In mid-August, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg began doing something, or rather, stopped doing something, that caught the attention of millions in the press. In the past, Buttigieg served as a campaign and White House surrogate, frequently defending President Joe Biden and his agenda on television news outlets and becoming one of the most visible transportation secretaries in history in the process. But all of that changed when he disappeared from the media.
His absence was highlighted by the fact the Department of Transportation did not make any statement about it until pressured by the public, but the official response did not come from nowhere. As Buttigieg announced on Twitter on Sep. 4, he and his husband Chasten have become fathers to twins. The reason for his media break and time off work was to tend to his growing family while taking paternity leave.
This did nothing to stem the barrage of complaints, though. The debacle had only begun. Conservative television host Tucker Carlson joked that Buttigieg and his husband were probably figuring out how to “breastfeed” while commentator Matt Walsh tellingly said there “isn’t much” for a father to do for a newborn. Aside from the thinly veiled misogyny and homophobia of their statements, those comments reveal a deep misunderstanding of what maternity and paternity leave are and what their purpose is.
Globally, American policies on family leave are the exception, not the rule. Nearly every developed nation mandates that companies offer some amount of paid parental leave, and Bulgaria, the nation that offers the most time for new parents, allows over a year of paid leave. Norway allows families to split up weeks of leave, meaning if one parent requires more time away from work than the other, the couple has the flexibility to adjust.
America does not require that companies provide paid parental leave and only mandates that those with more than 50 employees provide 12 weeks of unpaid leave.
Paid family leave is a crucial policy that, were it mandated in the United States, would allow millions of new parents to better balance work and family. There are many proven benefits to paid family leave, including improved post-pregnancy health and financial stability for new families, according to a 2016 literature review by Adam Burtle and Stephen Bezruchka published in the open access journal Healthcare.
The authors concluded that the weeks following a pregnancy are crucial in the health of infants, and the implementation of maternal leave policies similar to Sweden’s could significantly improve the health and financial well being of American families. Parents in Sweden are entitled to 480 days of paid parental leave, 240 for each parent, when they adopt or give birth to a child. In 2019, the U.S. infant mortality rate was more than twice that of Sweden’s, according to the United Health Foundation.
Regardless of the more problematic motivations behind the conservative pundits’ comments, they point to the sheer rarity of paid family leave in America. The debacle highlights the fact that Cabinet members can enjoy more paid leave than many of the people who work for them or who work in the private sector. Although there is no parental leave policy for Cabinet members, the president can grant them the right to take as much paid leave as he sees fit.
Biden and Buttigieg have used the conversation around paid leave to advocate for just that, with parental leave being a key element of the “Build Back Better” agenda. Many Republicans who criticized Buttigieg oppose the policy, though, and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, recently obstructed attempts to keep it in the larger bill, stirring conflict between him and other Democrats.
It is reasonable to be concerned about a government figure as high profile as Buttigieg taking a long absence, regardless of the reason, but as a DOT spokesperson explained to The Washington Post, he is still working remotely on matters that can not be delegated to his staff.
The controversy has done more to highlight the need to institute and normalize paid leave in America than to discredit the current administration. Rather than scoff at a new dad navigating his way around the unique challenges of fatherhood and politics, the proper way to deal with this conflict is to mandate paid family leave for all Americans.