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Discussing dads who "lean out" with Tim Lee: podcast and transcript

Chris Hayes speaks with journalist Tim Lee about his decision to "lean out" of his career to focus more on raising his children.

Gender norms, particularly related to child care, have shifted dramatically over the past few decades. Journalist Tim Lee, whose wife is a doctor and often has to work nights, weekends and unpredictable hours, made the decision to “lean out” of his career to focus more on child care. As their family grew, it became increasingly clear that Lee couldn’t spend off hours doing the in-depth research and reporting that he used to do. He now writes for “Full Stack Economics,” a Substack that allows him to work flexible hours. The at-home dad previously wrote for various outlets including The Washington Post and Vox. While leaning out has meant a big pay cut, he’s able to do the majority of child care in his household, while also supporting the demands of his wife’s better paying career. Lee joins WITHpod to discuss what he learned from other dads who’ve made the same decision, why he says creating an equal society will require more comfort with unequal marriages, the lack of social stigma he’s experienced and more.

Note: This is a rough transcript — please excuse any typos.

Tim Lee: I think a lot of people put too much of, like, an artificial separation between housework and market work. There's these weird kind of status issues where, you know, the person doing the market work gets a lot more respect than the person doing the housework, and I think that's probably not good. But, yeah, I think it's helpful to try to not have those kinds of strong connotations to it.

In a partnership, you want both partners to be contributing roughly equal amounts, but they can do that in different ways. And if you have one partner who's working very hard and bringing in more of the income, it's just totally reasonable the other partner would contribute more around the house.

Chris Hayes: Hello and welcome to "Why Is This Happening?" with me, your host, Chris Hayes.

Well, WITHpod listeners, I'm going to take you behind the curtain today. Right now, as I'm talking to you, it is 3:10 p.m. Right before I hopped on this microphone, my son, David, who’s 8 years old, came home, and I was in the midst of an editorial call, but I sort of finished that up. He sat down, we talked a little bit about his day, talked if he had any homework, made him some popcorn for a snack. I was drinking a Fresca. He asked for some, I gave it to him, but just a little. And I'm sharing these banal details of my day because, to me, these moments are totally, utterly transformational. They have completely changed my life. Thanks to the pandemic.

And what I mean by that is, I have three children, Ryan who's 11, David who’s 8, Anaya who’s 4, about to be 5. Before the pandemic, my schedule was such that I would get up in the morning with the kids, and me and Kate would get them out of the house to go to their various places, which if you're a parent, you know is incredibly, incredibly stressful and I wouldn't really call it quality time. It's like a lot of, like, brush your teeth and put your shoes on. Wait, did you leave your jacket at school? OK. Like, you know, you're doing this kind of high energy motivation the whole time.

And then they would go to school, and then I would, you know, go to work midday and I would come home at 10:00 and they would be in bed. Because my show is from 8:00 to 9:00, so I get home at 10:00. And then I wouldn't see them until the next morning. Then the next morning, we would do the same thing. And that would be the week, five mornings of 40 minutes of frenetic, condensed, like, getting them to school time.

And as time went on, we have more and more kids, and our family grew. And it really started to wear on me to the point where it's like I can't keep doing this job anymore because I feel like I'm not really getting enough time with my kids. And it also meant that Kate shouldered a really big parenting burden in terms of doing bedtime, which is its own sort of like big undertaking particularly with three kids, and dinner, and also like coordinating after-school activities and these kids go to all these places. And I'm like, well, I'm at work.

So you know, the pandemic happened. And what has changed my schedule is that since I started going back to 30 Rock in the fall of 2020, so it's now two years, I go into 30 Rock at 6:00 p.m. Basically, I work from home during the day to make the show, do the calls, you know, all the things that I would normally do just not at the office. And then at 6:00 or 6:15, I get on the subway. I go to 30 Rock, I get into makeup, I do the show. I check the scripts.

What this means is this time right now, when I'm talking to you, in the old days, I would be doing 30 Rock, right, I'm doing it from my home. And what it means is I got to see David come home. I will see Anya when I go downstairs, and we will cuddle on the couch and read a book or two. I will walk Ryan to do track at the YMCA before I go into the office.

I can't articulate what a revolution it's been in my life. And I think both for like our partnership, with me and Kate, I can do more of coordinating after-school activities. I feel like I'm a better and more equitable partner in the parenting and some of the logistical stuff. I feel closer to them. I mean, I think I was always a present dad and a loving dad. But just timewise, like, being around them really makes a huge difference.

And I'm doing all this as a big setup for the guest today, who's someone who I've known and read and really admired for a long time. His name is Tim Lee, and he's a reporter. You definitely encountered his bylines. He's written a lot about economics, housing, labor markets, technology. He's been at a variety of outlets through the years, "The Washington Post," and Vox, and Ars Technica for a while. For the Ars Technica, heads out there, the real ones know.

And he's now writing a great Substack called Full Stack Economics. But he wrote a piece a few months back, that was basically about the decision he made as a father to what he called lean out, which is to say, just to reduce the hours he was working so that he could be the primary parental presence, caregiver while his wife, who's a doctor, was working lots of hours. And the decision that went into that, the rewards that it gave him, and then he got a lot of feedback and interviewed a lot of other dads about this decision.

And I found it really, really inspiring and I thought it'd be a great topic for conversation, just some good holiday dad talk, basically, with Tim Lee. So Tim, welcome to the program.

Tim Lee: Hi. Thanks for having me on. I've been listening to WITHpod since the beginning. So it's really fun to chat.

Chris Hayes: Oh, that's awesome. I love the piece that you wrote. I thought before getting into it, maybe you could just describe, like, your basic household setup before the kind of leaning out, and you know, the kids you have, the ages, where you live, what your sort of general kind of household situation is like.

Tim Lee: Sure. So I have three kids, they are 7, 4, and 1 currently. And I live in Washington D.C --

Chris Hayes: That's the thick of it.

