Role Model

How Can the Trumps Possibly Understand Paid Family Leave?

Listening to the Trumps talk about paid family leave, you realize that nothing in their experience gives them a clue. Rob Rufus’s mom could tell them a lot.


On some level, I get Ivanka Trump.

She and I are the same age. Like her, I too give nonsensical responses whenever I’m caught in a lie. Hell, my dad isn’t very PC either, and he’s even bald to boot. So we have those things in common, but that’s about it.

When I was 17 years old, I wasn’t living in a penthouse, or attending Choate Rosemary Hall. I wasn’t attending galas, or being compared to Paris Hilton. I wasn’t part of the glitzy New York social scene.

No, when I was 17, I was living in a children’s hospital, tucked away on the cancer ward. Sixth Floor. Room 7.

I’d just been diagnosed with stage four cancer. The diagnosis was sudden, and the outlook was bleak. One day, I was attending high school in my small West Virginia town. The next, I was being pumped full of all sorts of strange, horrifying drugs in a freezing cold hospital room, miles away from everything I knew.

I remember those first nights in that strange new world. Either too sick to talk, or too drugged to think straight, all that I could do was adjust my ears to the new sounds of the night: the beeping of machines, the nurses shuffling down the hall, the crying of children—and, more often than not, their parents.

It was horrifying, and utterly confusing. The only thing that made me feel better, the only thing that made me feel safe at all, was my mom. We hadn’t been very close up until then. She’d always worked full-time, and she had a promising career ahead of her. But that all took a backseat the moment I got sick. From then on, if I needed her, she was by my side.

And when I say that, I mean it literally. She was there with me through the treatments, the puking, the tests, and the pain. At night, when the nurse administered my evening dose of medication, Mom was still right there, sleeping in a chair in the corner of the room, brushing her teeth and changing in the bathroom down the hall the next morning. She was there, man. Visiting hours never applied to her.

But it wasn’t easy. Not for her career, and not for our family. My parents struggled to pay the mounting, surreal costs of my treatment. Staying ahead of the curve became an almost impossible task. As a small business owner, there was just no way for my dad to take a substantial amount of time off. Worse, I was covered under my mom’s health insurance—so if she took too much time off, and lost her job, we were screwed. This was a time when a pre-existing illness meant that I would be basically uninsurable.

So when Hillary Clinton unveiled her plan on family leave back in January, saying that her administration will “guarantee up to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave to care for a new child or seriously ill family member,” I felt somewhat relieved. If Clinton, who is a centrist as far as I’m concerned, was willing to guarantee 12 weeks to new mothers and caregivers, then that must signify progress across the board, right? Surely it was a sign that, in 2016, our collective understanding of the world around us expanded to a point where empathy scored a seat in the political arena (in the back of the arena, sure, but the arena, nonetheless).

Well, as they say, to assume makes an ass out of U and ME. And it sure made an ass out of me when Donald and Ivanka finally laid out their plan on family leave. Six weeks for new mothers. That’s it. Because why in the world would a mother ever need more time off than that, right? Apparently, the Trump campaign thinks that motherhood is shorter than a season of Game of Thrones.

Worse, that part about paid family leave to care for a “seriously ill family member” was nowhere to be found in his plan. So if, say, your teenage son is diagnosed with cancer, you’d best figure it out yourself. After your child is six weeks old, it’s not the Trumps’ problem anymore.

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After a year of Donald Trump insulting both women and the disabled, listening to him stammer on about this issue has been frustrating. But, I mean … it’s Trump. He’s about as empathetic as an alligator (because at least crocodiles pretend to cry), and he’s gone out of his way to remind us of it every chance he gets. Crazy or not, cruel or not, at least we get Trump.

Ivanka, however, shouldn’t get a pass. I understand why the campaign wants her in the spotlight—after all, she’s the closest thing to a humanoid that Donald J. has ever produced. Ivanka is poised, and well spoken-ish. She can give one hell of a speech, I admit. But listening to her talk about the plight of working mothers is like listening to a cyborg short circuit on live TV.

I get that our view of the world is relative to our experiences. But this family isn’t even aware enough to grasp how absurd they sound when they try to seem selfless. Even if Trump softens his rhetoric, even if the kids get that I-promise-I-care face down pat, their policies reflect how they really feel about caregivers—they aren’t anything more than an afterthought.

But I’m not writing this to rip on the Trumps, and I’m not writing this for Hillary Clinton. I don’t know Hillary Clinton and, to be honest, I don’t care about Hillary Clinton. I’m writing this for another tough, blonde woman with a scary ass temper and a crazy laugh—my mom.

My mom, who somehow balanced a career while taking care of a cancer-stricken teenage boy. My mom, who, to this day, puts her free time and energy towards helping those in need—raising money for cancer research, advocating to politicians on behalf of the chronically ill, and helping the Make-A-Wish Foundation serve sick children in rural parts of the state. My mom, who continually puts the needs of others before her own.

The Trumps know nothing about that sort of challenge. They don’t know they know nothing about that sort of challenge, and that may be the most disturbing part. Trump supporters can deny it all they want, but you know what? I’ll believe it when I see that name on more hospitals than casinos, on the hallways of more cancer wards than those buildings made of gold.

Rob Rufus is a Nashville-based musician and author of the new memoir Die Young With Me, published by Touchstone on September 20.