Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg is facing criticism over his decision to take paternity leave while the country faces major supply-chain issues. But the controversy is also prompting renewed discussion among parents, parenting experts and others about the need for men to have time off following the birth of a child.
Buttigieg, a candidate for the Democratic nomination in 2020 and former mayor of South Bend, Ind., and his husband, Chasten, recently became parents of twins through adoption. In an early September tweet, Buttigieg introduced the couple’s infant twins, saying, “We are delighted to welcome Penelope Rose and Joseph August Buttigieg to our family.”
Buttigieg was mostly “offline” from work during the first four weeks of parenting, according to a spokesperson for the Department of Transportation, as reported by Politico. That prompted charges that the transportation secretary was neglecting his duties at a pivotal time, a situation he also navigated when service in the U.S. Navy Reserve required absences from South Bend’s city hall.
“‘The pandemic’s siege on mental health is real, with companies reporting that employees’ initial productivity sprints have given way to fatigue.’”
— McKinsey report on paternity leave during the COVID-19 pandemic
Among the most vocal critics was Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who said on his program: “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.”
Some critics have accused Carlson of being insensitive and homophobic. But perhaps of equal note are the questions being raised about paternity leave and whether its value and importance is misunderstood by society.
For his part, Buttigieg, in an interview late Friday on MSNBC, said Carlson had demonstrated an unfamiliarity with the concepts of both bottle feeding and parental leave.
Contrary to Carlson’s biting critique, McKinsey & Co., a management consulting firm, carried out interviews with 130 new fathers across 10 countries, and found that paternity leave helps families by strengthening partnerships, supporting women — who overwhelming bear the responsibility for childcare — establishing the sharing of responsibilities from the get-go, and creating a lifelong paternal bond with the child.
“The men told us resoundingly that their experience was a positive one, despite some having concerns about what it might mean for their careers,” it found. “While our research focused on heterosexual fathers taking paternity leave, we recognize that there are many other kinds of families (families with two mothers or two fathers, adoptive families, and so on) that face similar challenges and thus can benefit from parental leave.”
“Advocates say parental leave ensures that employees are in better shape, physically and mentally, when they return to work and are thus more capable of doing a good job.”
In recent years, more companies have offered paid leave to both women and men following the birth or adoption of a child. One survey, from the Society for Human Resource Management and Oxford Economics, found that 55% of employers provide paid maternity leave and 45% provide paid paternity leave.
Some states have even mandated such leaves, though the U.S. doesn’t have a federal mandate requiring paid parental leave, making it the only industrialized country in the world without one, according to the Associated Press.
Indeed, advocates say these leaves ensure that employees are in better shape, physically and mentally, when they return to work and are thus more capable of doing a good job. But they also say that offering these leaves doesn’t necessarily have to affect a company’s bottom line. If anything, they argue, a leave benefit can serve as an inducement to attract and retain talent.
Reddit co-founder and venture capitalist Alexis Ohanian, an advocate of family-leave policies, is among those who say what’s good for parents is also good for businesses. “By introducing better policies, having an open dialogue in the office about parental leave, and finding new solutions to support teams while these new parents are jumping through hurdles at home, business leaders can create a more equitable workplace and, in turn, retain employees,” he told Fast Company.
The stakes arguably become higher when the employee taking leave is a chief executive of a company or, in the case of Buttigieg, a prominent government official. But examples abound of those who have done so without issue.
New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, took a six-week maternity leave in 2018. And Ohanian, married to tennis star Serena Williams, took a four-month paternity leave from Reddit. Other CEOs and high-ranking executives have done so, as well, be they the leaders of a small software company or a one-time manager of Facebook
Still, many men and parenting advocates say there is a broader stigma attached to paternity leave, rooted in the traditional ideas that child rearing is a woman’s job and that men must continue to work and provide for their families. That may explain why men hesitate to take extended leaves: A United State Department of Labor report found that 70% of men take off 10 days or fewer in connection with the birth or adoption of a child.
On top of that, some parents — men and women alike — fear that taking any leave could affect their job security. In a 2016 Deloitte survey, 54% of respondents said they would be perceived as lacking commitment to their job if they took parental leave.
The paternity-leave situation is unsettling to men like Marley Jay, a Brooklyn, N.Y., father of two sons. He took time off after the birth of both of his boys — in the case of his younger son, an eight-week paid leave that Jay much appreciated.
“It’s a toxic-masculinity thing,” he said of the backlash to paternity leave. “It’s sad that people can’t conceive why people would want to spend time with their newborn children.”
Similarly, Tim Anderson, an Austin, Texas, father, said he was grateful even for the two-week paid leave he got after the birth of his son seven years ago. For him, the leave was especially critical because he had to tend to his wife, who was recovering from an emergency C-section.
“‘It’s sad that people can’t conceive why people would want to spend time with their newborn children.’”
— Tim Anderson, an Austin, Texas-based father
But Anderson also said the bonding time with his child proved invaluable. “I did feel more connected [to the baby]. I wasn’t just this person coming home at the end of the day,” he said.
Some men, however, are responding to the issue by not only asserting the need for paternity leave, but also fighting for the legal right to take such time off. Derek Rotondo sued his employer, JPMorgan Chase
for its alleged refusal to grant a 16-week leave. The case resulted in a $5 million class-action settlement.
And the pandemic has also raised the stakes men who want or need to take paternity leave. “While the challenge of getting men to take paternity leave is long-standing, the COVID-19 crisis has created fresh urgency for companies grappling with how to support employee well-being.” the McKinsey report found.
“The pandemic’s siege on mental health is real, with companies reporting that employees’ initial productivity sprints have given way to fatigue,” it added. “Diverse employees have been hit especially hard — including working parents, who continue to feel the stresses of balancing work and childcare.”
What’s more, McKinsey found that many of the 130 fathers the company interviewed “said that they felt more motivated after taking leave and that they were considering staying in their organization longer. They also said that the leave led them to change the way they work, becoming more productive and prioritizing their time better.”
To be sure, many women note that the need for paid maternity leave is still not as widely recognized as it should be. They speak to the fact that such leaves are often falsely seen as some kind of “vacation” rather than a critical time to tend to and bond with a newborn.
“I can’t imagine anyone thinking this is a vacation,” said Emily M. Dickens, chief of staff and head of government affairs for the Society for Human Resource Management.
Dickens balked at the idea that a top government official like Buttigieg can’t take some time off for a newborn.
“No one is not replaceable. … Federal employees are talented and trained to step in,” she said, when such needs arise.