There Is No Such Thing as a Backup Parent

by John Ellis

I recently watched The Descendants starring George Clooney. While the movie is merely okay, one of its main premises is an honest portrayal of much of parenting in society. Tragically, it’s probably even more accurate when the lens narrows onto the evangelical culture.

The movie’s inciting incident is a boat accident that left the protagonist’s wife in a coma. With two daughters whom he doesn’t “get”, the husband/father, played by Clooney, is constantly bumping up against his parenting deficiencies. Towards the top of the movie, Clooney’s character confesses to being a backup parent. Unfortunately, as alluded to in my first paragraph, that is an apt description of many fathers who profess to follow Jesus.

It’s not unusual for my wife to travel for work; she runs offices all over the country. When she’s away, it’s not unusual for concerned women (it’s usually women) to ask if the kids and I are going to be okay. The subtext, which is often voiced out loud, is that dads are less equipped to care for children and the house than the mom. This is complete nonsense. And it reflects a self-serving (sinful) posture many husband/fathers take towards their God-ordained role as husband and father.

Yes, I miss Danita when she’s gone (as do the kids). But we’re fine. She doesn’t worry about us while she’s gone because I’m a fully functioning adult male who understands that Infinity and Hayden are my kids, too. Furthermore, I understand that most (if not all, I’d have to check before making that claim) of the parenting admonitions and “advice” in the Bible is directed to both parents. Likewise, our home falls under my domain, too. I make messes, so I should clean up messes.

This isn’t going to be a fully fleshed out argument because, frankly, I don’t believe it needs to be. It (should be) axiomatic that husbands are to be actively involved in raising their children, too. That includes everything – changing their diapers, feeding them (including cooking for them), getting them ready for school, helping with homework, playing with them, helping out at bedtime, etc. If, for some reason, the family work dynamic pushes the bulk of the work of the home onto the wife, that’s still not an excuse for husbands and fathers to be incapable of taking care of their kids and home; not to mention, it’s also not an excuse for fathers to not be actively parenting when they’re home (or out and about with the family). There is (should be) no such thing as a back-up parent.

In conclusion, and I’m speaking directly to husbands and fathers now, if your wife has to worry, even a little, about how things are going back home when she’s away, whether for work, pleasure, or a church retreat/camp, you need to repent before God and then ask your wife for forgiveness. And then you need to do better. When your wife leaves you with the kids for any length of time, she should be able to do so in the full knowledge that you can handle it. And the only way she can rest in that knowledge is because you have been “handling” it alongside of her all along.

God is not a “backup parent,” and earthly fathers are called to metaphor God the Father to their children.

Addendum: I want to make explicit what I believe is implicit in the article. Because while I believe that it is contextually implied that I am not speaking about not to single parent homes, I want to do due diligence in making that clear. Single parents carry ontological and existential weights I cannot understand, although I know the burdens exist. With this article, I’m speaking into situations in which both parents are present and one of the parents (likely the father) is viewed as a type of backup parent; the parental heavy lifting is assumed to be primarily one of the parent’s roles (likely the mother). Not only is that overall perspective wrong, but it creates situations where the “main” parent is left feeling guilty whenever she (again, likely the mom) is away for a few days. Parenting by yourself for a few days is completely different than single parenting.

Soli Deo Gloria

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