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Former Vice President Mike Pence joked last weekend about Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s parental leave, calling it “maternity leave” and linking it to problems in the air traffic control system that happened months later.
The mockery was homophobic and misogynistic, Buttigieg’s husband, Chasten, said Thursday on “The View” and amounted to a “swipe at all women and all families.” At the same time, advocates for expanded family leave policies and maternal mental health say, mockery of such issues by a high-profile politician exacerbates the stigma facing dads and LGBTQ+ parents and trivializes mental health challenges facing new parents.
Pence, who is exploring a presidential campaign to challenge former President Donald Trump, became one of the most high-profile Republicans to criticize Buttigieg’s absence from the department while on family leave. Buttigieg’s twins were born prematurely, and one was hospitalized for an extended period of time after contracting respiratory syncytial virus.
“He took two months ‘maternity’ leave whereupon thousands of travelers were stranded in airports, the air traffic system shut down, and airplanes nearly collided on our runways,” Pence said Saturday during the annual Gridiron Club Dinner, a gathering of Washington journalists. (The meltdown facing U.S. airways did not coincide with Buttigieg’s family leave.)
“Pete is the only person in human history to have a child and everyone else gets postpartum depression,” Pence continued.
Chasten Buttigieg said Thursday he felt compelled to call out comments like Pence’s, because it was an attack on his family, and because of bigger implications for American families struggling to “find a balance between work and family life.”
“We all have an obligation to hold people accountable for when they say something wrong, especially when it’s misogynistic, especially when it’s homophobic,” he said.
“He purposely said maternity leave rather than paternity leave. It’s a bigger conversation about the work that women do in families, right?” he said. “Taking a swipe at all women and all families and expecting that women would stay at home and raise children. I think it’s a pretty misogynistic view, especially from a man who just last year said that we should be supporting more people who adopt.”
An overwhelming majority of Americans support paid family leave benefits for new parents and 71 percent say that it’s important for new babies to have equal time to bond with both of their parents, according to a survey from the Pew Research Center. The same survey found that the median length of leave for fathers in the United States is about one week, and it did not include data on LGBTQ+ parents.
“It is disappointing to see a politician be so out of touch with what so many families in this country go through and really, how wrenching but common issues like postpartum depression are,” said Jessica Mason, a senior policy analyst with the National Partnership for Women and Families. “The average person in this country really understands that we need to be supporting families who are going through those kinds of things, not making fun of them at fundraising dinners.”
The United States lacks a federal paid family leave policy, and only half of American workers are eligible for unpaid leave guaranteed by the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.
Mason added that the targeting of Buttigieg in particular illustrates the barriers faced by LGBTQ+ workers, who are less likely to have access to paid leave than the average worker because some employers’ policies may not be inclusive of adoption or offer time off for parents who didn’t give birth.
Rep. Jimmy Gomez, a Democrat from California who founded the Congressional Dads Caucus, said stigma and lack of workplace accommodations surrounding parental leave keep many dads from seizing the health and socioeconomic benefits of time off after welcoming a new child. Still, he said, a growing number of non-birthing parents like himself are opting to take that leave, making Pence’s mockery “very homophobic and just out of touch.”
“Ideas of parenthood and fathers and the roles they play, those concepts are changing, and changing for the better,” said Gomez, who took two months of leave from Congress after the birth of his son. Gomez attracted attention during the start of the new Congress for bringing his son, Hodge, to the House floor.
Gomez said Pence’s joke suggesting Buttigieg took “maternity leave” followed a thread of homophobic attacks against the secretary and displayed lack of respect for LGBTQ+ families. Gomez said that his brother, who is married to a man, may one day start a family of his own.
“I found it personally offensive,” Gomez said.
Pence’s remarks to the Gridiron crowd included a wide array of standard self-deprecating jokes, as well as serious comments criticizing Trump for instigating the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol in 2021 and threatened Pence.
But it was the comments about Buttigieg that rankled some in the audience and caught the attention of the White House, which called for Pence to formally apologize.
“The former vice president’s homophobic joke about Secretary Buttigieg was offensive and inappropriate, all the more so because he treated women suffering from postpartum depression as a punchline,” said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.
Pence’s joke is the most recent criticism of Buttigieg’s family leave by conservative figures that started when news broke that Buttigieg was on parental leave through a Politico newsletter stating Buttigieg was “MIA.” That included mocking comments from Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who frequently targets LGBTQ+ people on his show.
Venicia Gray, who works on health issues at the National Partnership for Women and Families, said that she herself experienced postpartum depression and anxiety as a new mother. She highlighted that Black women like herself are more likely to face postpartum mental health challenges as they already face a higher barrier to adequate health care.
“The joke really underscored that it’s still a quick and really sad laugh to punch down on mental health when it’s something that many people are dealing with,” Gray said. “Comments like this really do further the stigma.”
Marc Short, Pence’s former chief of staff, reacted to the White House’s statement by calling it “faux outrage.”
“The White House would be wise to focus less on placating the woke police and focus more on bank failures, planes nearly colliding in mid-air, train derailments, and the continued supply chain crisis,” Short said on Twitter.
Buttigieg and Pence, fellow Hoosiers, have a long history working alongside each other, notably while Pence was governor of Indiana and Buttigieg the mayor of South Bend. A spokesperson for Buttigieg declined to comment, instead pointing to comments he made during a Monday interview with ABC News when asked if he felt Pence owed him an apology.
“You know, I’ll let others speak to that,” the secretary said. “You know, it’s a strange thing to me because last time I saw him, he asked me about my kids like a normal person would. I guess, you know, at a political event in white tie, it’s a little different. But again, there’s not a lot of time for me to focus on the Washington game because we have real work to do.”