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Read the Full Interview With American Sniper Chris Kyle That Didn’t Make it to Press

As American Sniper picks up steam at the box office (and courts controversy along the way), revisit a conversation with the man whose story inspired the film

In late 2011, just before his book American Sniper came out, TIME did a lengthy interview with Chris Kyle. Portions of that interview made on onto the back page of the magazine for the 10 Questions feature. Other parts of the interview were edited into a video that lives online.

But Kyle had more to say — about his shooting methods, his favorite sniper movies and his faith. Here is the full length transcription of that interview, edited only for clarity and repetition.

Mr. Kyle, thanks for coming.

Thanks for having me.

So you’ve got this new book American Sniper. Don’t special operations forces guys usually not talk about their stuff?

Yes. It is kind of frowned upon.

So why did you decide to do the book?

Well, because I’m not trying to glorify myself. In fact, when we started the book I didn’t want to put the number [of kills] in there. I wanted to be able to get it out about not the sacrifices that the military members make, but the sacrifices that their families have to go through about the single mothers now raising their children and doing all the day-to-day house chores. But then also stories about my guys who deserve to be out there. They didn’t get the Medal of Honor so you don’t know about them, but they died heroes and people should know about them.

You had four pretty much back-to-back deployments. And you saw a lot of fighting. Do you feel that you have dealt with a psychological fallout of all that yet? It’s only ’11.

It definitely makes it hard to come back from that to learn to be a civilian now, and there’s different rules being a civilian. Everybody gets battle stress; maybe not PTSD, but you get a little stressed from constantly being in combat, but then you come home and you recharge your batteries.

As you speak, the Americans have pretty much just pulled out of Iraq. There are now officially no American soldiers there. Are you optimistic about the future of that country?

Honestly, I don’t know. I’m glad they’re out. We should have declared victory awhile back and gotten everyone out of there. Let them prove now that they can run it. We’ve trained them and we’ve done what we needed to do. In fact we spent all the American money to rebuild them. Now it’s their time to prove it.

In your book you say actually that you don’t give “a flying F” about what happens to the Iraqis. Is that still your feeling?

I still feel like, sooner or later, we’ll have to go back.

You think we’ll have to go back?

I’m sure we will.

Because it’s not all done?

They’re crooked. No matter how bad you think of our politicians, those people over there are worse. It’s honorable to lie to someone’s face instead of to look bad.

So let’s talk a little bit about being a sniper. What are the qualities that a successful sniper needs?

It’s definitely not patience, because I’m not a patient person, but it’s professional discipline. Just being able to sit there and have the professionalism to observe everything. And it’s not just being a monkey on a gun—anyone can pull a trigger. But’s it’s observing the area. Knowing the culture. Knowing exactly what’s going on. Being able to pick out an oddity. You know, someone’s not acting right, so that draws your attention to them, and then you start really trying to define exactly what he’s doing and why he’s doing it. Anything as far as observing movement, shades, You know, anything that shines back at you. Trying to pick something out that’s out of the ordinary.

I thought you’d say, you have to be a good shot, but that’s not the most important thing about being a sniper?

I’m not the greatest shot there is. In fact, I almost failed out of sniper school. I’m the luckiest guy right now, but there’s definitely a lot better snipers out there. I just happened to be the one that was put in there, got lucky enough to see plenty of combat, and been able to take the shots. But observation is probably the most important skill.

It’s interesting that you should say lucky, because a lot of people would feel, ‘I don’t know how lucky that is, to have to be there and kill all those people.’ Let’s talk, because this is the bit that the vast majority of us has no experience in, about actually killing people. What goes through your mind when you’re shooting a guy?

Well I mean you’re not sitting there trying to analyze him and trying to figure out you know if he has a family or what kind of person is he. You’re there to protect your own guys, and I’m not there just trying to rack up numbers and see how many people I can kill—I’m trying to protect all the troops. So the more people that I can protect, that means there’s more people I have to kill. Cause every time I kill someone that means he can’t plant another IED or he can’t ambush a convoy. So I’m not going out purposely trying to kill someone, and the first time of killing someone, you’re not even sure you can do it. I mean you think you can, but you never know until you’re actually put in that position and you do it, and then you’re double-thinking yourself, like can I really do this? Am I going to be OK? And then you’re asking your leadership, Am I clear and hot to be able to do this? Am I going to be in trouble? You know, this guy’s really bad. And then you’re worried when you get home, are the politicians going to hang you out to dry and put you on trial for murder?

You write about that first time as being quite—all these things are going through your mind. Does it ever become more routine?

I’m not over there looking at these people as people. I’m just over there trying to do a job, trying to keep my guys safe, and you just view these guys as the terrorists that they are. You see the actions that they do. And I call them savages in the book, but if you see the way these people act, you don’t know how any civilized person can do what they do. So you’re not really viewing them as a person. They’re out there, they’re bad people, and you just take them out and you don’t think twice about it.

Snipers sometimes talk about a hunger for a kill. Is that something you felt? The hunger for the kill? Often when you got on the rifle and you just relieved a guy and you killed somebody, the others would say, Oh you lucky bastard. Was it luck or hunger or what [that made you so successful]?

Well I mean if you’re out there, you definitely don’t want to be just sitting there. I mean same reason when I said I was lucky to be in combat. When you sign up, you sign up because you want to go to war. Or at least the SEALS, we do. We don’t sign up to go be the best just so we can sit at home, walk around the bars and say, Hey, look at me, I’ve got a trident on. I’m a SEAL. We do it because we want to go to war. And then when you go to war you don’t want to just sit there. I mean what’s the point of deploying if you’re just going to sit there? You want to actually do your job or bring me home. So when your guy, it’s his turn to be on the gun, he wants to do his job. I mean we know the whole country was full of bad guys, and then our guys are constantly getting killed day after day, so we want to do something to make it safer.

