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Buttigieg’s paternity leave is a reminder that the US prioritizes work over family

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The transportation secretary is ‘at work’ like the heroic workaholic he is – but that undermines the whole point of parental leave
Mahdawi, Arwa
Publication Date: 
23 Sep 2021


What Pete Buttigieg reveals about paternity leave in America

Brace yourself, because what I’m going to say next may shock you. Here we go: an American man adopted newborn twins and then had the audacity to take some time off work to look after them! No, I can’t believe it either. No self-respecting, red-blooded man should be spending time with his tiny babies. He should be in the office, missing those early months, so he can focus on what’s really important. Forget bonding with your vulnerable newborns, there are urgent emails to be sent.

The man in question, of course, is the US secretary of transportation, Pete Buttigieg, who recently adopted twins with his husband. Conservatives have, predictably, been having homophobic hysterics about the loving family but were tipped over the edge when it emerged that Buttigieg had taken parental leave. The Fox News host Tucker Carlson, the patron saint of family values, ridiculed Buttigieg’s parenting last week. “Paternity leave, they call it,” Carlson sneered. “Trying to figure out how to breastfeed. No word on how that went.” Carlson, by the way, has four children. No word on how much time he spent with them when they were born. No doubt he was a Real Man™ and left his wife, or the nannies, to do all the parenting.

Buttigieg’s paternity leave was criticized again on Tuesday when a reporter from the conservative outlet Newsmax asked the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, whether it wasn’t wise for Buttigieg to come back to work. Psaki responded by saying: “He is at work. I was on a conference call with him this morning.” She then went on to talk about how important parental leave is.

Psaki’s response to the Newsmax has been widely celebrated on social media and by the more liberal news outlets. There have been a number of headlines like: “Psaki shuts down Newsmax’s reporter’s attack.” I wonder whether the people praising Psaki actually listened to what she said. Because her very first instinct, let me remind you, was to insist that Buttigieg is still working. (Buttigieg, by the way, had a similar response to Carlson’s attack – he went on MSNBC shortly after to stress that he has “been available 24/7 on issues that can’t wait”.)

Contrary to all the gushing headlines, Psaki didn’t “shut down” the Newsmax reporter at all. Rather, she reassured her that Buttigieg may be on leave but he’s still juggling all of his responsibilities like the heroic workaholic he is. And that’s an absolutely terrible response. It undermines everything Psaki later says about the importance of parental leave. Because, last time I checked, parental leave is supposed to be leave. You’re not supposed to work at the same time. I get it: Buttigieg has a very important job. But if the transportation department can’t function without him for a couple of months, then we should all be very worried indeed. A commitment to parental leave is more than just noble words, it means putting into place processes that let people actually take that leave.

You expect conservatives to have stone age views about paternity leave but let’s face it, the Democrats have a hell of a long way to go in this department also. Buttigieg’s paternity leave was an amazing opportunity for the Biden administration to communicate just how important paid family leave is. They should have shouted about Buttigieg’s paternity leave from the rooftops from the very beginning. They should have used him as an opportunity to talk about the importance of men taking time off – and how we will never achieve gender equality until men start taking their caregiving responsibilities seriously. Instead it looks suspiciously like they tried to keep Buttigieg’s leave under wraps. The transportation department didn’t announce that Buttigieg would be taking leave when it began in mid-August. The only reason it made headlines is because Politico broke the news last week with a newsletter describing Buttigieg as being “MIA” and asking whether Buttigieg can “have it all”. Having it leak out the way it did makes it look like it was some kind of dirty secret. The defensiveness since (he is working, promise!) only reinforces that.

I don’t want to be too downbeat. Buttigieg’s paternity leave is a big deal and an example of how social norms are slowly changing for the better. Still, the fact that Psaki is getting wild praise for what was ultimately a pretty dreadful response is depressing. It shows just how much the US – the only rich country in the world without a law on paid leave for new parents – prioritizes work over families. It shows just how little the American people seem to expect from their own government. And it shows how even liberals in the US still seem to have a hard time with the idea of a man putting his kids before his job.

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