Tim Lee: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: That’s the thick of it, dude (ph). That is --

Tim Lee: Yeah, it's a lot. So I guess I'm two or three years behind you, but a similar age distribution there. And I live in Washington, D.C. My two older kids go to a neighborhood school, so we're able to walk to school. So that's very nice. But I wouldn't say there was like one like very specific point in time. I mean (ph), there was the point last year when I quit my full-time job and started the Substack. So that was important.

But even before that, what happened was really just my wife has a very demanding job. She's an OB-GYN doctor, and so she delivers babies, which means about one night a week, she has to be in the hospital. And she has to be at work at 8:00 a.m. every morning. And so just as we went from zero to one, to two, to three kids, there were just more and more, you know, demands on the time of one parent. And as the one with the more flexible job, that usually fell to me.

And so over time, when my second child was born, I cut down my hours about 10 percent. And then, like I said, last year, I quit my job and became a full-time Substacker. And so now, I'd say I probably work 30 to 40 hours a week, but the hours kind of work around when I'm needed for the children. So like if the kids are sick, or if there's a point that I need to take a kid to or something like that, I kind of prioritize that. And then I write the newsletter in the hours that are left, which is a fair number every week, but it's a little bit unpredictable, which makes it hard, for example, to schedule reporting trips or, you know, do other things that really require me to be at a particular place in a particular time.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. I mean, the point about the flexibility I think is worth just pausing on because I think it's such a key thing, right. There's like the total hours that one works, and then there's the flexibility with those hours.

So for me, I have two aspects. There's one part of it which is utterly inflexible, which is that a green light comes on to our camera at 8:00 p.m. exactly on the dot, Eastern Time. I have to be sitting in a chair and we have to do the show from 8:00 to 9:00. That is utterly inflexible.

The stuff during the day of the workflow of when, like, that's more flexible, you know, sometimes we just ended the meeting I had before this, like, a little early so that I could come do the podcast.

But I think for everyone up and down, you know, the hierarchy of the American labor market, and we just saw this with the railroad strike, right, or the threatened railroad strike. I mean, when you read into it, what you found out was railroad workers are essentially on call all the time. Like, they have to get told this train needs to be fixed 90 minutes from your house at 2:00 a.m. Go. And so no amount of compensation or, you know, protections, or all this stuff, makes up for the sheer fact of flexibility versus inflexibility when trying to structure a household, be a parent and raise kids.

Tim Lee: That's right. And being a parent is, in a sense, one of the most inflexible jobs around because, you know, if your kid gets sick and school calls and says you have to come pick them up, like you have to come pick them up. There's no like, oh, can you guys keep them for a few hours and I'll come later. And so, yeah, you have to have one parent, at least, to be available in emergencies.

Chris Hayes: How much have you guys discussed this through the years as this kind of progression has happened, particularly with the very demanding and important and also inflexible work of being a doctor that delivers babies?

Tim Lee: So I think, like I said, it was gradual. So I don't think there was ever a moment where we kind of made the explicit decision that, like, I would be the leaning-out dad. But we definitely check in regularly. My wife is a very empathetic and thoughtful person. So I think she definitely expresses appreciation for the times when I kind of step up to do parenting. And conversely, I, like, kind of check in and make sure she's OK with me not making very much money with the current arrangement.

And so I think it's worked out well for both of us. But I definitely think, yeah, it's important to have that communication and have both members of a couple kind of feel comfortable with who's contributing what to the relationship.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. I mean, I think one of the things that happens, right, is that habit, culture, hierarchy, socialization will fill the gap where communication doesn't happen.

Tim Lee: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: Right? No matter how, I think, equitable your particular relationship is, or how feminist you identify as a, speaking for myself, as like a cis straight man, we're all products of society. And the intimate, little factory that is the household, you know, these roles will sort of just slide in. And that it probably, even in my part, sort of not taking enough responsibility for agency, right? Like, often those roles are that, like, you don't have to do as much work in the household as the dad. And you know, that's a certain kind of luxury that is, I think, can be seductive for men.

Tim Lee: Yeah, absolutely. So I think in my case, because my wife had this demanding job long before we had kids, I think I probably leaned out a little bit in more subtle ways earlier. So I followed her to medical school.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Tim Lee: She would often, you know, come home very tired, and so I ended up kind of doing the dishes. Often, she would go to bed, and then I would stay up and do the dishes while she was sleeping.

And so I think we had a little bit of those kind of patterns of there were, you know, certain things that I did where I was doing more than half of like dishes and laundry before our kids were born. But yeah, it's definitely something where it's easy to sort of get lazy, and so it's important to kind of check in with how things are going.

Chris Hayes: You can tell me if any of these questions are overly invasive. But, like, did that produce resentment? Was there, did you feel like, ugh (ph), here I am doing the dishes?

Tim Lee: No, I don't think so. I mean, and so I guess it was good for everybody if my wife was, like, happy and well rested. And so I'm actually a little bit like a sleep salad (ph). And so I'm, like, constantly pushing her to, like, take her naps and like get to bed on time. And so that was kind of part of that strategy is like, you know, sometimes she would, like, want to stay up and do the dishes. And I would know that if she did that, then she wouldn't get enough sleep that night and would be, like, in a bad mood the next morning.

And so, yeah, in my case, no, I think, I guess I feel like I just had a pretty good attitude about it, and it was just like the work needs to be done. But I think it does make a big difference, like, she was making like two to three times as much money as me. And so I just think it was, like, pretty obvious that we needed to prioritize, like, her being kind of on the top of her game. And so supporting her in ways like that helped her do that.

Chris Hayes: I mean, that's the other big part of this, and we'll get into some of the conversations you've had with other people. But I think that these, right, so there are these two things that happen, right. There's like gendered expectations in the household, where there are messages sent about who does what work, and often those are massively favorable to the man.