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The first kill that you write about in the book, you actually kill a woman and she has in one hand the hand of her toddler, and then in the other hand she has a grenade. Was that the hardest of the kills you had to do?

Probably. It was difficult. I mean first of all it’s a woman, and there is a child involved. But just like the story played out in the book, I had to do it to protect the Marines, so, do you want to lose your own guys or would you rather take one of them out?

In another story that you tell there’s a gentlemen, an enemy combatant, with a RPG [Rocket Propelled Grenade] and you floor him and then of course somebody wants the RPG so they come and pick him up and then you shoot that guy, and then they send a child to pick up the launcher, and you decline to shoot the child. Is there some line in the sand for you?

No. It also depends on our Rules Of Engagement and at the time anyone with an RPG, or any kind of a crew-served weapon, which meant machine guns or anything, mortars, that you could kill them on sight. That day I just couldn’t kill the kid.

How young was he?

Probably 10. 12. Something like that. I’m not sure. He’ll probably grow up and do it too as an older kid, maybe have to fight us, but at the time I just didn’t want to do it.

Do you have a favorite gun? Or is it more purpose-driven thing?

It’s purpose-driven. I mean, on my deployments, the .300 Win Mag [Winchester Magnum] did become my favorite, until we started getting a .338, but I would look at imagery, try to figure out what my longest shot would possibly be, and if it was you know a thousand or more, I would take my .300 Win Mag cause of the capabilities of the weapon system. So that for the most part that was the weapon that I would take, and then I would also have my M4, the patrol rifle I would take with me.

Sometimes you stopped being a sniper and went down on patrol, which I guess people must have taken a dim view of back at command, because you’re trained to be a sniper and you’re kind of valuable for that.

Well that was for Fallujah to where they had a problem with it, and that was just cause the Marine Corps put out a request for forces, and in that request that asked for SEAL snipers. I was sent and attached to the Marine Corps as a sniper, and that’s how I was to be employed. So it was not favorable for my head shed that you know nobody was coming out on the streets anymore that I decided to get down on the streets and help the Marines go through the door. But, as a SEAL, you’re never a master of anything. You’re kind of a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. Cause being a sniper, I don’t solely go out there and just sit on the shooting range and shoot my sniper rifle. I still have to keep up with my diving and jumps and do my patrolling and pistol work, everything else, so part of my job is also being down there on the ground. I was the point man and navigator, so I knew what was going on. I was usually number one man through the door with my guys, so, and I wanted to help out the Marines. I got tired of seeing them go into a house and then as they were coming out they were carrying one of their own out.

Do you have two sets of heads: your I’m-back-in-America head and your I’m-at-war-head?

Two different people. You turn it on and turn it off. You’re a little more aggressive when you’re at work and then when you come home you relax and try to be the different person, and my wife always said that when I came home from work I’d take my cape off and put in on the door, cause I’d stub my toe or break my toe or something at home, but at work I was fine.

Does your wife still have to say your name before she gets back into bed?

It’s not as bad. But that was even before I was in the military. I’ve always been extremely jumpy when I’m asleep.

And the reason your wife has to say your name before she gets back into bed?

I will come up swinging. Depends on how tired. If I’m out cold then you can ring the doorbell and I’ll be asleep.

I guess everybody who’s done what you do gets asked this, but do you have bad dreams?

Yeah, everybody has bad dreams, right?

Do you get bad dreams that specifically refer to the fact that you were a sniper?

Sometimes you do. Sometimes you might read a book or watch or TV or something will jog your memory and you think about it right before you go to bed and something will come up.

And you wake up and it’s gone. It’s not something that bugs you?

No. I mean I’m not a messed-up person. I don’t have PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder]; I’m fine. Every once in a while you might have a dream or remembering an event that you were involved in and then goes away.

Are there any kills you regret?

No. Not at all.

Because you felt like it was either you killed them or they killed other Americans?

Yes, ma’am.

When you’re at home do you get out your gun much?

I do. Well, part of my job is training, so I have to make sure that I stay on my fun when I’m training, especially sniper course. Someone will eventually challenge me to a shoot, so I at least want to be able to compete with them when I’m out there, and if I’m telling them they have to do something a certain way, I want to be able to do it myself and prove that it does make a difference.

I’ve read tales on the very reliable Internet of snipers leaving their first kill alive so that their buddies come in to help them and the sniper can shoot more evil-doers. In the sphere of war, do you think this is OK?

I think so.

So you would do it?

I never have. You don’t have to leave them alive for someone to come help them. Especially with the Muslim faith, if they die they need to be buried before either the sun goes down or the sun comes up. So they’ll come get the body.

But the rules of engagement don’t necessarily let you shoot the guys who come unless they’re armed, right?

Right. Well I mean they can’t be just coming to pick up a body. If that was the case, thousands of kills. If they’re just coming to pick up a body that’s fine. Now, there were times during the ROEs did state that the guy’s bad, anyone who comes to his aid’s bad. But they know our ROEs better than we do, so they understood, and during that time they would not come out and help.

I’m guessing they learned them the hard way.

I’m sure they did.

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So which of the sniper movies do you think are the most accurate that you have seen? Shooter? Enemy at the Gates? Rambo?

Ah, shoot. I like Enemy at the Gates. As far as accurate? I don’t know. I mean it’s all Hollywood.

Are there any that you watch and you just go, That is ridiculous?

Oh, most of them.

How have technology and digital communications changed the way that snipers work since that Finnish guy, I think his name was Simo Häyhä, killed all those Russians?

I’m not just out there shooting. Now I’m going in early, ahead of my guys and I’m the forward observer now. I’ll take a picture and send it back over satellite, back to my guys so they can see real time the target that they’re fixing to hit or the way the people are where they’re standing, where the guards are, their different routines. Or if I actually have the high-value target that we’re going after, I can take a picture and send it to them so they know exactly who they’re looking for.

