Pete Buttigieg jons the parental leave debate: This is work’ ’
WASHINGTON — No gainfully employed person can predict what their workload will look like the moment their children arrive, or how taxing it will be to put those responsibilities aside and care for a newborn 24/7 — let alone two of them. For Pete Buttigieg, the Department of Transportation secretary, that moment came just as political stakes for his boss were rising.
After a year spent trying to adopt, Buttigieg and his husband, Chasten, welcomed twins named Penelope Rose and Joseph August in August. The babies arrived amid the delay of a bipartisan infrastructure bill and growing concerns over product shortages and the sluggish transport of goods, inconveniences that have only grown more biting as the pandemic continues.
On Friday, Buttigieg’s twins cooed in the background as he spoke by phone about the “pro-family” policies in the Biden White House that enabled him to take paid time off. But then he shared a truism that countless people who have had children learned the hard way, and one that very few men in power have talked about.
“The big thing is having a newly personal appreciation for the fact that this is work,” Buttigieg said. “It may be time away from a professional role, but it’s very much time on.”
Taking time with his family meant that Buttigieg, who is admired inside the administration for his deftness as a public speaker and on-camera surrogate, was not front and center as infrastructure and supply chain discussions unfolded. He took four weeks of paid leave from his role where he was mostly offline but said he was able to delegate responsibilities during leave or log on remotely for higher-priority work.
Buttigieg said that everyone in the White House, which sanctioned his leave as a Cabinet member, had been “wonderfully supportive.” (As a senator, President Joe Biden made it clear to staff in a memo that they were allowed to put family obligations before work.) But, Buttigieg said, taking paid leave “shouldn’t be up to your particular good fortune” or the graces of an employer.
Buttigieg said he was now better positioned to plead the case for better leave policies, although he expected he would be more focused on the particulars of the infrastructure bill than the parental leave provisions.
Still, conservatives questioned Buttigieg’s decision to take time off as legislation hangs in the balance and amid a supply chain crisis. Loudest among them, as usual, was Tucker Carlson of Fox News: “Paternity leave, they call it, trying to figure out how to breastfeed. No word on how that went.” (Buttigieg said later that Carlson might not understand the concept of bottle feeding.)
Carlson’s comments were criticized as sexist and — since Buttigieg is the first openly gay Cabinet member confirmed by the Senate — homophobic. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., criticized Buttigieg’s performance as “so bad that Americans didn’t even realize he spent the last two months absent on paternity leave,” an insult that exaggerated how long the secretary was out of the office.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., the first senator in history to give birth while in office, said those comments only highlighted the gender discrimination that fathers continue to face when they take parental leave.
“It is important for him to set the standard for other folks and make it acceptable,” Duckworth said in an interview. “It’s just as important for fathers to be there as mothers to be there.”
Research shows that parental leave helps fathers bond with their children, and a growing number of companies have extended benefits to fathers, but there is still evidence that men — in the United States and elsewhere — feel more pressure to remain on the job rather than take time off to spend with their babies.
The White House has stood behind Buttigieg’s decision. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Twitter on Friday that he was a role model when it came to demonstrating “the importance of paid leave for new parents.”
At different points throughout their time in Washington, the Buttigieges have used their influence as public figures to advance cultural discussions and subvert commonly held ideas about the relationship dynamics of powerful people.
“People are accustomed to politics looking a different way, and you’re here to make sure that, you know, it can look a different way,” Chasten Buttigieg said in an interview with The New York Times in the spring.
The next frontier for the Buttigieges is parenthood, and Pete Buttigieg said they are learning on the (unpaid) job what research has made clear: Time allowed for parents to bond with their children after birth is crucial for development.