There's sort of like, essentially, what ends up being a kind of retrograde justification for it, at least in the old like heteronormative, mid-century family household, right, was that there was a division of labor where like one person in the household is doing market labor, one is doing non-market labor. The man is doing the market labor. They're going to work. They're producing the income for the household. The woman is at home doing the non-market labor that's uncompensated, but incredibly important. And so that's the division of labor and the comparative advantage.

Of course, that's all bound up in all those (ph) centuries of hierarchy and patriarchy. But it's still the case that in modern relationships, it will often be the case that one person will produce a lot more market income than the other. And then that question presents itself of, well, are we going to sort of have a kind of compensatory comparative advantage, you know, relative lanes. And I guess, how much did you guys talk about that as an actual thing, and how much was that just evolved?

Tim Lee: I mean, I do think part of it was just, like, physically not possible, in some cases, for her to do half the housework. And so if I kind of slacked off, like, what would happen is the work wouldn't get done. And then I think she would more feel guilty about it than be mad at me. But then that was kind of bad for everybody.

And so just, like, I don't think I'm a particularly persnickety person, but she's like not a compulsive cleaner either. And so it just got to the point where I think she's a little bit non-stereotypical for women, where usually the woman has a much higher threshold for kind of --

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Tim Lee: -- the level of cleanliness that they'll accept. And I think she had a lower threshold, and so she just didn't do the work. And I was, like, well, it needs to be done, so I might as well do it.

Chris Hayes: And that didn't produce, like, there was no resentment there, or there was no like fights over that?

Tim Lee: No. I mean, I'm sure there have been a few cases of disagreement, but she was like working so hard. Like, we got married just before she started her residency. So during her residency, there would be months where she was like working, like, every night, five days a week for a month.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, those are the most insane work hours imaginable, they say (ph).

Tim Lee: Yeah. And so she’d just be totally exhausted. So I never felt like I was doing more than my share because, like, she was obviously doing more than her share of, like, if you combine kind of home and market work. And I was obviously going to benefit in the long run because she was going to make a lot of money as a physician over the course of her career. And so I just felt like that's my contribution was like I'm going to do this, like, housework that's, like, not as difficult as what she was doing.

Chris Hayes: It's interesting because I hear you talk about this and because I've known you for many years, and we've had, like, mutual friends in common and lived in D.C. at the same time. And I feel like you've been an economics writer, and I feel like you have a pretty, like, econ framework for viewing things generally. And I sort of hear it in your head in an interesting way that, like, seems like it is a way of thinking about these trade-offs that takes some of the emotional freight out of them. That's the sort of like, you know, family firm decisions about who's doing what.

Tim Lee: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think a lot of people put too much of, like, an artificial separation between housework and market work. You know, there's these weird kind of status issues where, you know, the person doing the market work gets a lot more respect than the person doing the housework. And I think that's, you know, probably not good. But, yeah, I think it's helpful to try to not have those kinds of strong connotations to it.

In a partnership, you want both partners to be contributing roughly equal amounts, but they can do that in different ways. And if you have one partner who's working very hard and bringing in more of the income, it's just totally reasonable that the other partner would contribute more around the house.

Chris Hayes: So there's a double-edged sword to that logic, though, right? Because if you say, like, that logic, in your case, has this kind of like, you know, sort of post patriarchy feminism to it because it's not the traditional, you know, inherited gender roles.

But given the way that market structures work, given the massive ways that socialization produce different jobs, even the way that the labor market values work that's like care work, for instance, which is like coded as, you know, female, and other kinds of work which is coded as male. That you could easily end up, and I think it happens to many couples, many straight couples, I should note here, or couples with a man and a woman, that the logic of this sort of like the person doing the market work is doing less at home, ends up just being the traditional gender division.

Tim Lee: Yeah. I think that it's not bad that there are some couples where that's how it works out. I mean, I definitely think it would be good for society if there were more couples that work the way that my household works. But I think the trap that a lot of people have fallen into is that you're going to have some kind of more conservative couples that are just going to do the traditional thing and not be conflicted about it --

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Tim Lee: If you then have all the feminist couples hold up like perfect equality in like every aspect of the relationship as the ideal, that means there's going to be very few women who really excel in their career because usually you have to work, you know, more than 40 hours a week to excel. And so you can end up, in a way, you can end up actually reinforcing patriarchy because the only --

Chris Hayes: That's interesting.

Tim Lee: -- people who excel are the ones who have a wife at home, you know, doing more than half of the housework.

And so, I guess I'm not inclined to, like, moralize about it. If some couple wants to have a traditional male breadwinner, like, household, I kind of see that as their business. But I think if you are a feminist who really wants to see more women rise into leadership roles, you should be really thinking about is, like, equity the ideal; or in a couple where the woman is pretty ambitious, should you actually think about maybe she should be the breadwinner, and maybe the husband should take a supportive role? I'm not saying anybody is, like, obligated to do that. But --

Chris Hayes: No, but --

Tim Lee: -- I think that should be seen as, if anything, a little better, a little more feminist than the kind of 50/50 relationship.

Chris Hayes: It's also important, I think, just to be talking about sort of what is broadly called housework, right? So the maintenance of a household and whether that's laundry or other things. But then there's parenting, right? And that, to me, is in a different category because like I'll keep it a hundred here, like, I don't really like doing laundry, but I do like being with my kids. Like, those are very, you know, parenting is really difficult, but it's the most profoundly rewarding experience in my life. Whereas, like, a lot of the other stuff doesn't give you the same rewards, it just has to be done and the question of who's going to do it.

And I do think that, like, one of the great, and we've seen this, you know, if you look at the time-use surveys, which are really interesting, you know, men are spending more and more time with their kids than a generation ago. It's one of the really good and encouraging trajectories in time use. Now, the funny thing is women are as well. So parents generally are spending more time with their kids, and women are still disproportionately spending more time with their kids than men are.