So you take a picture, send it and they go, Yeah, that’s the guy we want. Take him out?

Right. But most times for something like that, there’s the follow-on force coming in to do an assault, to actually grab the guy, take him back. So I’m there trying to give them heads up, give them their Intel brief before they get there, to let them know the routes coming in, which ones are safe, which one I wouldn’t take, different obstacles that might be in their way.

There’s actually been quite a lot of Navy SEAL and sniper books out since this war, which is unusual. Why do you think that so many special operations forces guys are coming out from the cover of darkness?

It’s popular right now. It’s very popular. We always make fun of all the guys saying, Oh, you’re going to take your trident and sell it, huh?

Is it because of SEAL Team 6?

No. I don’t think it’s just 6. Six has the most notoriety of all of them. They definitely have you know a more high-valued job, not downplaying what the rest of the SEALs do at all, which I was never 6 anyway, so.

But it does seem like this tradition of ‘we don’t really talk about what we do’ is kind of being laid by the wayside.

I think a lot of it with the media being embedded overseas, there’s a lot more stories of SEALS coming out anyway, so the public is a lot more knowledgeable. When I first went in I didn’t even know what SEALs were, and then I thought, Wow, they do that and no one ever hears about them. They got to be awesome. I want to go do it. And now everyone knows what SEALS are. Everybody either knows a SEAL or knows someone who is a SEAL, or knows someone who knows someone, and then there’s also a bunch of frauds who are out there saying they were SEALs.

You were not a fan of the journalists embedded among military. Would you like to explain why?

Right. Back in World War II, if they would have had the media embedded then, there would have been so many war criminals. The fact is Congress should decide, if they’re going to send us to war, O.K., you give me the go-ahead. We’re going. Now the generals and the admirals are going to decide. Are we going in to win or are we just going in to play patty cake and do your little rebuilding and kind of hang out. Politicians shouldn’t have any say over what happens after that. Let’s go in. Do our job. Now, there will be crimes that happen, and those do need to be punished. I’m not saying that we need to just say alright, let’s go in, do what we got to do and shit happens. But the media does cause more tension and a lot more problems than they do good.

You say in your book that most Americans can’t handle the reality of war and the reports journalists sent back didn’t help us at all, which actually sounds a lot like Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, “You can’t handle the truth.” Is that how you feel? Are you on Jack’s side in this one?

Yes, ma’am. For the most part the public is very soft. You live in a dream world. You have no idea what goes on the other side of the world, the harsh realities that these people are doing to themselves and then to our guys, and there are certain things that need to be done to take care of them.

So you don’t think there’s any value at all in… Wasn’t the problem with Vietnam that the American people lost faith in the war and therefore pressured the politicians to get the troops out probably early, in the military’s eyes?

No. The problem with Vietnam was the politicians never wanted to win it and they wouldn’t turn the Americans loose to actually do it, cause we could have won that war. The troops on the ground had it done. Now when the politicians start hamstringing you by making up these ROES, the rules of engagement, and changing how you play cause they’re sitting in their fat ass in the air conditioned room on a leather chair smoking a cigar and having a drink while I’m out there getting shot at, that doesn’t belong out there. And then the media comes in and during Vietnam the army was putting out their own spin, which, it was found out that they were lying about a lot of things, so that hurt, and then the public realized that the army was putting out their propaganda that was full of lies. And between the politicians not letting the military win it, and then the army/media putting their own spin on things, and then the American public… I mean, good stories for the most part don’t sell. You need something that has tragedy to really get someone’s attention to turn it on. I mean, most of these movies that you go to watch are not Disney anymore unless you got kids. You’re out there to see some violence.

So you weren’t over there to protect American rights, like a free press?

We weren’t over there to protect America’s right to do anything. We went in to help free some people, to form a democracy for them, to liberate them. And then I was over there fighting for my guys. I was fighting because my country told me to, and then I was fighting for my buddies and my family.

The war has cost $824 billion so far and roughly 4,484 American lives, and then who knows how many Iraqis, and two of those lives were very good friends of yours, Marcus Lee and Ryan Job. In your opinion, was it worth it?

I think it was worth it. Now it’s never worth it when you lose a guy. I’m not trying to devalue their lives and say that, Yes, this whole thing was worth their life, but going over there we did the right thing. It’d be a lot cheaper if we didn’t stay over as long, and if you make us come in, we shouldn’t have to pay to rebuild.

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You were investigated at least one time, for a kill. Would you like to explain about that?

Well there was one that was outside of Habbaniyah, where a convoy was coming along and a guy was maneuvering to go hit the convoy. He was going to ambush him. Well I shot him. And then his wife came out, a whole crowd came out. They got the body, because at the time the ROEs did not allow me to shoot anybody else, even if they did pick up that weapon. So I had to let everybody go, and they moved the body. She started screaming and crying. The army sent investigators out there, a tank commander. He went out and the woman was saying—right there on the street, right where I shot him—she was saying her husband was just walking down the street carrying a Koran. And at that time he was saying, OK well what happened? She said, Well an American shot him. I know it was an American. I saw him—his uniform. So the army captain pointed up at my building where I was hidden, and he said, Did it come from the direction? She said, Yes, yes. That’s him. Which at the time I wasn’t wearing a uniform, so she couldn’t see me. I was covered with the jacket and everything else and I was two rooms deep. I had my screens up. You couldn’t see in, not even if you were standing in front of the building. So the woman was lying. The army pulled me and said that I could not leave the base to go on any more missions for a while until the investigation was done. And it pissed me off. They were going to take the word of a woman who was out there lying that I’m just out there killing innocent people. And then [the army captain] gave up my position.

You don’t generally have a lot of respect for what you call “the head shed.”

