The debate over Pete Buttigieg’s paternity leave is missing one thing: the birth mother

In early October, the news cycle gave birth to a giant red herring, and all the country’s most prominent talking heads have been dining out on it since.

I am talking about Pete Buttigieg’s paternity leave. He and his husband announced in August that they had become parents of newborn twins in October, social media went bonkers with the news that Mr. Buttigieg, who is the secretary of transportation for the Biden administration, had been on paid paternity leave for two months and has only recently returned to work.

I say that the question of paternity leave is a red herring, but do not mistake me: I am not saying it is not a big deal. I know firsthand how desperately new moms need help (and how capable men are of bonding with newborns). Sometimes I hear friends complain that their husbands only had a week or two off after the birth of a child, or maybe they even had to use their vacation days. I nod sympathetically and zip my lips, remembering the time I persuaded my ob-gyn to induce labor on a Friday so my husband could be with me for the luxurious span of Saturday and Sunday. That was the time he had off: 48 hours a week. Period.

The nurses would always ask me what my postpartum support network looked like, and I would tell them, “Nothing.” They would look sad, and that was as far as it went. So you do not have to convince me: A world where moms and dads and babies can be together and rest? That would be very good indeed.

But it is peculiar to see the Buttigieg discourse swirl around the question of paternity leave when a close look will reveal that it is really about so many other things, and that is why people are getting so mad about it.

First, of course, it is because Mr. Buttigieg is gay, as Tucker Carlson so incisively noticed. More than that: He is gay and kind of boring, and some Americans have no idea how to process that combination. So they get mad.

Second, we are talking about paternity leave, but we are really talking about the rights of workers in general, about whether even people in thankless jobs should expect to have full lives or if it is reasonable for them to owe their soul to the company store. We are clearly in the early stages of some kind of cultural spasm regarding labor, and it is not clear if we are going to slide right back into the status quo ante, or if there is some real transformation afoot. That is scary, and scary things also make us mad.

Third, we are also talking about paternity itself, fatherhood, manhood. Lord, do we have some sorting to do on this. One writer opined on Twitter that there is not much for a dad to do when there is a newborn in the house, and babies do not care either way. It is an old but often true trope that the men who sneer at hands-on dads are often secretly grieving that their own dads never had the time for them, and that is why they care so much. In any case, it is harder than it ought to be to step away from what is familiar, and being asked to do so makes us mad. So now we are mad about fatherhood, too.

The White House arguably degraded the discourse further by calling Mr. Buttigieg a “role model” for taking two months off in the middle of an economic crisis. Press Secretary Jen Psaki probably meant something more like an “aspirational example,” but her words came off as critical of dads who cannot take time off, especially since Mr. Buttigieg is undeniably part of privileged sliver of society with the money and access to choose when and how to start a family.

So there is all this stuff: about sexuality, class, money, work, fatherhood, legislation and so on. But do you know what has not been talked about at all?

The mother. The woman who gave birth to her two little ones two months ago and then said goodbye. That is what I am here to do: talk about her.

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine.


Liked it? Take a second to support simchajfisher on Patreon!

7 thoughts on “The debate over Pete Buttigieg’s paternity leave is missing one thing: the birth mother”

  1. When I heard that Pete Buttigieg had taken paternity leave over the past couple of months, my first thoughts did not involve his sexual orientation, his right to parental leave (which I support), or the status of the birth mother. My first thoughts were along the lines of, “hey, isn’t he the secretary of transportation? And isn’t this country in the midst of a worsening supply chain crisis?” Female or male, he should be ashamed of himself for stepping away from from his duties for TWO MONTHS during a transportation crisis. And he wasn’t willing to do that, he should not have accepted the appointment. THAT is the story here.

  2. I would avoid reading the comments for your article in America Magazine, it’s a dumpster fire. I would also avoid America Magazine in general because they are not good Catholics (which sounds very judgy I know but what else do you call a magazine whose main audience supports literally every controversial issue (abortion, gay marriage, ivf etc.) that the Church is opposed to?)
    As for your article, it’s reminiscent to another I read by Brandon Mcginley named “Her Name is Monroe Christine.”
    Thank you for reminding people to care more about the woman who (for whatever reason) gave up her children to what I’m sure she believed to be a good and loving home. There’s nothing wrong with reminding people to care.

    1. I just read those. I thought about commenting but hardly knew where to begin. Just appalling. They really prove Simcha’s concluding point for her, but I guess they can’t see that.

      1. I found many of the comments very thoughtful. I remember the first time I had heard a woman struggling with infertility speak of her “carrier” I was appalled, but more than two decades later I’ve become hardened to the word and so familiar with the financial transaction of surrogacy that I sometimes forget to pray for the people involved.

        ps I didnt know paternity leave was controversial. People have been taking it for years. I think it’s this particular instance where the supply chain is crumbling around us that it becomes problematic. When I was postpartum, my husband (whose job is nowhere as important as being the head of transportation for the whole country) was always available to his clients to put out fires and yet he still managed to bond with our babies and make me feel supported. I think the guy responsible for the whole supply chain of the United States could manage to do the same or he shouldn’t have taken the job.

        1. He has deputies, though. There are lots of other people who can cover his work! It’s not like he’s the Chosen One and no one else in the country can live up to his level of supply-chaining.

          1. No, but he’s the final say so. And if he isn’t, then there’s an acting head of transportation (or there should be). And why didn’t they tell us there is an acting chief instead of pretending the whole thing is an issue of paternity leave? Look, squirrel!

            Maybe the empty shelves (or items stocked in strange places so you don’t see the empty shelves) haven’t come to your neck of the woods yet, but unless somebody fixes the mess at the California ports, be assured scary shelves are coming your way.

            In any case, SOMEBODY is asleep at the wheel at the transportation department. And that’s what all this talk of paternity leave is trying to keep Americans from discussing.

            1. I don’t think the administration is “pretending the whole thing is an issue of paternity leave” — commentators dragged the leave issue up by saying he shouldn’t take leave because he’s not breastfeeding and insane things like that. But I certainly agree that transparency in government is important!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *