Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg defended paid family leave this week after Fox News host Tucker Carlson mocked him for taking time off to care for his newborn twins, Penelope Rose and Joseph August Buttigieg, whom he welcomed with husband Chasten. Carlson made the remark on air last week, noting Buttigieg’s absence before declaring: “Paternity leave, they call it, trying to figure out how to breastfeed. No word on how that went.”
Buttigieg told CNN Sunday, “I’m not going to apologize to Tucker Carlson or anyone else for taking care of my premature newborn infant twins. The work that we are doing is joyful, fulfilling, wonderful work. It’s important work.”
Public polling shows Carlson’s comment belies the truth about fatherhood and research shows it ignores the science of caregiver bonding.
A Pew Research Center survey shows men are taking on more parenting responsibilities than ever and are just as likely as women to say parenting is extremely important to their identity. Bonding with children at the start of life is how fathers grow empowered to parent them throughout their development. Data shows 8% of same-sex male couples are raising children.
The majority of the public says it’s important for both mothers and fathers to have access to paid parental leave, yet the U.S. is the only country in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that does not offer paid leave on a national basis, and same-sex couples face additional barriers to parental recognition that can even make accessing unpaid leave difficult.
“(His comment) defies all the research and not to mention common sense, to act as though having active mammary glands is the beginning and end of being a parent,” said Jessica Mason, senior policy analyst for economic justice at the National Partnership for Women and Families. “The reality is that men increasingly want and expect to be involved fathers and caregivers. … It’s actually out of touch and insulting to parents, suggesting parental leave is some abnormal thing that people don’t want or need regardless of their gender.”
‘U.S. society devalues caregiving’
Most Americans support paid leave for mothers and fathers, though gendered attitudes are also reflected in polling on public policy. Pew found 82% of Americans say mothers should have paid maternity leave, while only 69% support paid paternity leave. Those who support paid leave for both say mothers should receive more time off than fathers.
“U.S. society devalues caregiving because we associate it with femininity – this thing that emanates naturally from mothers,” said Caitlyn Collins, a professor of sociology at Washington University in St Louis. Collins said it’s impossible to achieve gender parity without thinking “of caregiving as something that men also do.”
Only 13 percent of private-sector workers have employers that offer paid paternity leave to all male employees, according to the National Partnership. It’s common for companies to provide less leave for “secondary caregivers,” which the advocacy group argues is “too often code for ‘fathers’ – and for adoptive and foster parents, which particularly impacts same-sex couples.”
An analysis of Fortune 500 companies found one-third offer twice as much leave to mothers as to fathers.
“There is a big tension between how families are living and how they would like to live,” Mason said. “It’s that combination of social stigma and a lack of policy support.”
Gendered attitudes about parenting also show up in polling on what’s best for kids in the long-term: Nearly half of Americans say in families with young kids, at least one parent should stay home, according to a 2018 report from Pew. Among those who think one parent should stay home or work only part-time, just 5% say it should be the dad. Pew found among those who believe one parent should stay at home, 49% identify as Republican and 39% identify as Democrat.
Paid leave should be ‘gender-neutral to recognize the reality we’re living in’
It’s attitudes like Carlson’s, experts say, that prevent some men from even accessing leave they are afforded.
Research shows fathers may experience harassment, discrimination or mistreatment for taking leave for caregiving, which can make them less likely to take the leave available to them.
Paid parental leave is important for all caregivers, and can especially help men in opposite-sex relationships develop skills alongside the mothers. There is no magic “mom gene,” as Mason says. But when men return to work before they have an opportunity to bond with their babies, mothers become default caregivers, and that dynamic is difficult to change.
Bonding with children isn’t just good for dads, research shows it’s good for babies’ cognitive and emotional development.
“Families come in all shapes and sizes. We really believe a leave program should be comprehensive and gender-neutral to recognize the reality we’re living in,” Mason said. “All children deserve a good start in life and all parents deserve the time and support they need to be successful.”