Taking Paternity Leave Is Not Going "MIA"

Giving all parents time to care for their own babies is good, actually.

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When my son was born, my husband and I thought we had it all figured out. He was going to take a couple weeks of paternity leave, then take the bulk of it after mine ended so we could defer paying for daycare. As it happened, it was also a really hectic time for him at work: he was covering the Democratic primary, which was just getting spicy, and was on the road constantly. I figured one mom and one baby could handle themselves pretty well once he got back to that campaign trail life.

Then we actually had the baby, and, what do you know, it was the hardest thing I had ever done. We couldn’t string together more than two hours of sleep in a row; I would hurl myself into bed as soon as the baby started sleeping just to have some hope of cobbling together 6 hours out of each 24. The diapers were constant and needed to be monitored for signs of inadequate feeding. Breastfeeding went from excruciating to indefinitely on hiatus; I ended up having to pump and bottle-feed for three months until he figured out his latch. My husband whirled around the apartment, doing loads of laundry and washing dishes and changing diapers and giving bottles and holding the baby while I showered or slept or pumped. When my sleep deprivation and hormones caught up to me, he’d comfort me while I sobbed that I’d ruined our lives, that I couldn’t be a mom. We were hanging in there.

Anyway, after two weeks, right on schedule, Greg went back to the campaign trail. He’d be gone for two, three, four nights at a time, and often I would be alone with a baby who needed to be fed every two hours from a bottle that I pumped for him every two hours. Both the feeds and the pumps took around 30 minutes, plus bottle-washing and soothing the baby. It was unclear where sleep was supposed to fit into the equation. I had loaded a tablet with TV shows and ebooks to keep me company during late-night feeds, but I was so out of my mind with exhaustion that my brain couldn’t even handle a sitcom. The flashing screen felt like a baroque torture device. My mother-in-law insisted on coming to stay with me for most of these nights so she could spell me for a shower and give the baby a nighttime bottle while I pumped, and I genuinely don’t know how I would have survived those first few months without her; the nights when she wasn’t there felt endless in the eerie way that nightmares do.  

When I remember this, what I remember is that something had convinced me that one parent is abundantly enough to care for a brand-new baby, that I would be caught up in such a fugue of maternal bonding that my husband would be superfluous. My baby and I would eat and sleep together, remain the same inseparable unit that we were when I was pregnant -- except that he’d sleep, as pediatricians insist, on a hard mattress in his own crib. I remember that this was wrong, that it very quickly became clear to me that my husband was nearly as indispensable as I was, and that without him at home I was in constant crisis. Older moms that I talked to remembered this: waiting as the excruciating hours ticked past until their husbands would return from work and give them a break. It did not seem like a reasonable job for one person. 

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What convinced me that it was? Well, let’s look at what’s been going on with the news about Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg’s two-month paternity leave to bond with and care for his INFANT TWINS with husband Chasten. When I survey the sneering press coverage (“Can Pete Buttigieg Have It All?” winked Politico in a newsletter that opened, “Pete Buttigieg has been MIA”) and chortling tweets from conservative dudes, I see all the homophobic, cisnormative and misogynistic cultural messages that I absorbed, both explicitly through comments like theirs (paternity leave is just a vacation; with mom handling the baby, there’s nothing for a dad to even do; I mean, it’s not like he can breastfeed ha ha) and implicitly through representations of instinctively capable, seraphic new moms and new dads who are elsewhere, getting back to their real job of making money. I see it in the implication that Buttigieg is “MIA,” a term that implies that he’s absent without leave or reason, and the coy joke about “having it all,” insinuating that by taking paternity leave he’s just like the ladies who try, so adorably, to have their little careers as well as their babies. I even see it in the crunchy vogue for attachment parenting, which often perpetuates the same images of glowing supermoms so tightly bonded to their babies that one never questions whether she needs a hand from her partner. 

Assigning all the work of childcare to (primarily) women just ensures that this perception continues, because it means that many straight men simply don’t know how hard it is, how much labor they’re offloading onto female partners who quietly handle it. They don’t want to know. 

I don’t really want to talk about Pete Buttigieg, specifically, here. But the outcry about his paternity leave brought up a lot of difficult memories about the early days of my son’s life, when all my illusions about the serene life of a capable new mom were being demolished. The idea that caring for infants is beneath men and easy for women causes so much harm to basically everyone except the kind of straight men who don’t want to be bothered with their kids.

This hysteria among conservatives over Buttigieg’s paternity leave also comes amid debate about the possibility of passing some form of universal childcare. Sometimes I torment myself by reading the comments on New York Times articles about it, tabulating how many profess outrage at the idea of people making a “lifestyle choice” to have children and then getting “rewarded” by the government via subsidized daycare (most of the comments, usually). 

I’m not sure how Americans reconcile the idea that children are some sort of luxury hobby with the fact that our society needs to reproduce itself to function; I’m not sure how people can both revile parents for being absent from work to care for their children and revile them for wishing for childcare so they can do their jobs. But this always seems to be the flavor of the debate: punitive, contemptuous of parents, unconcerned about the needs of children. 

Childcare is work that parents are selfish either for doing or for not doing. The only moral choice, under the American model, is for a husband and father to work for pay, without ever breaking his stride, and for a wife and mother to shoulder all of domestic and childcare work. This is natural and allowable. Anything else is a frivolous choice, an indulgence. 

This belief system about the role of children and parents in our society seems so pervasive and so damaging. It’s also visible in the lack of access many women have to maternity leave in our country. It, to be honest, breaks my heart. It’s cruel to (typically) mothers and underpaid care workers to burden them with such a staggering amount of labor, and it’s cruel to fathers to deny them such difficult but joyful days with their babies. It’s cruel to families who are too poor to afford quality childcare or to afford a stay-at-home parent, and it’s cruel to single parents and families who don’t conform to the cis-hetero nuclear family model. Above all it seems, to me, so cruel to children. We see them as unworthy of their parents’ (especially their fathers’) care, and as less valuable than what can be produced in a workplace. 

Anyway, paternity leave is not a vacation. If you know a guy who treated it that way, you know an asshole who was letting his partner flounder through a (somewhat literal) shitstorm while he played “Call of Duty.” But keeping men in the office only perpetuates the same misogynistic misconceptions that lead men to slack off when they are at home: that it’s not their work or their concern how their children are cared for.

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