But if you compare men now to 20 years ago or 40 years ago, because we have an American time-use, you know, survey data that's, you know, tracks the hours in the day, men are spending more time with their kids. And I do think Ezra has talked about this a lot, Ezra Klein. It is like sort of a lie sold to men, right, for generations that, like, being with your kids was a chore, or being with your kids was like, you know, quote/unquote, housework or women's work, or whatever it was. When, in fact, being with your kids is like the awesomest (ph) thing in the world.

Tim Lee: Yeah, absolutely. Although I do think there's different types of, as you were saying in your introduction, getting your kids to school in the morning is probably more rewarding than doing the dishes but it's not as rewarding as, you know, doing some kind of more play-oriented activities.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Tim Lee: I mean, there are aspects of childcare that are still quite difficult and not super rewarding. And I think the spouse that kind of leans out, often gets to do a lot of those things.

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Tim Lee: And the one that maybe leans in and sees their kid less, like when they're there, often they get to do more of that kind of fun stuff, where they're taking them to the playground or, you know, playing game with them or something, as opposed to, you know, taking them to a doctor's appointment.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, that's a good point. Although, don't you think, I think there's a relationship between the two and this is one of the things that I've found from being just around the kids more in the last three years is that, or I guess two and a half years, I do think that like being around for the more chore-like aspects of parenting, right, which is like the doctor's appointment, stuff like that, it has an effect on the bond and the relationship and the depth of what you have with your child. That is ultimately, when added up, rewarding.

Like, in the specific instances, there are things you do with your kids that are like grown, right? Every parent has that. But in the aggregate, like, I don't think I trade a lot of them because a lot of the time you spent with your kids is going to be that ultimately. And the relationship you have sort of gets developed over even those, you know, frenetic mornings of getting the kids to school.

Tim Lee: Yeah, I agree with that. I mean, you know, my wife makes enough money that we could hire more childcare, and I could put in more hours working and do something closer to full time. And so the other thing I don't think we mentioned yet, my sister lives with us and she does pickups some afternoons. But, yeah, we do definitely value having our kids spend most of their non-school time with family members as opposed to, you know, hired help. And so, yeah, I definitely agree that there's value spending time with kids.

Chris Hayes: You talk about your sister living with you, because that was another aspect of your household I found fascinating and intriguing. I think, like, as I've gotten older, I more and more understand the logic of big households with multiple people or multi-generational. I mean, I think that multi-generational households are a little harder to pull off for people that have kids later than, you know, several generations ago, right?

Because if you're having a kid, if your parents had you at 25 and you have a kid at 25, then you've got, you know, a 50-year-old, which, man, that feels so young to me now, right, who’s like there to help out with childcare. Whereas if you have a kid at 40, your parents had you at 40, then an 80-year-old is just not going to be in this, normally is going to be in the same position and, in fact, often needs care of themselves. So these sort of multi-generational households that flow from people having kids younger, like, I understand the logic of that much more.

But I generally also just like having family around, and even with all the complexities that that can obviously entail, because I like being around family. And there's something about having kids and kids having relationships with your siblings, and your parents, and cousins and things like that, that just feels incredibly fulfilling and beautiful. And so, when you write about having your sister there, I was like, oh, that's cool. Like, that seems like an awesome setup because you have a good relationship with your sister.

Tim Lee: Yeah, we really love it. Yeah, absolutely. Because if you hire a nanny or something, they can bond with that person for a year or two or however many years, and then they leave and it's, you know, harder on the kids. And yeah, I totally agree. So both our families are in other cities. I'm from Minnesota. She's from Ohio. So we don't really have any other family here in Washington, D.C. And yeah, just the logistics of making sure they have enough time with them is difficult, and so having at least one family member in the house is really good.

And I also think having kind of a surplus of adults just makes the logistics of childcare much easier, because, you know, my wife and I can go out on a date sometimes. And we don't even necessarily have to have, you know, my sister do bedtime, but just she'll be in the house, and so we can leave the house. Or when somebody is making dinner, there's somebody else there to watch the kids. It's just having one or two extra adults around makes everything lower stress because you don't have to be, like, super structured and scheduled about everything.

Chris Hayes: It really is like a safety net for that stuff. And Kate and I, we have an au pair and this is the second year that we had. And we've had just like amazing, tremendous luck with it, and it's just great. I had no experience with au pairs. Kate had grown up and had au pairs. And I was like, yeah, let's try it. And that's, like, that's one of the things.

And first of all, I like it because it feels like another family member in a way. You know, I feel like I have this, like, you know, niece from out of town who’s visiting. But also because that safety net, particularly when you've got three kids, when you have a lot of kids, that safety net that there's another adult in the home, you know, if I need to leave and Kate can't come back, right?

And you know, I remember this one moment, this was before the pandemic, but she was coming back from a business trip, and I was going to the airport. And like, her flight had been delayed and the cab was stuck in traffic, and I had to leave. And it was like there was 2 inches of carpet missing to cover everything. And I had to go knock on the door of the neighbor, to be like, well, we got like a 15-minute window here with no adults, would you mind? Our neighbor is great. But that was one of the moments where I thought, oh, yeah, having this added layer, and then that's another reason you recognize like multi-generational households and all that stuff.

Tim Lee: Yeah, absolutely.

Chris Hayes: I mean, there's a big part of this too. I mean, all these, sort of, like, household formation questions, right, when you talk about like hiring someone. There are enormous, sort of, wealth and class questions here and determinants, right? I mean, childcare is really expensive. I think it's something that even relatively, like, affluent professional people are shocked by. When they encounter it in the market, they're like, holy smokes, this is so, so, so expensive. And I think it's actually a good and sort of radicalizing moment for a lot of people from that social strata who are like, wait, how do people make this work?

Like, I could stretch and make this work with my salary, and I make a good salary. Like, how does everyone make this work? It's like, yeah, well, people cobbled together all kinds of solutions, but we don't have any kind of like bedrock version of them. Like, there's no institutionalized solution to this question, the way there is when your child enters school, right? When your child enters school, it's like, well, we have mandatory education for children. You send them to school. You have to deal with after school. But before then, there's just nothing. There literally is nothing. You have to solve it household by household by household.

