(CNN)The debate over US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg taking two months off to care for his twin newborns has reached the point of absurdity.
Fox News personality Tucker Carlson suggested that Buttigieg was "Trying to figure out how to breastfeed." Conservative political commentator Matt Walsh proclaimed on Twitter that there isn't much for a father to do during those first months of a child's life. Conservative activist Candace Owens called him weak, using the Twitter hashtag, #BringBackManlyMen.
While those personalities were ridiculing the role a father plays in his child's life, I was with 100 other dads attending HomeDadCon, a national conference for stay-at-home fathers. When I shared these criticisms about Buttigieg's paternity leave, I thought about hiding behind the podium in case any dads wanted to throw tomatoes at me.
No matter what your gender or sexuality is, everyone deserves the benefit of welcoming a new child into their family.
Whether you stay at home as a father or work, many fathers regard raising their children a priority. So, what do fathers do on paternity leave and why is it important? This is what stay-at-home dads had to say.
Who gets paternity leave
The United States doesn't have a national paternity or maternity leave policy that gives parents paid leave to care for their newborn children. Both types of leave are covered under the Family and Medical Leave Act, which gives parents up to 12 work weeks of leave to care for a new child. But companies decide if that leave is paid or not. Currently, only six states require paid family leave, with three other states fully enacting policies in the coming years, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington, DC-based think tank.
The massive spending package now in negotiations in Congress aims to establish paid family and medical leave on a national level. President Joe Biden currently proposes four weeks, limiting benefits to those who earn less than $100,000, as previously reported by CNN. But right now, paternity and maternity leave isn't an option for many families. Only 21% of US workers have access to paid FMLA, according Family Values @ Work, an advocacy group. And 93% of low-wage earners have zero access to paid leave.
Quetzal Torres credits his manager with giving him eight days of unpaid time off. "I took normal leave," said Torres, father of four from Cary, North Carolina. "My boss was flexible, but it was all unpaid."
Other fathers at the conference used similar language. "I was in good with my manager," said one dad. "My supervisor was mostly OK with it," said another.
The stereotypical dad is gone
It seems that some people still have a TV stereotype of childbirth and aftercare, with the dad in the waiting room smoking a cigar until he gets the good news and kisses his wife on the forehead. Then he gets back to work outside the home.
Childbirth doesn't always go smoothly.
Lou Marino's first child was in the newborn intensive care unit, and he found himself in a bind. His son had breathing issues and required constant supervision.
"Every time that alarm would go off, it would freak me out," said Marino, of Swampscott, Massachusetts. "It was stressful. I did a lot of skin-to-skin contact with my son to let him know I was there and that I was trying to protect him."
Soon after his son came home, he decided to quit his job and become a stay-at-home dad.
Jeremy Hastons of Austin, Texas, had no paternity leave and worked nights and weekends as an assistant manager at a restaurant to have enough time with his family. When his wife delivered an 11-pound baby with jaundice, he had just a week's worth of vacation time saved up. He took over all the household duties such as meal prep, cooking, cleaning and running the necessities of life while his wife recovered and focused on their newborn.
Cannon Ingalls was an emergency medical technician and was paid hourly. After a cesarean section, his wife couldn't drive for a month. He had to take time off to do childcare, run errands and grocery shop to give his wife time to recover. "She wasn't very mobile, and she was stubborn. She wanted to do it all but couldn't."
Where do we go from here?
People who are hourly workers or don't have an "understanding boss" often don't get that time to be with their newborns, according to Josephine Kalipeni, executive director of Family Values @ Work.
"Paid leave is just as important for men as it is for women," Kalipeni said, "to give all genders the ability to care for their families.
"It's easy to say that they want to be there, but the reality of our world often prevents that from happening," she said. "We've talked to women that were sent into spirals of depression because caring for another can be so overwhelming and demanding." These new mothers, Kalipeni added, develop postpartum depression without enough time off to adjust and without support, whether from a co-parent or family member who has access to leave.
Many dads that I spoke to talked about being pressured into not taking leave or keeping that leave to a minimum. And even the ones that did qualify for three months' worth of leave couldn't afford to take it. There are a lot of sacrifices that we make as parents, but time with our newborns shouldn't be one.
How we treat and talk about fathers matters.
We are never babysitting, and we are never helping out Mom, a phrase that insults mothers and fathers. We are parenting and we deserve to have that time with our families to raise good humans. The idea of the bumbling idiot is done, and paid paternity leave needs to be a reality.
Where are all the real men? We are busy raising and spending time with our children.