US must rethink attitude to parental leave, Pete Buttigieg says

The US needs a fundamental rethink of its attitudes towards parenting, according to Pete Buttigieg, who was the target of criticism from conservatives for taking leave to care for his newborn children.

Buttigieg, the US transport secretary, came under attack after he took time to help care for his newborn twins, a boy and a girl, in August.

Senator Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, said Buttigieg was “absent during a transportation crisis” while Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host, told his audience: “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’s remarks were widely seen as a homophobic attack on Buttigieg, who is gay.

Buttigieg told the Guardian that he found the reaction baffling. “Leaving aside the hospitalization, part of me just wondered: how do they think my kids eat? They have two dads – do they think I just leave them with a can opener and directions to the fridge?”

He added that America “has got some catching up to do” on paid parental leave. “We still have to contend with the view that the only justification for parental leave is for women to physically recover from pregnancy and childbirth, which is of course one very important reason, but it’s far from the only one,” he said. “I know in most parts of the world it’s probably puzzling that it’s even controversial.”

The US is one of the few countries in the world without mandatory paid maternal or paternal leave, with Joe Biden proposing a 12-week paid leave period for the huge reconciliation spending bill that he hopes will pass Congress. This policy was reportedly cut in negotiations due to the objections of senator Joe Manchin, the centrist West Virginia Democrat, but Buttigieg said he will “keep fighting” for it to be made law.

“Hopefully we are on a track to where this is no big deal, but this is about culture as well as policy,” the transport secretary said.

Buttigieg is currently in Scotland, where he helping promote Biden’s agenda at UN climate talks known as Cop26. He said the spending bill, which Democrats hope will pass next week, will have a “transformative” impact upon transport, the largest source of planet-heating emissions in the US, by providing major rebates for electric vehicles and investing in public transport.

“We have to get there as quickly as we can, the goals are aggressive and ambitious,” Buttigieg said. “I’ve been really encouraged by the warmth of the reception here, the sense of relief that America is back and back in a leadership role on climate. We need to be making commitments that irreversible because if we don’t, the effects of climate change will be irreversible. It’s a race.”

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