WASHINGTON – Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg struck back Friday at Republican critics who faulted him for taking time off with his husband and two newborns, saying he was “blessed” to have the kind of family leave the Biden administration is seeking to make the national standard.
“What we have right now is an administration that’s actually pro-family, and I’m blessed to be able to experience that as an employee, being able to have the flexibility to take care of our newborn children, which is, by the way, work,” Buttigieg said in an interview with MSNBC’s Nicole Wallace. “It’s joyful work. It’s wonderful work, but it’s definitely work.”
The Transportation Department never announced that Buttigieg would be taking leave when it began in mid-August. But Buttigieg himself appeared to confirm in a retweet last week that he had been on leave and had returned to work.
He said in the Friday interview that, despite being on leave, he has “been available 24/7 on issues that can’t wait,” one of them being supply chain problems that were a focus of the Republican criticism.
It was an item Thursday in a Politico newsletter that described Buttigieg as “MIA” that launched the tirade of criticism from the right. While delivering a monologue about supply chain issues, Fox News host Tucker Carlson mocked Buttigieg for going on paternity leave.
“Pete Buttigieg has been on leave from his job since August after adopting a child. Paternity leave, they call it, trying to figure out how to breastfeed. No word on how that went,” Carlson said.
Carlson’s comments drew criticism, with many accusing him of homophobia. Elliot Imse, a spokesman for the Victory Fund, which advocates for LGBTQ people in public service, said the breastfeeding line was simply an attack on Buttigieg “for being a gay dad.”
“If he wanted to make an argument about taking paternity leave, he could have done that without throwing in a homophobic trope,” Imse said.
The United States is a global outlier in not requiring paid leave for new parents. Democrats are proposing a 12-week guarantee in the budget package and touted the need for time off for workers who become parents in their defense of Buttigieg. White House press secretary Jen Psaki tweeted that he is a role model “on the importance of paid leave for new parents.”
Even before he was sworn in as the first openly gay Cabinet member, confirmed by the Senate during the Biden administration’s first weeks, Buttigieg has been a prominent member of the administration, regularly promoting the White House’s agenda on cable news and social media. But his pace of public comments slackened after he announced that he and Chasten Buttigieg had become parents.
The day after the couple’s announcement, it was Deputy Transportation Secretary Polly Trottenberg who led a trip to Seattle touting investments that would flow from the infrastructure bill. Trottenberg’s comments have also been more prominent in announcements from the department in recent weeks.
In early September, news site Insider reported that a Transportation Department spokesman said Buttigieg was “taking some time off to be with his young family.”
A Transportation Department spokesman told The Washington Post on Friday that Buttigieg was largely offline for the first four weeks of leave, “except for major agency decisions and matters that could not be delegated,” and then began taking on more work.
The Office of Personnel Management didn’t respond to a request for comment Friday, but told Politico that while Cabinet secretaries do not have leave policies like other federal employees, such time can be granted by the president.
In recent days, Buttigieg appears to have resumed much of his role, returning to television to talk about supply chain problems. He took part in a meeting at the White House this week that resulted in retailers and delivery firms saying they would work more during nighttime hours to move goods. And on Thursday, the department announced Buttigieg would travel to Glasgow, Scotland, for the U.N. Climate Change Conference.
After Buttigieg appeared on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Oct. 7, he retweeted a message from paid-leave advocate Dawn Huckelbridge welcoming him back to work.
“It’s been wonderful,” Buttigieg said during that appearance. “It’s everything people tell you to expect and more. I think the biggest thing that has surprised me is just how much joy there is, even sometimes in the hard parts. Don’t get me wrong – it’s the most demanding thing I think I’ve ever done, that Chasten and I have ever taken on, but it’s just amazing.”
Fox News did not comment on Carlson’s criticism of Buttigieg. The company offers new parents six weeks of paternity leave, a benefit some of its stars have lauded in the past. In March, for example, “Fox & Friends” co-host Todd Piro took six weeks of paternity leave after his daughter’s birth.
“I cannot thank Fox enough for providing all fathers who work here with such a generous paternity leave,” Piro wrote in an op-ed in April. “This experience has changed me in a profound way and in ways I won’t fully comprehend until my daughter is older. But for now – that smile coming from the crib each morning, immediately followed by morning snuggles – is what I will cherish the most.”
After his third child was born in April of this year, Fox News host Jesse Watters said he supports paid paternity leave.
“Now I am pro-paternity. I used to mock people for taking paternity, I used to think it was a big ruse, but now, you know, I wish I could take six weeks,” Watters said.
Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas also criticized Buttigieg’s absence, tweeting that he was “absent during a transportation crisis that is hurting working-class Americans.” He later doubled down on his criticism of the secretary, telling Watters that Buttigieg “couldn’t organize a one-car funeral – he’s not going to organize our nation’s ports, and railroads, and highways and airports.”
A spokesman for Cotton didn’t respond to a Washington Post request on Cotton’s position on parental leave. In 2019, he criticized the District of Columbia pizza chain &pizza on the Senate floor for not providing “paid paternity leave to its employees.” The pizza chain’s management, he said, thinks “babies are ‘bad for business.’ “
Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., said Buttigieg “is a new parent no different than the millions of other Americans who also deserve the right to care for their loved ones during birth, sickness and old age.” Labor Secretary Marty Walsh tweeted, “Everyone should have access to paid parental leave, period.”
Rep. Colin Allred, D-Texas, said it’s important for high-profile people like Buttigieg to use their paternity leave because it helps erase the stigma of taking it – something that many men who have paternity leave don’t utilize. Allred, the first congressman to take paternity leave, said he’s a better lawmaker, parent and husband because he took time off shortly after the birth of his two sons.
“Paternity leave is about your family but it is also about you as a productive person in whatever role you have, whether that’s working in the private sector or public sector,” he said Friday. “The reality is you have welcomed a new child into your life and it’s going to change everything in your home and you’re going to need time to adjust to that, to bond with that child to go through the transition.”
Allred said attacks on Buttigieg are rooted in toxic masculinity and other worldviews that suggest men don’t need to be present during the earliest days of a child’s life since they didn’t endure physical changes to become a parent.
“The research tells us the exact opposite,” he said. “When men take leave, their partners do better in their jobs and it leads to better gender equality in the home. And men report higher satisfaction as fathers themselves when they’ve been there in those early days bonding with their child.”