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Pete Buttigieg
“This isn’t a job that you can do forever anyway, but that’s that much more true when you feel the trade-offs as a parent,” Pete Buttigieg said when asked whether he plans to continue as transportation secretary if President Biden wins reelection. Charlie Neibergall/AP

How Parenthood Changed Pete Buttigieg

It has made him more skeptical of D.C. political life — and may have altered the Democratic Party’s future.

It was an early December evening on Capitol Hill, and Pete Buttigieg needed help. As friends milled around his home for a dinner party with former top aides to his presidential campaign, the transportation secretary was deep in the chaos of a one-on-two bath time with his potty-training toddler twins. Bath time in the Buttigieg household is Pete’s moment — he typically dons a bathing suit or gym shorts to enter the splash zone and often sings a self-penned song called “Bath Time Is the Best Time of the Day” — but on this particular night, things were starting to get out of hand. “Hey love, can I get some backup?” he yelled to his husband, Chasten.

Lis Smith, who had been Pete’s top media adviser in 2020 and was there that evening, remembers thinking how striking it was to see “someone who would gaggle in Norwegian on the campaign trail or could recall entire poems and recite them to a reporter in the car … cry uncle during bath time.” Smith, who recently had a child of her own, told me, “There was sometimes a perception of Pete that he was Mr. Perfect and that everything did come a little too easily to him. So there is something new and different seeing him sort of struggle like the rest of us with the challenges of child-rearing.”

The Pete Buttigieg who called for backup was indeed a changed man — more willing to acknowledge he needed help, yes, but also differently disposed toward politics and power than the hyper-confident small-city mayor that America first got to know in 2019. According to Pete, his husband and a dozen people who have known him for years, parenthood has altered everything from the kind of future he wants for himself to the say-yes-to-every-invitation attitude that helped him climb to the top rungs of American politics. “I’m more attuned to all of the different ways you can have a good life, only some of which involve public life,” he told me recently over lunch near the Department of Transportation’s headquarters in Washington.

Chasten told me that people routinely ask him what is next for his husband — but that’s the wrong question. “There has been a significant change in Pete,” Chasten said, “where I feel like he has recognized that leadership is extremely important, but it’s not the only thing.” He continued, “Pete has always been a really gifted, skilled public servant who, therefore, should continue to be of service and should continue to think about what’s next. … But then our kids came along, and I think Pete very quickly realized how good it is being home and being a family, and being in Washington robs you of many opportunities to just be a family.”

Buttigieg is hardly the first Washington official to face a trade-off between public ambition and parenting. Women have for generations borne the brunt of this dilemma — memorably captured by former State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter in her viral 2012 essay, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Now, Buttigieg is experiencing the dynamic first-hand. “I think work-life balance is still sometimes treated as though it were only a women’s issue,” he told me. “I think becoming a father helped me realize what was at stake for me personally in all of these debates about work-life balance, childcare and everything that goes along with it.”

Historically, it has been — and still is — rare to hear prominent men in D.C. openly grappling with these tensions. And it may not be a coincidence that the topic is now being addressed by Washington’s most famous gay dad — who is raising kids in a family structure that inherently scrambles traditional gender roles.

Buttigieg family
Pete and Chasten Buttigieg and their children, Penelope and Gus, participate in the 2023 White House Easter Egg Roll. Evan Vucci/AP

Buttigieg’s circumstances are also unusual because of the sheer scale and audacity of his one-time public ambition — unrivaled by any member, to date, of his generation. He was the first millennial to mount a credible presidential campaign, and he did so with a confidence that, to his critics, bordered on arrogance. I spent much of 2019 and 2020 bouncing around the country with him, from his breakout performance at a CNN town hall to long swings in Iowa and New Hampshire to more reflective time in his hometown. He ran a campaign defined by sweeping visions of the future, plans to “win the era” — and an extreme pace. “He is somebody who is a really hard worker,” said Smith. “That is one of the reasons he did so well in the presidential race.”

And now? “Having twins helped add a little more balance to his life,” Smith said. “It wasn’t just about himself, wasn’t just about work. It allowed him to focus on something completely different. … Life is so much bigger than him. Life is so much bigger than his political aspirations.”

Buttigieg’s shift in mindset has implications for both the Biden administration and the future of Democratic politics. Most pressingly, in the wake of the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, the transportation secretary is facing, in the words of Politico, his “biggest test.” Meanwhile, the long-term future of perhaps the Democratic Party’s brightest young star — someone who once appeared destined for another shot at the White House — now seems more complicated than it did a few years ago.

