Pete Buttigieg’s Paternity Leave Was Complicated. Here’s What He Learned

When I returned from paternity leave earlier this year, my boss here at GQ had an assignment waiting for me: find out how family leave is going for American men. We settled on a survey of new fathers, an unscientific but broad collection of interesting stories—from hourly and part-time workers who simply pieced it together to guys with good jobs and prominent leadership positions. You can read that here.

Working on that project, I unearthed from somewhere deep in my brain the knowledge that Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg had recently taken family leave. The 2020 presidential candidate and former mayor of South Bend, Indiana had become the first openly-gay Senate-confirmed Cabinet secretary, while still in his thirties—and there was maybe some dumb Fox News stuff a while back?

A quick Google revealed that it was so much stupider than I remembered: After Buttigieg and his husband Chasten adopted twins in 2021, former Vice President Mike Pence had attacked the secretary for taking time away from work in plainly homophobic terms, then dug himself in about his “joke” when asked to apologize. The whole thing was gross, and weirdly anti-family from a politician who has claimed to be pro-adoption.

Reading on, I realized the culture-war bullshit was perhaps the least interesting thing about the whole situation. On one day’s notice, the Buttigiegs had adopted twins, a boy and a girl, who would need to spend nearly two weeks in the hospital after birth. A little later, their infant son came down with a serious case of RSV, which led to another spell in the hospital.

The couple’s kids are now going on 3 and thriving. Ahead of Fathers Day, we got on the phone to talk all about how it went—and not at all about Mike Pence.

GQ: The first question I’m asking everyone for this project is a little different for you. It is: Was your boss cool about it? How did that conversation go?

Pete Buttigieg: [laughs] Uh, yeah, my boss was very cool about it. I knew that before we got the call, before we became parents, I was working for a president who really cares about his team and putting family first. Famously, he did that himself in the Senate. So I knew it was a family-friendly workplace. I felt that even more when we were going through tough medical situations with the kids that meant going back and forth quite a bit. At one point he pulled me aside and put his arm around me and said that he was there for anything—anything we needed. That meant a lot—even for a cabinet member, it means a lot when your boss pulls you aside, and tells you that they want to be sure that your family’s okay.

It strikes me that your experience is almost typical for so many men in America right now, where paternity leave is becoming so much more normal, but you also sort of have to assert it for yourself.

Yeah. I think there’s really two sets of dads out right there, right? There are the dads who should get parental leave, but don’t. Everybody should have parental leave. Then there are those who are entitled to parental leave, but the question is whether they can or should use it. And I think it’s very important for the fathers to take that leave and be with the kids, just as it is for mothers. There is more to it than [a mother] physically recovering from labor. It is about so many things—not just the bonding, but the literal work. Which not every new parent knows is incredibly demanding and is something that—especially for a first time parent—really takes everything that you’ve got. It’s a little more extreme for us in the particular sense that we became parents on 24 hours notice and there were medical issues, but really for any parent, that time is just critical.

I read something where you spoke about how work life balance in Washington and elsewhere is still sometimes treated as a “women’s” issue. That was something you were maybe pushing back against.

Yeah. To be clear, I think expectations and demands on women are disparate. They create barriers to being paid equally and progressing in their careers. But leave, and just generally making pro-family and pro-parent policies? That’s for everybody. And in a society that recognizes that dads need to step up, the policies have to reflect that. Sometimes I wonder if part of why we’re behind on family policy is because this was treated as a women’s issue, and women’s issues were not prioritized.

I’m wondering if we could talk about some of the lessons you learned personally. It seems like every new parent has that moment of, like, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” What was that like for you?

Yeah, we didn’t know it hit us. I mean, we’d been hoping and preparing to become parents for a very long time. It was a surprise that it would be twins, so there was that, too. The moment you’re taking care of an infant, you realize that, not only are they dependent on you, but you are dependent on your village, so to speak, of friends and anybody you can turn to. That’s one lesson. In our case, having my husband’s parents close by was really important.

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