Tim Lee: Yeah. And I think almost always, there's some like family element to that. You know, grandma helps out, or a sibling helps out. Or in some cases, I think people have, like, really punishing work schedules where, you know, one parent works during the day and one parent works in the night or something, and they barely even see each other. But, yeah, it's really tough. I mean, we're definitely lucky to have enough money that we can hire some help for at least some of the time with childcare.

Chris Hayes: More of our conversation after this quick break.


Chris Hayes: So one of the things you wrote about was the sort of status questions and these kind of like patriarchy questions. I want to talk about, like, yeah, just like these deep questions about, you know, what it is to be a man and being the breadwinner, and your place in the household and your central importance as a man, you know, if you are not the, quote-unquote, “breadwinner.” I'm saying all this, obviously, I think listeners of the program know in quotes. And I'd love to hear you just talk about that. Did you discover that you had some of that stuff in you? Has it just never appeared in you, and so you're sort of blissfully clear of it? Like, where are you on that?

Tim Lee: I would say it never concerned me particularly. I think this is an area where actually, attitudes have shifted a lot. I think that our parents’ generation, the kind of baby boom generation, it was still pretty widely accepted that, you know, men would be embarrassed if they weren't the primary breadwinner. And I'm not saying those attitudes are gone completely.

But as you mentioned, I did a second story where I talked to 20 dads who have made various versions of this decision, some fully stay-at-home dads, some just kind of cutting their hours or being the kind of more flexible parent. And very few of them actually said that they have experienced any kind of stigma around it. I think some people still experience surprise, like people are like, oh, I kind of didn't realize that was a thing.

But I think American society really has accepted the idea that it's totally appropriate for women to be in the workplace and for men to do more the childcare. And so, yeah, I think it's gotten much easier than it was a few decades ago. I mean, for me, it's more just, like, I just enjoy the work I do. And so if a sequel (ph), I would like to do a little more of it. And so it is something of a, you know, sacrifice to be doing less of that and more childcare. But, yeah, for whatever reason, I haven't personally found that I was really kind of questioning my identity as a man as a result of doing more of that.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. You did a follow-up story because you got such a reaction to the original piece, which is great. And you interviewed a bunch of dads who are sort of along this spectrum. And I'm curious just what struck you, what surprised you or didn't about the experiences they had, and what you related or didn't to what they said about their own sort of setups.

Tim Lee: I mean, I think one thing that struck me was just that people are really very different. I mean, there are stereotypical differences between men and women, but just also within men. Like, there are some men who are just not that into their jobs. They maybe don't hate their jobs, but they just don't see their goal in life as, like, climbing a corporate ladder. And so when they have the chance to, like, spend all day at home playing with their kids, they're like, that's great. And they don't really feel conflicted about it. And then the other men who are the opposite, who really do identify with their jobs and enjoy the work and find it really difficult to make that transition.

And then, obviously, women are the same way, I think they're probably a little bit more often, more common to have women who kind of like to spend time with their kids. But there are definitely women out there who are extremely ambitious. So I think in many individual couples, it's going to be kind of obvious. Like in this couple, the woman is just more ambitious than the man. And so it just makes sense for the woman to be the one that prioritizes her career.

I think one of the things that definitely came through from that reporting is that going to be a full-time stay-at-home dad is a much bigger leap than just kind of cutting your hours or finding a more flexible job. And there definitely were some men who regretted that because once you've been out of the workforce for a few years, it can be quite difficult depending on your career and what industry you're in. It can be quite difficult to get back into the workforce.

And so I think the men who regretted it the most were ones who kind of thought it would be pretty easy. They could take a couple years out of their jobs, so they jump back in. And then found like, oh, actually, like this gap in my resume really makes it hard for me to kind of get back to where I was before. And so I think if somebody is thinking about doing the kind of soft version of this, where you need to cut your hours, I think almost everybody, that's something worth trying.

But if you're thinking about actually doing the full-time stay-at-home dad thing, you want to think really carefully about, you know, how you're going to feel if it turns out that that means a kind of permanent change in your career, and then obviously talk to your spouse and make sure that she's going to be OK with it if, in fact, a temporary stay-at-home dad arrangement becomes --

Chris Hayes: Right.

Tim Lee: -- a permanent stay-at-home dad relationship.

Chris Hayes: And we should also note that like, obviously, this sort of income levels we're talking about matter tremendously. I mean, millions and millions of American households, you know, basically function in which it is necessary for both the parents to work full time. And they may or may not have much control over whether they can or can't take, you know, more time or not. They may not have much control in their schedules. And that is the reality.

Again, I mean, I know people know this, but just to reiterate, like some of the choices you're talking about and the choices that we're discussing, or even that Kate and I are making, we're making from a position where we're not in a position where we need every last dollar to make ends meet and also don't have control of our schedule. You know, people who are working minimum wage are going to be making trade-offs that are imposed on them on this too, because to get back to the original point we made, like, kids need to be careful.

Like, in the end, all of these things are problems that must be solved for every individual household. It's much, much harder at the bottom of the wage scale, and for people in poverty. And we have a very sort of tattered social safety net to deal with that.

But the fundamental thing which is, and I think I forget who said this, but just in a capitalist economy, there are some people who are capable of producing market income, and then there's huge swathes who are not. And one of those categories are 1-year-olds who just can't produce market income and have to be cared for. And that is going to be a problem that a capitalist economy is going to have to solve somehow by hook and crook. And basically, we will solve them in America, at least, essentially, on a household-by-household basis.

Tim Lee: Yeah, absolutely. I do think for lower-income families, obviously, they have fewer options. But also for them, childcare is relatively more expensive. So I think--

Chris Hayes: Yes, exactly.

