Chasten Buttigieg, husband of Pete, opens up about fatherhood: 'I always wanted to be a parent, but assumed I wasn't allowed to be'
Welcome to So Mini Ways, Yahoo Life's parenting series on the joys and challenges of childrearing.
Growing up gay in a small conservative town in Michigan, Chasten Buttigieg says the notion of fatherhood was way out of reach.
“I always wanted to be a parent, but I just assumed I wasn't allowed to be,” Buttigieg, 33, husband to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, tells Yahoo Life. “When we were growing up, marriage equality wasn’t a thing, so I sort of wrote that off as a dream.”
A lot has changed since then, explains the dad (with Buttigieg) to adopted 1-year-old twins Penelope Rose and Joseph “Gus” August, as countless LGBTQ families like his have been recognized with the same benefits and legal protections as any other family. But despite immense social progress, Chasten is the first to admit that the rights of queer people have always been fragile. That's evidenced by an onslaught of anti-LGBTQ bills across the country targeting trans youth, drag queens, books and classrooms.
It's what inspired him to write I Have Something to Tell You—For Young Adults, an updated version of his bestselling 2020 memoir of the same name that aims to be a beacon for queer youth, he says, to remind them that “they’re not alone.”
“I wanted to write the book that I wish I had when I was younger,” the former middle school teacher says. “I didn't know any gay people when I was younger. I thought something was wrong with me and I held on to that pain for a really long time. One of the goals of this book is to help younger people realize that they don't owe anybody anything. They're not defined by their surroundings. They're not defined by the opinions of other people, and it's going to be OK. It does get better.”
Chasten, since becoming a dad, says life has been equal parts joy and challenge. But mostly, he says, it’s just “hilariously messy.”
“Honestly, one of the hardest things for me is to not cry, like, all the time,” he says of parenthood. “Your heart is on the outside of your chest all the time. Everything is adorable, everything is heartbreaking, everything is terrifying. You think of the best and the worst all the time, like they say a new word and you're like, ‘Oh my god, it's the coolest thing ever.’”
The twins are also at the age when their personalities are starting to shine, he explains. “Yesterday, Gus fell asleep in the van and Penelope was like, ‘Oh, Gus. We lost him.’ He fell asleep before we got home,” he remembers with a chuckle. “It was just like, God, these kids are the best. They’re so funny. It’s the best thing ever.”
“All the other challenges are just logistics: What stroller fits through the door and how to get the kids up in the morning, especially when Pete is on the road?” he adds, noting that things tend to get "hilariously messy" throughout the day.
“I'm looking at the wall on my kitchen and it's like a Jackson Pollock painting,” he explains, noting the layers of “fruit juice” and “blackberries” and “pasta sauce” the twins playfully splattered on the wall during breakfast one day recently. Splatter aside, he says, fatherhood was worth the wait.
“It's the best,” he says. “I never thought I would get to be a dad," and so now, “Sometimes I look at these spots on the wall and I'm like, these are my kids, my kids made this mess. I should put a frame around it.”
When the twins were born, Chasten and Pete took paternity leave to care for their family as the little ones were treated for a serious bout of RSV that left them hospitalized for several months. Describing those months as “the hardest work you’ll ever do,” he says it became the most “beautiful, stressful, sleepless and inspiring” time of their lives.
“We had two premature twins,” he explains. “Penelope had an acid reflux issue where she couldn’t lie flat for a couple of months, so one of us was awake 24 hours a day. We went on a shift system for who got a nap and who didn’t. I remember bumping into walls because I was so tired.”
In March, former vice president Mike Pence took a jab at Chasten's family at the annual Gridiron Dinner in D.C., implying that recent transportation woes were due to Pete taking two months of parental leave, though he and Chasten were caring for their babies in the hospital.
Chasten, who responded to Pence via Twitter alongside a photo of Pete holding Gus in a hospital room, tells Yahoo Life that it’s never been more important to break the stigma around parental leave, particularly when it comes to the double standard.
An honest question for you, @Mike_Pence, after your attempted joke this weekend. If your grandchild was born prematurely and placed on a ventilator at two months old - their tiny fingers wrapped around yours as the monitors beep in the background - where would you be? pic.twitter.com/pCWvl8pb5N
— Chasten Buttigieg (@Chasten) March 13, 2023
“Some people see [parental leave] as weakness,” he explains. “It’s really important that family spends that time together to bond with their kid, especially for fathers. Fathers need to be there as well, and I don't think it makes you a weaker man to say, ‘I'm going to show up for my family. I'm going to be there for my spouse or my partner.’”
To the contrary, he adds, “It makes us a better and stronger country when we build stronger families."
Family, community and belonging are central themes in Chasten’s memoir. “It definitely took me a lot longer to write certain parts of the book,” he acknowledges, including anecdotes about "coming out to grandma," “running away from home" and "all the internalized homophobia I dealt with for for such a long time.”
He hopes those lessons resonate not only with youth, but other adults as well — particularly those living in states with growing anti-LGBTQ sentiments, from drag bans to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, which prohibits any discussion about queer topics in K-12 classrooms.
"There are some members of school boards around the country who are failing students," he says of the recent book bans happening in states across the country that target stories with queer or racial-inequality themes. Still, he says, it’s important to acknowledge the growing number of “people stepping up and fighting back” against such bans.
“It's important that young people see themselves reflected on the pages of books at school or in a library,” he says. “It’s OK to acknowledge that LGBTQ people exist. It's OK to acknowledge that there is structural racism built into some of our American institutions. I think we're all better off when we can acknowledge them, and then work together to build a more just and fair society.”
Looking ahead, Chasten says it's the adults' responsibility to find new ways of “showing up” for young people. Giving your child “unconditional love” is “all your kid really wants,” he says.
Staying present, he adds, is key — and something he is continuously striving for.
“I keep telling myself to be present, because I can get so worked up by what's happening in the news or happening around the country and politics, social media,” he says. “The thing about my kids is they keep me so grounded. I can put the phone away and get on the floor with them and just be present, and remember what I'm here for: I'm here to be a good dad. That is my life’s mission.”
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