even 6-year olds need 35 bajillion reminders to pee before taking a 45-minute ride or, sure enough, the potty-dance-demands start 5 minutes into the route.)
Also, how could it possibly have happened that she ended up on the wrong bus? There are only three to choose from, for goodness sake! And her bus number is on her gigantic yellow star name tag that all Kindergarteners rock that first week of school. Seriously. I know most lawyers may have chicken scratch for handwriting, but mine is pretty darn good. There’s no way they misread that bus tag.
But above all this mental clamor focused on my kid was one more thought: It worked!
The school did not call me — it called my husband. As it should have. After all, he is listed as the primary contact on the school contact form.
Which brings me to a question: Who is the default parent in your family?
You know. The one who makes all the doctors appointments, schedules all the play dates, is listed as the primary contact on all the school forms, and makes sure that the kid(s?) remain mostly alive and hopefully well as they venture through their school years. I’m willing to bet that in your family, the default parent is actually the shefault parent.
(I can’t take credit for the term “shefault.” Eve Rodsky, author of “Fair Play” and “Unicorn Space” coined the phrase to call attention to the enormous invisible burden of care-giving and family planning that is so predominately borne by the women in hetero families.)
When asked to fill out myriad contact forms for schools, I find the forms pre-loaded with gendered assumptions about families. There are always spaces for the “Mother” and “Father,” assuming that all families have two parents and that they are always of different genders. More often than not, the section for the mother is listed first, followed by the father, implicitly presuming that the mother will be the primary contact person. Thankfully, this year my daughter’s Kindergarten then included a separately line for “Primary Contact Name and Phone Number,” which allowed us to explicitly direct the school to contact my husband first. I am the backup. But most forms do not give that option. And I am willing to bet that even if that option is available, the school defaults on many occasions to calling Mom even if directed otherwise.
How easy would it be to update those forms so that instead of reading “Mother” and “Father,” they just say “Parent” or “Guardian”? A simple shift in vocabulary and yet a profound result.
It frees the form from socially ingrained gendered stereotypes and is a step in the right direction to dismantling such systemic gender biases within our society in general.
It opens the door to the possibility that family dynamics are not stuck in the past. It recognizes that families come in myriad shapes and forms — some with two parents, some with no parents but instead guardians, some with only one parent, some with multiple parents and bonus parents all invested and involved, and some with parents who are not simply heteronormative couples.
It does more than that.
It also recognizes that there are families in which women are the breadwinners pursuing professional ambitions for themselves and their families. Women like me who are in this position still care about our families just as deeply as any other family. But in the case of my family, I have the support of a spouse who I trust to take care of our kids while I pursue my ambitions. Knowing that the school respected our preference that he be the primary contact gives me confidence and comfort to know I can continue in that pursuit. I will not say without distraction because that gives the incorrect impression that I see my kids and family as a distraction to my professional pursuits. I don’t. But I am glad to have the support of my husband to pursue those professional pursuits and not, in this instance, to be held back by gendered stereotype that because I am “Mom,” I must therefore be the only parent willing, interested, and able to come running to pick up my kid from the school’s wrong-bus mistake.
At the end of the day, my kid was totally fine. So was my spouse. And so was I.
Jamie Szal assists businesses understand and strategically approach state and local tax compliance as a partner at the firm of Brann & Isaacson. Outside of work, Jamie is an active volunteer in her communities: serving on the Trinity College Board of Trustees and as a founding member of the college’s Women’s Leadership Council. She also is a member of the Board of MothersEsquire, involved with the Maine State Bar Association Women’s Law Section, and President of the board of Community Dental of Maine. She co-authored best-sellers “#Networked” and “Women in Law” about the power of women supporting women. Jamie enjoys chocolate, singing, and exploring Maine with her family.