Tim Lee: -- some of them it actually does, in some ways, it might make more sense to have one parent stay home or have a part-time job or something like that. Because, you know, if you had a full-time job and you hire childcare, you might be giving 100 percent of your paycheck to the daycare center.

Chris Hayes: Oh, that's absolutely right. And I think that's why, essentially, you end up relying on family. I mean, I think grandma ends up being the kind of modal solution to that problem --

Tim Lee: Yes.

Chris Hayes: -- you know, in most households dealing with this, because it's the only way to square the circle, right?

Tim Lee: Absolutely.

Chris Hayes: You can't square it any other way. And in fact, you know, one of the really striking things that you realize about the cost of childcare, when you do the math on childcare, right, which is like you're going to pay someone, you know, your post-tax income, that like when you sketch out the math, it's like, oh, like, a teacher in the New York City public school system is not quite making enough to make it, mathematical sense, right, to stay in that job and hire a full-time caretaker for a kid because of the way that market incomes work out.

Tim Lee: Yeah. So especially if you have two or three kids that are close together in age, you know, the cost of childcare for two kids is often comparable to the after-tax income for even a pretty middle-class person. And so I think this is another reason why often people do jump out of the labor force for two or three years because there's that period when your kids are from like 1 to 4 years old. Where if you have more than one kid, it makes it tough and effectively free to not be working because almost all your money --

Chris Hayes: Right.

Tim Lee: -- would otherwise be going to childcare.

Chris Hayes: That's exactly right. We'll be right back after we take this quick break.


Chris Hayes: So, you know, on the sort of stigma or status question, I mean, it was really interesting. And I found like encouraging, the response from the dads that you talked to who felt like they really weren't encouraging it. They weren't really encountering it. You said a thing before I want to just come back to about like Americans expect, you know, women are in the workplace, and men are doing childcare.

But I do think there's a difference between those two, like I do think women in the workplace is like a quite established norm at this point. Not at all, we should say.

Tim Lee: Right.

Chris Hayes: I mean, I've definitely walked into like hedge fund offices and been like, oh, there is not a single woman in here. Like, this is weird. It's weird for me to be in a space, a workspace where there's no women. This is strange, but that's, like, just the way it is.

Tim Lee: Right.

Chris Hayes: That said, you know, I think the general expectation when women work in the workplace, I do think the expectation like if you go to the wire, you go to daycare, you go to music class, like the gender breakdown there remains overwhelming. And it is notable, I think, as a dad in those settings, how much that's the case. I was struck by that when I had little ones that I was bringing to those kinds of environments, less than with school where, like, the school drop off and pickup feel a little more equitable in terms of dads and moms. But of young kids, it is still striking to me how gendered that is.

Tim Lee: Yeah, I think that's absolutely true. And another thing I think is true is that I think one of the aspects of the feminist revolution that I think of it as being kind of not completed. So, like, I think one of the ideas of feminism was that market work is this high-status thing and so we have to get women into this, do more of it. So women kind of get the respect they deserve.

But like pre-feminism and like in the 1950s, you had a lot of stay-at-home mothers who were doing a lot of volunteering, a lot of PTO activities--

Chris Hayes: Right.

Tim Lee: -- and a lot of, kind of, civil society stuff that also was very important. And --

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Tim Lee: -- as they moved into the workforce, there were fewer and fewer people that do that. And one of the reasons I think would be helpful to have more men consider this kind of thing as an option is that I think you do need people to do that. I don't necessarily think it should be usually or always women, but it would be useful to have more people who have kind of slack in their schedule.

So I talked to another husband of a doctor who is a full-time stay-at-home dad, has been for the entirety of his son's life. And early on, obviously, he was busy taking care of his child. But then later in his life when he was, you know, middle school, high school kind of age, he served on his local school council, he did a lot of volunteer work, that kind of civil society stuff that a couple generations ago would have been kind of middle-class homemaking women.

Like, he's doing a lot of that. And I think that's very valuable, and I think it'd be valuable if that kind of activity had a higher status. It was kind of seen, as you know, on par with market work as something that is a way you can contribute to your household and to the larger society.

Chris Hayes: That is such a great point. And I think about this often, like civil society stuff, I think about a lot in terms of like community board meetings and stuff on just like local issues around development, things like that. And you know, it's a frustration. I was just actually looking about proposal for a street redesign in my neighborhood and wanting to go to the meeting, but then being like, well, my show is at 8:00. And obviously, these are all scheduled after the normal workday, and so I can never go.

But, yeah, that's a really fascinating point. And I think there's a nostalgia sometimes, right. It's a complicated nostalgia for this period. This is a post-war period, basically, that runs from, you know, basically '45 through, let's say, '75, something like that. And where there's a whole bunch of things that come together to produce the kind of iconic mid-century American household, right, to help the suburbs, the one wage earner who can make enough to buy a house with a yard, send the kids to college, because in-state tuition is incredibly cheap compared to what it is now. These sort of pillars of middle-class life feel accessible.

But then also that idea of a one wage earner, and what it means for a broader society and community, right, how that sort of cascades down is such an interesting point to think about civil society, think about like clubs that happen and people getting together and, you know, coming together for bake sales and things like that. And the kind of harried nature of the current time use and how it, sort of, attacks that. And yes, it was totally gendered in a way that I think we want to leave in the past. But to have space for that is such an interesting point that there are repercussions that are public, fundamentally, and not just in the domicile, not just in the household, to arrangements, like the one that you're describing in which there's someone who's home with the kids.

Tim Lee: Yeah, absolutely.

Chris Hayes: Do you think there are policy questions here? I think you're right that, largely, these are sort of individual decisions that couples make. And I sort of agree with you that I don't personally feel like it's my place to tell any particular couple how they should order, you know, these questions. But it does seem to me like there are some policy questions, right, about what would happen in terms of how we might craft levers and policy to make this more possible for men that wanted to do it, I guess is sort of the question, right?