In the military, being enlisted, we like to give the officers crap, and we always frown, make jokes at them and tell them you know I actually work for a living and make fun of them saying they make a million dollars a year, which they don’t. But no, I have had some outstanding officers who I loved working for and they were outstanding, brave one who did the job and did it right. In the book, it does come out that I had some of them that I did not like at all. Thought they should have been on the other side of the war, but that’s not true throughout the whole chain of command. That was just certain people in it. Now when you start getting up higher the chain in command up home here, that’s when you start getting the bureaucracy and the politics come in. That’s when I don’t like that.

You’re a SEAL, but you don’t actually like the water. Do I have this right?

Yes, you do.

One would think you maybe should have joined a different branch. Was the name SEAL not a bit of a giveaway there would be water?

If I see a puddle I will walk around it. I hate the water. But during BUD/S [Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training] you’re, for seven months long, you’re cold and you’re wet. Every time we get in the water, it’s not like you’re out in the Bahamas and it’s crystal clear and you’re just enjoying yourself. It’s usually cold. It’s pitch black; you can’t see your hand in front of your face and things bumping into you, you have no idea what they are. That’s out of my element. I mean, I’m the prey in the water. I don’t like that.

In asymmetric warfare like we practiced in Iraq where one side has much better weapons, much better training, much better organization and much better funding, did you ever find it possible to respect any of your adversaries?

There were some. The hardened fighters who were well trained. I mean it’s a lot easier to respect someone like that who’s actually going to give you a challenge and they’re going to put on the uniform and want to come fight you. It’s a lot easier to respect that instead of someone who’s going to dress like the public, blend in, and use women and children as shields.

That is the nature of asymmetric warfare though, that they are sort of almost forced to use women and children as shields, because understanding the rules of engagement, they know you wouldn’t shoot.


So that must be a very frustrating situation.

Yes, ma’am.

You prefer just to fight a real fight.

Yes, ma’am. Then I can pick out my targets.

You talk in your book a little bit about your faith, which is interesting. You have a God, country, family set of priorities, and in my understanding of the Christian faith, we are all created in the image of God, and we are all fallen from that image, and then we have been redeemed. Given that we are all created in the image of God, do you see no conflict in your faith because the guy that you’re going to shoot is not any different in God’s eyes to you? That you’re both sons of God?

Well even in the Bible, God sent the Jews to war. I am not going to murder someone, but if it is in war, I do not think God has a problem with that.

You actually say in your book that you think God might have some things to talk about with you.

Oh, I know he does. I have sinned my entire life, so we definitely have things we’re going to have to sit down and talk about, or I get a talking to about, but shooting those guys is not going to be one of them.

Your conscience is completely clear.

Yes, ma’am.

But if people did start out with the impression before they read your book that a person who has killed upwards of 150 other people was a violent person, maybe a bloodthirsty person, I’m not sure that the book would free them from that feeling. How would you respond to that?

I really don’t care what they think of me. I mean I’ve got my family. I’ve got my friends. I’m not trying to make new friends. If you actually spend time with me you’ll find out I’m just a fun-loving guy. Now, yes, I have been trained to be a little more aggressive if I need to be, but I don’t go around thumping people as I’m walking by.

You do talk about an awful lot of bar fights.

Yes, ma’am. And it’s a lot of easier to do it when you’re active duty and the Navy’s willing to help you out of problems. If there’s no consequences for your actions then you can do a lot more. But being a civilian now, there’s consequences to my actions.

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What was the hardest part about coming home?

Well the first deployment, it was coming home and seeing that everyone’s doing their life as normal. The world just kept turning, and it seemed like no one was paying any attention to the fact that guys were overseas dying for us, and then the fact of being in the crowds again. When I came home it took a little bit of time. You just kind of hang out for a few days before I could go out and be in crowds again. And you have to act completely different. It’s not more, I mean… You’re not going to be walking around with your M4 slung over you anymore.

You have the God, country, family priority list, and your wife has the God, family, country priority list, and that became something of a point of conflict, to the point where she was very disappointed that you redeployed after she became pregnant with your first child. Would you redeploy again? Under what circumstances?

If my wife did not give me the talking to, then I probably would still be in. I would deploy again. My feeling is as long as I am able-bodied, I should be out there fighting that war instead of sending someone in my place.

And what is it that your wife said that made a difference?

She was going to take the kids and go to her parents, and I could not lose my family.

Do you think that that is a common problem among…?

Definitely. Even when we’re home, you know, doing your training before you deploy, you’re not at home. You’re all over the states doing your different training activities, getting ready to deploy. So you don’t get to see your family. I am thankful now I’m out. I have a great relationship with my kids and my wife and I are awesome now, so it has brought something new to me. I lost the teams and I lost the guys, but I gained my family.

And what would you advise other people facing redeployment?

Don’t get married.

Really? Your wife’s going to read this in Time magazine, you know that right?

Oh, she knows.

How many tours of duty should we ask of a guy with a family?

How many he’s willing to give. I’m not saying how many, or giving rules you got to be putting on someone. Each individual’s going to be different. Some of the wives, they’ve gotten used to that way of life now, and sometimes it’s easier when their husband’s gone. So they have two separate lives, but they’re married. And a lot of people then have problems when that guy finally gets out of the military and then he’s home now, and then all of sudden daddy wants to be in charge again and it causes problems at home.

So kids don’t tend to take orders as well as others?

I’m not saying so much as the kids as the…

Wives don’t take orders at all.

That’s hard, especially if you’re a SEAL. You’re an alpha male. When you come home, you want to be the one in charge, and if your wife’s been the one in charge, leading the family, taking care of all the day-to-day activities, it’s hard for her to give it up and trust that you’re going to be able to take it over. She knows how the kids are operating, you know what they think, how they’re feeling, the best way to get things done, and now she’s going to probably watch over your shoulder to make sure, see how you’re doing it until she finally trusts that, OK, you can handle it.

