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Mike Pence, Pete Buttigieg and what happens when we mock paternity leave

Former Vice President Mike Pence joked about Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in his remarks at the annual white-tie Gridiron Dinner in Washington over the weekend.

Buttigieg and Pence have a tense personal history; both are from Indiana and clash on many partisan issues, including religious freedom and LGBTQ rights. But Pence's comments stoked the flames of the much larger issue of paternity leave in the U.S. – who takes it, who can take it and why it's necessary.

Pence mentioned that, despite travel problems that were plaguing Americans, Buttigieg – who is the first openly gay Cabinet member in U.S. history confirmed by the Senate – took "maternity leave" after he and his husband adopted newborn twins.

"Pete is the only person in human history to have a child and everyone else gets postpartum depression," Pence said. Apart from the homophobic nature of Pence's comments, the heart of the matter lies in the implications for paternity leave stigma.

Pete Buttigieg and husband Chasten were u0022overjoyedu0022 about becoming dads.
Pete Buttigieg and husband Chasten were u0022overjoyedu0022 about becoming dads.

Chasten Buttigieg asks Mike Pence of premature birth: 'Where would you be?'

Buttigieg's husband Chasten responded to Pence's comments on social media on Monday: "An honest question for you,@mikepence, 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?"

Parents flocked to the comments to praise the former mayor for taking the time off when his children were born.

"Thank you for taking paternity leave! It needs to be standard and only helps women and families!" one commenter wrote on Instagram. Another added: "You and Pete are incredible parents and Pete taking paternity leave is y’all’s business. Anyone passing judgement need to check themselves."

When dads take paid parental leave, kids win

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.

"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," Jessica Mason, senior policy analyst for economic justice at the National Partnership for Women and Families, previously told USA TODAY.

Most Americans support paid leave for mothers and fathers, though gendered attitudes are also reflected in polling on public policy. 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."

What happens when we mock paternity leave, fathers

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.

"The research on parenting indicates that what's most important is parenting," Ronald Levant, professor emeritus of psychology at The University of Akron, previously told USA TODAY. "There's no gender to it. It's getting your children up in the morning dressed and off to (school), picking them up at school and getting them settled in their homework."

Buttigieg and husband Chasten were excited about fatherhood even before their twins arrived in the world, just like any parents of any gender.

"We’re overjoyed to share that we’ve become parents!" Buttigieg wrote in 2021. "The process isn’t done yet and we’re thankful for the love, support, and respect for our privacy that has been offered to us. We can’t wait to share more soon."

What else to know about Pete Buttigieg

More on Pete Buttigieg and parental leave: Experts say Tucker Carlson's 'insulting' comment on fatherhood ignores the truth about American dads

The masculini: Tom Brady's viral affection with his son, fatherhood and our evolving views of masculinity

'Do the right thing now': Buttigieg calls on airlines to act, not wait for family seating rulemaking

Pence, Buttigieg history: Tensions flare in 'long and complicated' relationship between Pete Buttigieg and Mike Pence

'Mayor Pete': Documentary spotlights Pete Buttigieg's campaign, marriage to Chasten

'We're overjoyed': Pete Buttigieg, husband Chasten share they've become parents

Contributing: The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mike Pence, Pete Buttigieg and when we mock paternity leave