Pete Buttigieg faced mockery after the story broke that the transportation secretary has been on paid paternity leave since mid-August. It seems to me Buttigieg’s choice to care for his children represents a growing movement by parents and grandparents like me who define ourselves by our experience of caregiving rather than by our career status.
An exchange with my granddaughter Lucy, when she was four, helped me focus on what matters most. I was on a break at home during an especially hectic book tour. I told Lucy how much I was missing her. Lucy asked me plaintively, “But, Ba, why are you traveling so much?”
“To sell my latest book,” I said. “I earn my living as a writer.”
She thought about this for a few moments and then stated emphatically and with the candor only a child could muster, “You should write less!”
Eight years later, when Lucy was twelve, we experienced the coronavirus lockdowns together. She’d gotten her wish; I wasn’t traveling at all. No one was. Along with my wife Genie, I was taking care of Lucy and her siblings seven days a week for eight hours a day. And I’ve never been happier.
I found during the year-plus of stay-at-home sheltering that I was living in tune with what I’ve come to believe is the most basic evolutionary prime directive of all: the survival of the friendliest. That’s a fancy way to say that-- as a sixty-nine-year-old heterosexual father and grandfather-- I’ve discovered something surprising about myself: I’d rather be a mother.
I’m using the word mother (or mothering) as a verb describing the practice of providing nurturing, creative, joy-filled childcare as a luminous gift given to a child by any caregiver of any gender or sexual orientation. I’ve been doing lots of mothering of Lucy (now thirteen), Jack (eleven), and Nora (seven)-- ever since Lucy’s birth. In fact (a book tour aside) I’ve been a stay-at-home grandfather for the last twelve years so my daughter-in-law and son can work knowing their kids are cared for and loved.
Careers fade. Priorities change. The pandemic made me compare the happiness I’m experiencing as “just a caregiver” with the more socially acceptable career-driven stages of my life. But we Americans have a problem: too many of us define ourselves by job title not the joy-giving quality of our most loving relationships. Now some of us are pushing back. As Derek Thompson writes in “The Great Resignation Is Accelerating” (The Atlantic October 15, 2021). “More families today work at home, cook at home, care for kids at home, entertain themselves at home, and even school their kids at home … the pandemic may have downgraded work as the centerpiece of their identity.”
Some moments stand out for luminously defining what matters most. For instance one winter evening when Lucy was three she said, “Let’s go outside and walk around in the dark.” We bundled up and I stuck a box of sparklers left over from the fourth of July in my pocket. It was so foggy we couldn’t see our house as we walked out to the river nearby. We stood on the muddy tidal flats and I lit a sparkler. The sparks were reflected on the dark water and in Lucy’s shining happy eyes. “Hi river!” Lucy called waving the sparkler over the water. As we walked home I swooped up my beloved granddaughter and held her close, and I knew the reason I was born.
Some things have self-evident value as Buttigieg pointed out in an interview answering his critics: “I’m blessed to be able to experience … the flexibility to take care of our newborn children… It’s a joyful work. It’s wonderful work...”
If the coronavirus taught us anything, it’s what our actual needs are. College is nice, jobs are necessary-- but we need connection. We need community. We need to be nurtured and supported. If we care about having a better future than the version sold to us by corporate bosses we will find ourselves demanding funding for well-paid, well-trained childcare givers when parents can’t provide care. We will fight for the time to enjoy parenthood.
Will political leaders step up for authentic family values? Will they legislate and spend tax money accordingly? Will ‘family values’ conservatives facilitate actual pro-family choices? Can we mother our children without someone telling us that life is supposed to be about “serious” work, effectively screaming “Everyone back to the office!”? Do we really want our careers to cut us off from the experience of love?
Frank Schaeffer is a writer and author of the forthcoming book Fall in Love, Have Children, Stay Put, Save the Planet, Be Happy.