If you never got to kill another person again, would be OK with it?

I’m fine. I don’t have to kill to live.

But you were good at it.

I was decent at it.

Well you were the most “decent at it” of anybody apparently in the current engagement.

Like I said though, I was lucky; every time I deployed it was into harm’s way. It was a conflict and heavy battles.

What if killing people turns out to be the thing that you were better at than anything?

I know that’s not true. I’m a better husband and a father than I was a killer. I mean I got a job now I’m pretty good at. I’m pretty comfortable with not having to kill anyone. Now, don’t take deer hunting away from me.

Chris Kyle, thank you very much.

Thank you.

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TIME Parenting

Please Stop Acting as if Maternity Leave Is a Vacation

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about increasing family leave for working Americans with Mary Stein, right, and Amanda Rothschild, left, after having lunch in Baltimore Saul Loeb—AFP/Getty Images

It's not

When Valerie Jarrett took to LinkedIn to announce that President Obama would sign a presidential memorandum giving federal employees at least six weeks of paid sick leave when a new child arrives, everybody thought the same thing: “Valerie Jarrett’s on LinkedIn?”

After people got past that, the general online response was even more juvenile, to wit: If people want to have kids, we, the taxpayers, shouldn’t have to pay for their time off.

Look, I know parents can be annoying, always acting as if some non-accomplishment — “he grew another hair!” — is the equivalent of inventing the next Uber.

But, quite apart from the fact that the future of the species depends and, barring some spooky cloning breakthroughs, will always depend on people making new people inside their bodies, the truth is that family leave is not a vacation.

Do not worry, child-free federal workers, that your parenting co-workers will be off having a nonstop party with their newborns in those six paid weeks of leave while you are at your day job. I assure you, they are working.

If it helps, think of family leave not as a vacation, but as a job swap. The new parents are swapping the jobs they know for shift work in an excrement-making factory with a co-worker who cannot communicate except by weeping or kicking. Plus, the shift never ends. And the chances of promotion are zero.

Meanwhile, we the workers who remain in our day jobs, are getting paid to have real conversations with people who know where their thumbs are. It’s not even a close call on who has the better deal.

This attitude — looking after completely helpless newborn=vacay — may be why the U.S. is the only Western country that has no federally mandated maternity leave. New Guinea doesn’t have any either; neither does Libya. So, the U.S. is rolling with a cool crowd.

Moreover, what’s the alternative? Having a co-worker return to his or her job right from the delivery room or as soon as he or she needs money? Do we really want that?

New parents are undergoing a huge emotional shift. It doesn’t always make them the best colleagues. They’re a bit like teenagers when they fall in love for the first time crossed with bros after they discover Crossfit: preoccupied. We probably want to give them a bit of cooling off time, almost like a quarantine except it’s a “parentine” (see what I did there?), so they can regain their senses.

Yes, parents choose to have children. But they’re doing it for all of us, like jury duty, or being the designated driver, or talking to the sad sack in the corner at the party so he doesn’t kick us all out of his apartment; they’re taking one for the team. So we should make sure the exercise doesn’t make them completely broke within the first month and a half. After all, if nobody had kids, who would invent the next Uber?

*I’m a parent. I have no time. But I’d like to keep up with parenting news. Sign me up for Belinda’s newsletter!

TIME celebrities

Maggie Gyllenhaal on the ‘Complicated’ Character That Won Her a Golden Globe

Actress Maggie Gyllenhaal celebrates her win at the 2015 Weinstein Company and Netflix Golden Globes After Party on Jan. 11, 2015 in Beverly Hills, California.
Actress Maggie Gyllenhaal celebrates her win at the 2015 Weinstein Company and Netflix Golden Globes After Party on Jan. 11, 2015 in Beverly Hills, California. Michael Tullberg—Getty Images/2015 Michael Tullberg

"I think that that's something that all human beings can relate to: performing themselves"

In an interview with TIME in 2014, Maggie Gyllenhaal described the things she had learned from playing Nessa, “the complicated woman” role that won her a 2015 Golden Globe on Sunday night. Gyllenhaal took home the award for best actress in a mini-series for The Honourable Woman, drawing attention to her complex character and those of her fellow nominees.

“When I look around the room at the women who are in here and I think about the performances that I’ve watched this year, what I see actually are women who are sometimes powerful and sometimes not,” she said in her acceptance speech. “Sometimes sexy, sometimes not. Sometimes honorable, sometimes not. And what I think is new is the wealth of roles for actual women in television and in film.”

Below, see how she explained her flawed character to TIME.

I think one of the things that’s happening with Nessa is that she’s going from being somebody who performs herself all the time and feels that she has to be extraordinary and remarkable, and pushes out the human flawed sides of herself to somebody who, you know, is actually a human being. And I think that’s part of what’s panicking her is you can’t live like that… Maybe it’s an occupational hazard of being an actor more than other people, but I think that that’s something that all human beings can relate to: performing themselves, thinking they’re supposed to be a kind of fantasy of what they imagined they were going to be when they were 20, you know, and then like — look, I’m 36. I feel like so much of my thirties has been having to — that performance just not working anymore. And so then you have two choices: either you can like slowly die, or you can come alive and be in the river and be a human being [Laughs] and like do the best you can.

Read next: Maggie Gyllenhaal Is Right: ‘Real Women’ Dominated TV This Year

TIME Parenting

Kids Who Eat More Fast Food Get Worse Grades

Christopher Robbins—Getty Images

Study says the difference in grades may be as much as 20%.

Fast food is cheap, filling and of course, fast. That makes it a lifesaver for some parents. But it’s also incredibly unhealthy and now a new nationwide study suggests that eating a lot of it might be linked to kids doing badly in school.

