Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on How Parenting Changed Him
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The last time I talked to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg was in the final days of his 2020 presidential campaign. After that tumultuous, dramatic, plague-infested year, I decided it was time for a baby. Apparently, he had the same idea.
Buttigieg and his husband Chasten adopted twins Penelope Rose and Joseph August in August of 2021, after months of waiting and several false starts. On a recent morning — before the East Palestine train derailment, and before former Vice President Mike Pence’s joke about his “maternity leave”— I spoke with Buttigieg on a government-issued Zoom link about how he’s changed since becoming a father.
Q: How has parenthood transformed you?
Early on, you have some imagination of return to normal after becoming a parent blows up your life. You think well, you know, once they’re sleeping through the night, or once they have language, or once they start school or once they go off to college, I’ll have my life back. But that’s not how it works. Every parent I talked to says your old life isn’t coming back. But your new life opens up in a lot of different ways.
Political nonsense becomes much less important to you. When there’s a dumb Twitter fight, you just realize how small it is.
Q: I feel like my sense of ambition changed when I had a baby, which I think is very common for women. Do you think parenthood has made you less ambitious?
The tension between fulfilling certain ambitions and just having a plain old good life has become dramatically more vivid, and the balance of it has really shifted. But to me, that’s actually not a constraint as much as it is an opening. Because when you have something in your life that matters in ways that your professional life— even a professional life like mine—just can’t measure up to, it means that there is much less risk of developing the weakness that so many people in politics get, which is depending on work as your source of meaning.
I have meaningful work and I want to continue having meaningful work. But if I ever didn’t, I would still have such a meaningful family life that I wouldn’t have to worry about it the way I might if this was all I had. And you do meet people in this town where, this is all they have. And that creates some real problems. Because it’s actually hard to be good at these jobs if there’s nothing worth more to you than your job.
Q: How was the adoption journey for you and Chasten?
Pretty early on we came to feel that adoption was the right answer for us. But you do get these false starts. Sometimes you think you get the call, it sounds like it’s your turn, and then they just go dark. It was further complicated for us because given our profile, we weren’t prepared to go the adoption route where you, you know, put your photos and your names in a binder. So we knew we were more likely to be in the so-called “surprise” adoption scenarios. And in the end, that’s what actually happened.
I was on a trip as Secretary, and Chasten called and it sounded like this one was real. So I got on a red eye and Chasten got in the car and we converged on a rural hospital. The phone call said, first of all, there’s an opportunity. Secondly, there are some complicating factors you should know. And three, by the way, it’s twins. That was obviously another huge curveball. We weren’t really prepared for it to be two, to buy two of everything, and really it was four of everything because we were maintaining households in Michigan and DC. And the next day, there we were. On 12 to-24 hours notice, we were parents of two premature newborn twins.
The moment we held them in our arms, I can’t even describe what it was like: how tiny and how vulnerable and how beautiful they were.
Q: And then things got scary. Both of your twins got RSV in those first weeks. How did that experience shape your attitudes towards health care policy?
Obviously, we had a lot going for us: good health insurance, excellent care, friends and family around who’ve helped us. So I don’t want to make it sound like I know the plight of a lot of people who have terrible health-care experiences because of what we went through. But what we went through was terror. We didn’t know if he was gonna make it.
Both of them were hospitalized for a while in the same hospital room in Traverse City [Mich.]. Both of them were on oxygen. To me that was scary enough. But then she got better and he got worse.
Gus is named after my dad—his given name is Joseph—so one thing that was especially difficult was to see on the hospital wall the same name and the same vocabulary—”intubation,” “fentanyl”—that was in play when my father was dying of lung cancer just three years earlier, to see Joseph A. Buttigieg on the door of a hospital room. My son was intubated like my father had been, and he was fighting for his life.
Even then, work followed me. He’s got all the tubes and the wires, but he could wrap his little hand around my finger. And there were times when I would be with him and I would have gently peel his fingers from around my pinky and go into a nearby room and do a Zoom. I didn’t need anybody to know this was going on, so you arrange your face and participate as normally as you can. One time, there wasn’t enough time to cross over into the little room I borrowed to work out of, so I just went into the bathroom of the ICU.
The really tough thing was that by then, there was already a lot of chatter about my leave. And I was wondering whether that period of leave was going to be the only time I had with him. If he didn’t make it, then those weeks would have been it.
Q: What was it like to have everyone questioning your decision to take parental leave? Why is it important for men to take leave?
My view was that it was important, both for our family and and for the message it would send. Federal career employees get 12 weeks. It wasn’t quite realistic to get all the way to 12. It was always clear to me that this White House had my back.
There’s a lot more to leave than physically recovering from childbirth. Physically recovering from childbirth is extremely important—I obviously have no personal understanding of what that’s like—but that’s not the only reason that leave matters. The most fundamental thing is just the work of getting a child’s life off to a good start.
The other really big thing I want to make sure is understood: leave is work. I am used to working very hard. And the hardest I’ve ever worked was during that leave, because the kids’ needs are unrelenting. And that was the other really galling thing about leave, is people treating it as if it was a vacation. From running for President and going to war, I think I know what hard work and sleep deprivation are like. But no experience in my previous life measured up. There were times when Chasten and I realized we were physically running into walls because we were so completely exhausted. Handling becoming a parent and taking care of your children takes time. It takes time to do that work.
The first month I was fully offline. Over the next month we started feathering in more meetings and ramping back up. And it was just around the time I was expecting to get fully back online that Gus took this turn.
Q: Obviously traveling with twins is a nightmare. But not everyone is the Secretary of Transportation. Do you have any travel hacks?
I don’t have any magic tricks that make it easier. On the policy side, we’re working on this a lot though, with basic things like being able to sit with your child, which I think is a fundamental no-brainer thing that every airline should facilitate.
Against all of my prior instincts, I am now a minivan dad. We did a lot of long drives, including multiple drives between Michigan and DC. Sometimes it was two dogs, two dads, and two kids in their van, and that was really hard because Penelope has a reflux issue. We have not yet figured out how to do one-on-two travel. We’re gonna have to. If we’re flying, it’s both of us, or we’ve recruited a friend.
Q: What’s your biggest parenting mistake?
Because I wanted it to be true, I think I embraced the possibilities of sleep training weeks before there was anything realistic to it. And could have saved a lot of effort and angst by accepting that.
Q: Favorite parenting hack?
The hardest maneuver these days is solo double-bath time. You have to get one kid diapered before they pee on the floor, but you can’t leave the other kid alone in the tub. Figuring out the sequence that makes that possible took weeks.