“I’ve never been somebody who felt like I needed this or that public office in order for my life to be complete, but even more so now with them in the picture,” Buttigieg said of his twins. “It’s one thing to know about that in the abstract as somebody who watches politics or follows politics or reads history. It’s another to think about that when it’s your family. You know that to do well in public life and to do well at home is to beat the odds.”

***

Pete Buttigieg always wanted to have children. In his book “Shortest Way Home,” he writes about how, long before he was a parent, he would think to himself that he’d want to “show my kids” something one day. Chasten was on the same page, and the topic came up on their first date. “I remember being like … ‘This is what I’m looking for,’” Chasten told me. “‘If that’s not what you’re looking for, I’m not really interested in driving to Indiana every weekend.’”

The two married in 2018, and Pete announced his presidential run in 2019, quickly becoming the most successful openly gay presidential candidate in history. In an interview with People during the campaign, Pete spoke about wanting to be a dad. “No matter what happens,” he said, “I think the next chapter in our personal lives is going to be about kids.” Yet he campaigned at an intensity that he now admits would have been impossible if he’d actually had them. “At the very least,” he told me, “we couldn’t have done it in the same way. I don’t know if we could have done what we did at all.”

Buttigieg shocked the political world by winning Iowa, then came close in New Hampshire. But he was swamped in South Carolina by a resurgent Joe Biden, whom he endorsed shortly after dropping out. During the general election, he became one of Biden’s most effective surrogates, garnering praise for his ability to hit back at conservative commentators on cable news. After the election, he was rewarded with the post of transportation secretary. Several months later, he and Chasten became parents of twins via adoption.

Pete Buttigieg
Buttigieg in 2019, shortly before the launch of his presidential exploratory committee. He campaigned at an intensity that he now admits would have been impossible if he’d had kids. Nam Y. Huh/AP

The twins were not discharged from the hospital for nearly two weeks, and their health challenges soon multiplied. Their daughter, Penelope, had such severe reflux that she would “stop breathing and turn purple in a matter of seconds,” Pete later wrote. Months into life, both twins contracted RSV; Penelope got better, but their son, Gus, got significantly worse, leading him to be transferred to a full-scale children’s hospital on a ventilator.

Pete had decided to take a little more than four weeks of parental leave before he started to ramp up his schedule again — “long enough,” he told me, “to set the tone that I want everybody else in this department to take advantage of their leave without being so long that it’s untenable.” When his kids got sick shortly after he returned to work, he took more time to be with them.


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With the country in the midst of a supply chain crisis, right-wing pundits and politicians saw an opportunity. Tucker Carlson said Buttigieg was “trying to figure out how to breastfeed”; Rep. Lauren Boebert said she “delivered one of my children in the front seat of my truck because, as a mom of four, we got things to do.” Conservative Twitter accounts began to press the issue, even circulating a fake image of Buttigieg wearing a male breastfeeding device.

The conservative attacks lasted far longer than Buttigieg’s leave. “If you’re the secretary of transportation, you get your ass to work,” Donald Trump Jr. said while campaigning for Republicans in 2022. The following year, former Vice President Mike Pence said that Buttigieg took “maternity leave” and, after noting the supply chain crisis and issues with airlines, added that he was the “only person in human history to have a child, and everyone else gets postpartum depression.” The joke was quickly decried for being homophobic, but Pence doubled down.

It is clear, speaking to Pete and Chasten now, that they were not only well aware of the criticism — I was “getting my ass kicked out there,” Pete recalled — but still harbor resentment over it. “It speaks to how many in D.C. view parenting and the importance of being a family, especially for folks who say they’re the party of family values,” said Chasten. “What does that say about taking care of your child, and what are you saying about women, or what are you saying about your wives who stay at home and breastfed your kids?”

For Pete, the undercurrent of antipathy in official D.C. toward parenting extends beyond the question of time off from work. “It’s really terrible that, in Washington, ‘I’m going to spend more time with my family’ has become a synonym for ‘I’ve done something wrong’ or ‘I’ve been fired,’” he told me. “What it says is that Washington has a hard time even believing, let alone respecting, that somebody would trade all of the charms and perquisites of Washington for family life.”

Chasten wondered about a worst-case, but not wholly impossible, scenario for Gus: “What would’ve happened if he died? What would the conversation have been? He shouldn’t have been there? He should have been in D.C.? He should have been at the Port of Long Beach, and then his kid dies on a ventilator, and that made him a better public servant?”