Researchers at the Ohio State University (OSU) and University of Texas, Austin, found that the more frequently children reported eating fast food in fifth grade, the lower their improvement in reading, math, and science test scores by eighth grade.

The difference between the test scores of kids who didn’t eat any fast food and those who reported eating a lot was significant: 20%.

“There’s a lot of evidence that fast-food consumption is linked to childhood obesity, but the problems don’t end there,” said Kelly Purtell, lead author of the study and assistant professor of human sciences at (OSU). “Relying too much on fast food could hurt how well children do in the classroom.”

While eating a lot of fast food is oftentimes a marker for poverty, and poorer students generally don’t do as well on standardized tests for a whole battery of reasons, these results held steady even after researchers took into account other factors, including how much the kids exercised, how much TV they watched, the other food they ate, their family’s socioeconomic status and the characteristics of their neighborhood and school.

“We went as far as we could to control for and take into account all the known factors that could be involved in how well children did on these tests,” Purtell said.

The results, which are published online in the journal Clinical Pediatrics, used data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Cohort, a nationally representative study of 11,740 students who started school in the 1998-1999 school year.

The kids were tested in reading/literacy, mathematics and science in fifth as well as eighth grades, and also filled out a food consumption survey in fifth grade. Slightly more than half the kids reported eating fast food between one and three times in the previous week. Almost a third had had no fast food that week, while a full 10% reported having it every single day and 10% four to six times a week.

“We’re not saying that parents should never feed their children fast food, but these results suggest fast-food consumption should be limited as much as possible,” said Purtell, who added that while her study cannot prove that fast-food consumption caused the lower academic growth, she and her fellow authors are confident fast food explains some of the difference in achievement gains between fifth and eighth grade.

Previous studies have shown that fast food is low in such nutrients as iron that aid in cognitive development, which may explain some of the gap in learning. Moreover, diets high in fat and sugar, both of which fast food tends to have in abundance, have been shown to have a bad effect on immediate memory and learning processes.

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TIME person of the year

I Never Guess TIME’s Person of the Year Either

TIME Person of the Year 2014 Magazine Cover: The Ebola Fighters 141222

Belinda Luscombe, an editor-at-large of TIME, writes about the science, economy and insanity of relationships—those conducted at home, work or in cyberspace. She's also the editor of the Time for Family newsletter and was formerly the editor of the magazine's Culture section. Luscombe has worked at TIME since 1995, after moving to New York City from Sydney.

Another year, another opportunity to choose wrong

So you just found out who the Person of the Year is? Congratulations. So did I. I’ve worked at TIME for almost two decades and I’ve never once known the identity of the Person of the Year (or POY, to us semi-insiders) before the printers in Oklahoma do.

Oh, except last year, when Pastor Rick Warren told me. I was interviewing him for the 10 Questions page for TIME’s end of year issue and I asked him if he thought the Pope would be a good person of the year. He swung into an answer so smooth and detailed, even for a preacher from California, that I realized he’d said it before. And there he was a few days later, quoted in our cover.

I’m not entirely sure why I never know who the POY is. It’s not that I’m not good with secrets. (O.K., maybe it is a little bit that I’m not good with secrets.) But the whole operation is carried out with such a level of confidentiality that actually very few people at TIME know much ahead of publication. There’s cloak-and-dagger air to it all: a lot of password protected files, a cluster of secret meetings and sometimes a certain amount of brown paper over office door windows. I could go into more detail, but as mentioned before, I’m good with secrets.

All right, just a little bit: Sometimes you can hazard a guess by figuring out the area of expertise of a colleague who has suddenly gone very quiet. Or if somebody who pitched a good idea at the first POY meeting starts to look very haggard around December, that can be a clue. But I still rarely figure it out.

Every year, way in advance, the call goes out to the staff for suggested candidates for the POY, and every year I try to come up with someone. I’m currently batting 0.00 on getting any of my ideas through. If you don’t want to be POY, give me a call. Ten years ago, I had the job of trying to persuade Mel Gibson, whose The Passion of the Christ had been a huge hit, to pose with Michael Moore, whose Fahrenheit 911 had also been big. If both of them had agreed they had a shot at being POY.

Moore took almost no persuading. Gibson’s publicist agreed to let me speak to the movie star as well. Alas, a few minutes into the phone call it became clear I might as well have been pitching him a sequel to The Passion, only a comedy, about Muhammad. Neither man (nor the Prophet) was POY that year. It was George W. Bush.

I suggested Hillary Clinton in probably her least influential year. In 2001, when it was NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani, I was in Osama Bin Laden’s camp, so to speak. In 2008, when Barack Obama was elected president, I believe I suggested that it should be anybody but Barack Obama. This year, I suggested the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram. Since they’ve been in captivity for several months in a remote part of Nigeria, it was a bit of a longshot.

All the finalists for POY have code names, and for this year, they were all flowers: There was Daffodil candidate, the Tulip candidate and so on. When I saw that one of the candidates was named Mum, I thought I’d have to make a quick phone call home to check my mother (she’s British, so she spells it like that) hadn’t done anything special.

Of course she had, and I had to hear about that for a long time. I think she’s walking the dog in a new part of the park or had an important exchange with her Vietnamese pharmacist. I kept trying to explain that I needed to see some evidence of influence, which is what we look for in a POY. Eventually she came up with that she had managed to get dad to see a foreign film. If she keeps up that pace, I’ll probably suggest her next year.

I’ve started to enjoy the process of not knowing who the POY is; it has become an end of year ritual, like buying my last minute Christmas gifts from the all-night pharmacy. And I worry that knowing in advance might spoil the fun, like when I actually buy the presents in advance and the kids poke holes in the too-cheap wrapping paper. So Happy POY day everyone. And congratulations [blank space here]!

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.