Tim Lee: Yeah. So two things come to mind there. One is obviously to the extent that there are going to be parental leave policies. It's useful for it to be parental leave as opposed to maternal leave. So at least allow or potentially even require, you know, dads as well as moms to have time off when a child is born.

The other thing is I think there's a fundamental trade-off, you know, as a lot of people are talking about ways to help young parents around childcare and just the cost of parenting. There's kind of two approaches. One is really focused on providing childcare, you know, to have universal pre-K, or even, you know, subsidized childcare as we saw in Build Back Better.

The other is to just give parents cash or provide some kind of subsidy that's available to families with stay-at-home parents as well as childcare. And I think this is an argument sort of pushing in the direction of supporting all families with cash as opposed to having a childcare system, because I think the kind of traditional feminist attitude is we want to get both parents out of the household and into the workforce, because then women are working. But then I think that's not necessarily a good model for everybody.

And you know, it's certainly true that if you give parents cash, that you're going to be supporting some families and probably more families where you have a stay-at-home mom, which feminists might not love. But I think it also is going to support some families in the other direction and hopefully more over time, where you have that cash allows a dad to stay home and take care of their kids.

Chris Hayes: This is a fascinating policy question; I want to just like put a finer point on this. For people who are not familiar with this particular policy debate, it's an actual live one, right? So the Build Back Better sort of care economy model that’s embodied in democratic legislation and progressive think-tanks is this sort of notion of you provide people with childcare because it's a completely underserved need. I mean, this is a thing that you will note often.

You know, again, relatively affluent, professional people who have a fair amount of money, like, I can't get my kid to daycare? Like, how is it possible? The fact, there's just not enough daycares and a bunch is closed actually during the pandemic. So this idea of care work is essential and it's important, and we could create basically a kind of public infrastructure. Provide that, it's different than what public schooling is, but basically that division, right, that there's this public provision of this care and people can take advantage of that. That's the kind of progressive position.

Now what has been basically a kind of conservative position, I think Mike Lee, senator from Utah, and others have proposed is they basically say, well, I'm charactering, but basically, these big government liberals want to, like, take your kid away from the household and throw them into a socialist daycare where they can be indoctrinated and be away from you. But what we want is for the government to support families with little kids and give them cash.

And in the case, I think, of someone like Lee, he's probably thinking of constituents in Utah who have divisions of labor that break down among much more traditional gender lines, mom at home, dad in the workplace.

You're sort of interestingly offering a kind of, like, third perspective on this, which is to say to the extent that you want to incentivize households like yours, right, where this division of labor is happening in a different way, and also maybe recoup some of the benefits that you talked about civil society and volunteerism, of having a parent at home, that maybe, you know, going this sort of cash route to parents makes more sense and could produce that. It's very interesting. I have not heard that argument because it has been coded often as an argument, essentially, in favor of subsidizing traditional gender hierarchy.

Tim Lee: Yeah. I mean, I think it's a little bit wrong to characterize this as entirely a right-wing thing. I mean, the Democratic Congress did pass the expanded Child Tax Credit --

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Tim Lee: -- in 2021. I was in favor of extending that. I think it’s too bad they didn't. And so I think both of those were options that were on the table for the Democratic Congress that, ultimately, they didn't do either one, and what became the Inflation Reduction Act. But given a pot of money, I would have rather put that money towards extending like what the Democrats did in 2021 with the Child Tax Credit as opposed to trying to create a new daycare infrastructure.

Chris Hayes: Totally. Let me just be clear because I want to be, the Child Tax Credit, to me, is the floor. Like, I think we all agree, you and I definitely agree, it should be extended. It was remarkably successful. This was about the question above that, in Build Back Better, where there was both the CTC at the baseline, right, which was cash, and then above that there was a care infrastructure.

And there was a response by Mike Lee, like, let's not do a care infrastructure. Let's do, you know, cash above that CTC. But yes, I agree, Child Tax Credit floor, everyone should get that. But I do think it's an interesting way to think about it. I also think it's an interesting thing to think about how these social transformations happen because at one level, there are these two different social phenomena that have happened over time, that are a product of the feminist revolution.

One of them, which you chart, is women in the workforce. It's just one of the most dramatic changes in society since the Industrial Revolution, right? I mean, it's just completely remarkable. What that looks like, fathers as primary caregivers, it doesn't look anywhere like that chart, right? So that, in some ways, has been one of the modern feminist conundra, which is women have entered the workforce and retained all the traditional duties and responsibilities they had when they were not in the workforce, thus, now essentially giving them much more to do.

And you see this again in time-use data where you will see that, like, men do more around the house than they used to, and women also do more, and now do, you know, an order of magnitude more. And so getting to that position of equity ends up being this sort of like very difficult thing.

Tim Lee: Yeah. And I think part of this is a certain amount of wishful thinking among feminist thinkers about the way workplaces work and about the way kind of careers work. I think the idea is that you should be able to have a 50/50 household and still really excel in your job. And you can certainly be a competent worker and have a successful career in that role. But if you want to become a CEO or a member of Congress, or you know, a partner at your law firm, it's going to be really hard to do that if you are in an equal marriage.

Chris Hayes: That's an interesting point. Yeah. You're saying that's not a solvable problem. But basically like you're squeezing the balloon, and there's got to be some sort of comparative change. Because when you're talking about people with the upper echelons, who's a U.S. senator, who's a CEO, who's all these things, those are people that almost, by definition, have been working like crazy. And it's just hard to make that work if there's two people working.

Tim Lee: Yeah. And the traditional answer is, well, we should, like, change the way workplaces work. So you can become a CEO after working 9:00 to 5:00, 40 hours a week for 20 years. And that's a nice theory. But on the one hand, I don't think that's going to happen. But also like it's really important that the CEO of a Fortune 500 be really good at their job. And you know, you look at, you know, the people who do this, they travel to a bunch of places around the company. They know a ton of people. And I think that makes them better CEOs because the job of the CEO is to, like, be really, really familiar with their company, to talk to lots of people, to make lots of decisions.