The conservative talking point notwithstanding, Buttigieg was working throughout much of his leave, sneaking meetings in the hospital bathroom, taking calls at Gus’ bedside and trying to do what all parents do: balance life. He also got a helping hand from President Biden. On the sidelines of a cabinet meeting in late 2021 about the soon-to-be-signed Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Biden gave Buttigieg a pep talk. “He just pulled me aside,” Pete remembered, “and made sure I knew that whatever I needed, he was going to support.”

***

Pete thinks about his days differently now — in a frankly very un-Washington way. He said he often asks his staff whether a meeting really has to happen or whether he’s actually needed at an event. He described the shift as putting “boundaries on your time.”

A former aide at the Department of Transportation said Pete used to be far less protective of his schedule, something that changed the moment he became a dad. Now, if a conference asked Pete to speak on a Saturday — the day when the biggest speakers were scheduled — he would instead ask for Thursday or Friday so he could, as the former aide put it, “safeguard that weekend time for his kids.” In addition, the former aide said, Pete used to be more likely to make staff run through every detail of a planned event or department project. After adopting the twins, he seemed more inclined to trust that his staff was on top of things.

The change in Pete has been noticeable to his oldest friends. Steve Koh, Pete’s roommate all four years at Harvard, told me that every time he sees Pete and Chasten, he is struck by the disconnect between the speculation about their political future and the reality of their current lives. “Everyone has a speculation of what the future holds for them,” Koh said. “But for them, right now, they are focused on the future of today.”

Stephen Brokaw, who met Pete at Harvard and was eventually a senior aide on his presidential campaign, told me that, once upon a time, his friend was looking to change the entire nation, whereas now he realizes there are other ways to make a difference. “What having kids can do is inform your current work,” said Brokaw, who has a toddler. “But it also shows you that the impact you can have on one or two people’s lives, your kids’ lives, is profound. And what they will do is a pretty incredible way to have impact as well.”

One possible upshot of Pete’s mental shift is that his days in his current post may be numbered. “This isn’t a job that you can do forever anyway, but that’s that much more true when you feel the trade-offs as a parent,” Pete said when I asked whether he plans to continue as transportation secretary if Biden wins reelection. People close to him told me they don’t expect him to stay for much of a potential second term.

Pete Buttigieg Bridge Oregon Washington
Buttigieg believes there is an undercurrent of antipathy in official D.C. toward parenting. “It’s really terrible that, in Washington, ‘I’m going to spend more time with my family’ has become a synonym for ‘I’ve done something wrong’ or ‘I’ve been fired,’” he said. Jenny Kane/AP

And beyond his current job? When it was revealed in 2022 that the Buttigiegs moved from conservative Indiana — where Pete’s political future may have hit a ceiling — to Chasten’s hometown of Traverse City, Michigan, political prognosticators nationwide began to speculate that Pete might run for office there, a far more fertile state for Democrats. And when longtime Sen. Debbie Stabenow declined to run for reelection in 2024, his name was mentioned as someone who could seek the seat. Yet he declined to do so.

People close to Buttigieg say he never seriously considered running for the seat. But the opening led to a few internal discussions about future campaigns, said a Buttigieg political adviser, and the complications of campaigning with kids. “It wasn’t the leading cause” for not running, the adviser said, “but it did drive the notion that, wow, this is going to be a new consideration in any kind of decision going forward.”

When we spoke, I asked Pete whether he would run for office again. “The honest answer is I don’t know. And the whole equation is just different,” he said before giving himself some wiggle room: “Not in a way that rules things in or out, but it’s definitely a different set of pros and cons, at least for as long as they’re school age.”

As for those presidential dreams, it seemed clear to me that Pete hadn’t given them up entirely. “I think it was Rahm Emanuel who famously said that the White House is very family-friendly if you’re the first family,” he noted.

It sounded a lot like the old Pete Buttigieg: still thinking about a viable path to becoming the most powerful person on earth. But then, almost instantly, the new Pete returned. “I definitely can’t imagine…” he said, pausing for a few seconds. “This is hard enough,” he eventually continued, “and some of the things that I see a lot of folks in public office or in the White House doing, some of them seem to have figured out a way to do it. But I don’t know how.”
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Dan Merica is a national political reporter who was most recently at The Messenger, where he covered campaigns and Democratic politics. He reported on elections for over a decade at CNN, where he was a finalist for the Livingston Award for his work covering the Trump team’s effort to overturn the 2020 election.