How the American Family Has Changed Dramatically

The difference between the haves and the have-nots have never been this steep

Hulton Archive; Getty Images
Kentucky Family
MPI—Getty Images

Modern marriage presents something of a conundrum for sociologists. The benefits of marriage have been widely studied; they include better health, better finances and a leg up for children raised in a stable environment. Some studies have even suggested that the legally wed have more sex. Marriage is an attractive enough proposition that people have marched and protested to allow a new subset of people to have access to it. Yet marriage rates are in decline.

In fact, a new book by a well-respected sociologist argues that the American family unit is facing challenges it has never encountered before.

Specifically, the marital decline has occurred among the working class. According to one study, more than 60% of white males aged 20 to 49 with jobs in the service sector, like waiters and janitors, were married in 1960. By 2010 that figure was less than 30%. Among African American men in the same situation the figure is less than 20%.

The non-married are not swinging George Clooney style bachelors who play the field until they find the perfect woman with whom to set up a home. These are usually fathers, men who have children and responsibilities and are often living with the mother of at least some of those children, or have lived with her in the past. They have made a family, but they haven’t founded that family on a marriage.

Meanwhile, for the wealthy, a successful and lasting marriage has become more and more likely. Professional men marry professional women, they pool their considerable resources and spend at least some of them on meticulously raising offspring, who get the best education, enrichment activities and artisanal bread for their lunchtime sandwich. They can afford to outsource or avoid those tasks that cause tension in less comfortable marriages: childcare, food provision, cleaning, unpaid bills, unemployment.

This has led some such cultural critics as Charles Murray to speculate that permissive social norms championed largely by the rich have worsened the struggles of the poor. The rich, argues Murray, can afford to abandon the responsibility of marriage and the loss of its benefits. Yet they do not. The less well-off, who would most benefit from the stability of institutions such as marriage, are disinclined to embrace its strictures.

Other argue, however, that poverty is what’s keeping people from tying the knot. People don’t get married because it brings burden without benefit. Men don’t feel they can support a family, and women don’t want to be tied to a man who may be a drag on her already meager income.

Now Andrew Cherlin, the well-respected sociologist at Johns Hopkins university has weighed in with a persuasive case for a sort of middle ground. In Labor’s Loves Lost (get it? Like the Shakespeare play, only it’s about the loss of love among the laboring class), he traces the course of marriage through history, specifically the history of the economy. Marriage and the economy, he finds are inextricably linked.

What Cherlin finds that this is not the first time that there has been a wide disparity between the marital fortunes of the rich and the poor: the situation looked similar during the last Gilded Age. Inequality in bank accounts and in marital status go hand in hand.

But the cultural critics are not totally wrong. Since the last gilded age, there has been a transformation in people’s attitudes to living together without getting married. Gone is the age of the “bastard,” or the “illegitimate” child. Now, rich and poor alike believe that living together before marriage is a prudent step. (Even though the studies don’t actually confirm that.)

What this means, argues Cherlin, is that we are in whole new territory. “It is the conjunction of the polarized job market and the acceptance of partnering and parenting outside of marriage that makes the current state of the American family historically unique,” writes Cherlin. “There has never been such a large, class-linked divergence in nonmarital childbearing. There has never been such a split between marriage-based families on the top rungs of the social ladder and cohabitation- and single-parent based families on the middle and bottom rungs.”

The gap in the family life of the rich and poor yawns wider that it ever has, and the individuals most hurt by this are, you guessed, it, the children of the poor. The working class have experimented with a new type of family formation that’s not based around the equation of one partner who runs the home front, plus one partner who brings in the income, both of whom throw in their lot together for the long haul, partly because they don’t have to, but mostly becasue that is no longer an option for may of them. The new formulations tend not to be as stable, and instability is sub-optimal for kids.

Cherlin doesn’t have any easy answers for the nasty bifurcation in the family life of America. Somehow, young people have to be persuaded to delay childbirth. Somehow, people have to be educated and trained for jobs that pay enough that they can begin to feel enough ground under their feet to start a more permanent sort of life. Somehow, those jobs, such as those in manufacturing, have to be created.

None of this sounds remotely romantic. But if the crisis in American family life is to be overcome, it’s going to take more than a George Clooney movie.

TIME Royal Visit

If Kate Middleton Were a Disney Princess …

Samir Hussein—WireImage

This fairy tale needs a little magic dust

If Disney made a movie about Princess Kate’s life so far, the plot wouldn’t quite match those of Mulan or Beauty and the Beast or Frozen. Instead of enduring the usual trials, our spunky heroine has had to undergo the torment of tedious speeches, overcome the injustice of walking along receiving lines behind her spouse for hours in heels and brave her way through hundreds of face-to-face meetings with overly excited strangers who think they know her and who have terrible breath.

Not very cinematic.

But Kate and William’s upcoming visit to the U.S. could bring a little zing and contemporary color to the storyline, if treated right. Here’s how it might play out, using only the actual events on the royal couple’s schedule: Kate, one of those zany modern princesses with a degree, is pining after her old college days before she had a kid, or her ribbon-citting job, or a staff of personal dressers or her own coat of arms. So, when she hears that St. Andrews University is having its 600th anniversary in New York City — because, you know, after the first 599 years, Fife, Scotland can feel a little samey — she jumps at the chance to go.

Who wouldn’t want a trip away from the toddler and the palaces and the personal equerries — a last hurrah before the next heir to the throne arrives? But since she’s just a young mum working for her in-laws, there’s no way she could justify such an extravagance. (Cue the parsimonious P.M., naysaying all her plans.)

So Princess Kate’s husband, the relatably average-looking Prince William, who lost his beautiful mother at a young age and whose father spent his best years waiting in vain to ascend the throne (John Lasseter, you writing this down?), comes to the rescue. He figures he can wangle a business trip that will take them to the U.S. at the same time. Just like when that Scottish princess entered the archery contest so she could marry herself in Brave; devious, but all in the cause of freedom.