It wouldn't be good for the American economy to have CEOs who, you know, can't make an important meeting because they're in a little league. Like, you need a certain number of people who really prioritize their jobs because some jobs are really, really important. And if you want women to do that, you need to arrange for women to work as hard as men traditionally have in those jobs.

Chris Hayes: I will take it out of the CEO perspective, which is something I know nothing about, and I just talked about, like, Kate working in the White House, you know, when she was right out of clerking for Justice Stevens. Like, White House jobs are insane. And I was probably not the best sport about it because I'm needy and I need a lot of attention. So you sound better about all this. I mean, I guess I'm at least self-aware about it. But, you know, if people didn't know I need a lot of attention, you can watch my television show at 8:00 p.m.

So I don't think I was the best sport about it. I'm sure she'll be listening to this, and I'm chuckling over it. But it was this funny thing where like, OK, this is back in the day of the Blackberry, right. Like, you get an email at 1:00 in the morning and you have to do X. And it's like, you know, from a household, or from a partner perspective, it’s like, what? It sucks.

But it's also, like, it's the U.S. government. Like, it's the White House. What are you going to say? It's not trivial. Like, it's genuinely, really important. It's arguably the most important organization in the entire globe is this one building on Pennsylvania Avenue, that commands the most powerful country on earth. Like, yeah, it's super important. There's going to be no way to, like, make that job not be nuts.

Tim Lee: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: It's just going to have to be nuts, you know. And I think you're right that there are going to be some jobs and I don't know if it's CEO, but there will be jobs that are going to be hard and difficult. I mean, your wife’s job is a perfect example, where I think there's a job that's going to indelibly require that and, also, I think for incredibly, literally the most important social end, propagation (ph) to species and caring for, you know, newborn children. And there's no way around that, there's no way to make an OB-GYN like a job that, like, isn't going to have these hard requirements of sometimes you just have to be at work.

Tim Lee: Yeah. I mean, there have been nights where my wife called me, like, my patient just had a miscarriage. I'd like to spend an extra hour with her, make sure she's OK. Is it OK if you take the kids for an extra hour? And obviously, I say yes. And like you said, it wouldn't be reasonable to say, OK, my shift ended at 5:00 and I'm just going to take off. Like, that doesn't work.

Chris Hayes: I am laughing because, obviously, it's an incredibly upsetting thing when that happens. And I know, obviously, people that has happened to and it's like devastating. But also like, yes, being on the other end of that, like something truly world-ending in the moment for my patient has happened, I need to be with her. Like, yeah, you can't say, well.

Tim Lee: Yeah. One of the most interesting writers in this area is Anne-Marie Slaughter, who was one of the top advisors to Hillary Clinton when she was Secretary of State --

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Tim Lee: -- and wrote about her decision after a couple years, to move back to New Jersey, to be with her teenage sons. I mean, I think that's another example where, you know, if there's an international crisis, or there might be a war about to happen, it's like really important for her to do her job, to make sure that --

Chris Hayes: Yup.

Tim Lee: -- you know, the U.S. government doesn't make a mistake that leads to thousands of people dying. That's just more important than helping her teenage son. And so it's totally reasonable that she only wanted to do that for two years and go back to her job. But there's never going to be a future where being Secretary of State is a 9:00 to 5:00 job or being a top adviser to the Secretary of State is a 9:00 to 5:00 job because the stakes are so high.

Chris Hayes: One thing that I've gotten more clarity on is how intense the specific years of young children are on a household and how things really do change. I mean, I think in the trajectory of a household, young children are just in a category of their own. And even now, I've seen now that I have 4, 8, and 11, it's just way different than two or three years ago.

You know, my 11-year-old is commuting by herself. She comes home. Speaking of which, she probably made sure that she got home. But you know, there's a specific period in your life where squaring the circle is the most difficult because of the age of your children. And that over time, those relative trade-offs in a couple and whether that's a same sex couple, whether it's a head or a couple, and whoever is doing the trade-off, that those can also change over time. Like, I think I have a better sense of like the length of all of this than I did when I was younger.

Tim Lee: Yes, absolutely. As you said, you're further along in this than me, so you would have a better insight. But my assumption is comparing my 7-year-old and my 1-year-old, when my 1-year-old is 7, that it's going to be much easier.

This is something that I personally am very lucky because I think journalism is a very flexible profession in this respect. In particular, doing a Substack newsletter, self-published publication makes it very easy because I can cut back my pace. Not as many people are going to sign up, I'm not going to make as much money. But nobody is going to be like, oh, where did you go? Like, you know, I'm publishing often enough that people don't forget about me. And I can scale up as much as I have time and inclination for, whenever that happens.

And so I think there's some professionals where it's not as easy. You know, if you're a partner at your law firm, or you know, you're an engineer at some firm that really requires 40 hours a week, that's harder to do. But I think a lot of kind of white-collar professions, there are ways you can be a consultant or a freelancer, or you can find ways to practice some version of your profession at a lower pace for a few years when your kids are young, and then scale it back up. But it's definitely not easy.

Chris Hayes: Timothy Lee is reporter for Full Stack Economics, his Substack which he writes, which is great, and is on a variety of economic topics which I would absolutely recommend you check out and subscribe to. He covers housing, labor markets and technology; previously reporter at Washington Post, Vox, and other media outlets. He is a father of three. I love having these conversations about sort of the real stuff of real life, Tim, so thanks so much for coming and doing it.

Tim Lee: Thanks, Chris. It was fun.

Chris Hayes: All right. Once again, great thanks, Tim Lee. You can check out his writing on this topic and other topics at his Substack.

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Tweet us with the hashtag #WITHpod, email Follow us on TikTok by searching for WITHpod. “Why Is This Happening?” is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by Doni Holloway and Brendan O'Melia, engineered by Bob Mallory and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to