Sure enough there’s some corruption summit in Washington, D.C., that William has to slip away to, but Princess Kate can stay in New York City and do princessy things like meet the mayor’s wife and become besties with the old leader’s spunky daughter Chelsea, and have lunch with local townsfolk. For this montage, the Disney animators might want to create some lovable local New York City characters, like Enraged Guy on His Cell Phone and Woman Pushing All Her Belongings in a Stroller. And then when the Prince gets back they’re off to an NBA match, where casting agents could work in some celebrity cameos, like Lady Beyoncé and Lord Jay Z.

But this is the first visit of their Royal Highnesses to both New York City and Washington, D.C., so things can’t go completely smoothly. Just before they leave for their big occasion, there’s a horrible mishap. The limo taking them from their hotel on 60th Street (dear terrorists, please note I don’t actually know where they’re staying) to the ball-slash-college gala on 80th Street gets horribly lost, so they have to ride the subway. Luckily Woman Pushing All Her Belongings is there and she gets them on the C train safely, although they have to change at Columbus Circle because there’s track work.

The college reunion is a great success, even though there is no keg (after the unfortunate incident during the 354th St. Andrews get-together). But when the limo finally shows up to take them back, the Princess has a fracas with the paparazzi, loses her stiletto and steps in broken glass. Disaster! The emergency room will not take her NHS, so William saves the day — again! He’s King material! — by paying $4,000 for an X-ray and $5 for a Band-Aid.

Princess Kate might not be the most popular in the Disney line, but at least she’ll give other little girls an idea of what being a princess is really like.

TIME Parenting

What Bill Gates’ Kids Do with their Allowance

How do you teach insanely wealthy kids how to manage money?

The rich are different from you and I, but they still want to give their kids an allowance. So what do the world’s richest man’s kids do with their money? Melinda Gates came to TIME’s offices to talk about her new focus on women and children and especially on contraceptives, but she spilled some secrets about how she tries to get her kids to be purposeful with their money.

First of all, she tries to be true to her values, to articulate them and live them out. Then, they do a lot of volunteering together, at “whatever tugs at their heartstrings” says Gates. And of course, they’ve traveled with her. “They have that connection I think to the developing world,” she says. “They see the difference a flock of chicks makes in a family’s life. It’s huge.”

Read the 10 Questions with Melinda Gates here

Gates has always made a point of getting into the streets and poorer neighborhoods when she travels for meetings and conferences. And sometimes she takes her kids. It’s there, she says, that she meets mothers who tell her that their biggest struggle is having so many children. Although Gates was raised Catholic, she is heading up an initiative to get family planning information, contraceptives and services to 120 million more women by the year 2020. That includes new technology, better delivery system and a lot of education, including for men.

She’s similarly rigorous about her home life. Her kids save a third of their allowance and designate a charity they’d like to give it to. (They can also list donations to charities on their Christmas wish list.) As further incentive, their parents double whatever money they’ve saved. Which means they may be the only children in the world to get a matching grant from the Gates Foundation.

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TIME Parenting

The 5 Trends Driving the Surge in ADHD

Jupiterimages;Getty Images

Researcher says it's less to do with brain chemistry and more to do with money

Until recently, 90% of all Ritalin takers lived in the U.S. Now, America is home to only 75% of Ritalin users. But that’s not because Americans are using less of the drug, says a Brandeis professor. That’s because ADHD diagnoses, and treatment via pharmaceuticals are growing in other parts of the world.

In a recent paper in the journal Social Science and Medicine, sociologists Peter Conrad and Meredith Bergey looked at the growth of ADHD in the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy and Brazil and found that prescriptions for Ritalin-like drugs have risen sharply, particularly in the U.K. and Germany.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD, is a controversial subject among many parents, educators and medical professionals. Some doctors insist it’s a genuine neurological condition, if occasionally over-diagnosed and not treated properly. Others believe parents are giving their children drugs unnecessarily. (For a look at what it’s like to be, or parent, an ADHD child, read TIME’s special report, Growing Up with ADHD).

Conrad and Bergey, while not doctors, fall into the second camp. They list five possible reasons for the jump in ADHD diagnoses that have little do with medicine.

1) Pharmaceutical companies are well-resourced and determined lobbyists, and have coaxed some countries to allow stimulants, such as Ritalin and Adderall to be marketed more directly.

2) Treating patients with counseling and non medical therapies is becoming less popular than treating them with medicine. (Many insurers, including Medicaid, will pay for drugs but not for psychotherapy, for example.)

3) The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), the bible of mental disorders, is gaining more traction in Europe and South America. The DSM has slightly broader standards for diagnosing ADHD than the system used by many other countries, the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD), hence more folks are falling within the standard.

4) ADHD advocacy groups are raising awareness of the condition.

5) Because everybody is occasionally fidgety and distracted and nearly everybody despairs of not getting enough done, people turn to the internet for answers and find checklists put up by drug companies, with overly general questions like: “Are you disorganized at work and home?” and “Do you start projects and then abandon them?” and encourage people to ask their doctors about medication.

According to the study, fewer than 1% of kids in the U.K. had been diagnosed with ADHD in the 1990s, but about 5% are today. In Germany, prescriptions for ADHD drugs rose 500% over 10 years, from 10 million daily doses in 1998 to 53 million in 2008. Conrad, author of The Medicalization of Society, worries that we may be addressing a sociological problem with a chemical solution.

“There is no pharmacological magic bullet,” says Conrad, who suggests that the one-size-fits-all compulsory education system might be more to blame for kids who can’t sit still rather than a flaw in brain chemistry.

“I think we may look back on this time in 50 years,” writes Conrad, “and ask, what did we do to these kids?”

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