Ask Eve Rodsky why resentment is seeping into your relationship, and she might ask you: “How did the mustard get into your fridge?”
Not who purchased it at the grocery store, but who noticed the container was almost empty? And then who added mustard — not just any mustard, but the specific kind your 8-year-old has decided he needs on his hot dogs — to the list?
Ms. Rodsky, an author who has interviewed hundreds of couples across 17 countries, said that in most heterosexual relationships, it’s women who do the noticing and adding, even when men do the actual shopping. And for many women, that mustard is just the tip of a checklist-covered iceberg of dentist appointments, thank-you cards and fridge repairs.
Whether this planning and remembering is referred to as invisible or cognitive labor, or the mental load, many women are doing it on top of the more obvious forms of caregiving and housework that they already perform more of than men, according to the American Time Use Survey.
Ms. Rodsky, a Harvard-trained lawyer specializing in organizational management, experienced this disparity in her own marriage. And given her background, she felt uniquely poised to develop a solution. After seven years of research and testing, she introduced Fair Play, a system that is meant to help couples more equitably share household duties. It began in 2019 with a book that has sold more than 250,000 copies and was soon followed by a deck of cards that prompts couples to divide up to 100 visible and invisible tasks.
Josh Sundloff, a father of four in Utah, bought the Fair Play audiobook and cards in 2021, after a Mormon influencer recommended them on Instagram. At the time, Mr. Sundloff and his wife had very “traditional roles,” he said. “My wife had some resentment — or she might say a lot of resentment — and I was like, ‘We’ve got to change something here.’”
After dealing out the cards, Mr. Sundloff took over the laundry and dishes. But he said the greatest change came in his perspective: He finally grasped how much his wife had been doing. “She just took it for so many years,” he said.
Fair Play could not have been better timed. Though the conversation about invisible labor had been simmering among friends and on the internet for years — and in certain circles for much longer — Ms. Rodsky’s book dropped just months before the Coronavirus pandemic. Her work fused the popular relationship advice niche with modern feminist-ish preoccupations at the very moment when household imbalances were shoved into the national spotlight.
Today, the Fair Play empire is jointly owned by Ms. Rodsky and Hello Sunshine, a media company co-founded by Reese Witherspoon and Ms. Rodsky’s husband, Seth. It includes a documentary on Hulu; an updated home economics curriculum, sponsored by Dawn and Swiffer; and a nonprofit institute that, among other initiatives, trains Fair Play facilitators.
Though Ms. Rodsky’s book was given a boost by her connection to Ms. Witherspoon (it was a Reese’s Book Club pick the month of its release, propelling it to the New York Times best-seller list for two weeks), the system’s word-of-mouth popularity suggests it has tapped into an element of the zeitgeist. Many fans said they learned about Fair Play from friends or social media, and weekly sales of the book are now triple what they were in 2020.
The ‘Mental Opportunity Cost’
As Allison Daminger, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies cognitive labor and gender inequality within families, put it: “There’s increasingly this recognition that so much of the household experience is just not captured by our normal ways of thinking about traditional chores.”
Dr. Daminger said women who do tasks that involve anticipation and follow-up face a “mental opportunity cost.” “Humans have limited bandwidth,” she explained. “You can’t simultaneously be trying to figure out a backup child care plan while chewing some deep task for your work.” (Carrying the mental load can also lead to chronic stress.)
While popular culture may promote the idea that women are better at multitasking or organizing, Dr. Daminger said that notion isn’t well backed by science. In her own research, she was struck by how many couples relied on such excuses, even when many of the ostensibly “laid back” or “disorganized” men held jobs that depended on them not being so.
“They’re management consultants or they’re surgeons,” Dr. Daminger said. “And they are let off the hook from using those skills at home.” On the contrary, she said, “women are expected — or expect themselves — to be performing at this high level across spheres.”
In 2012, after the birth of her second child, Ms. Rodsky was feeling this pressure firsthand.
Everything came to a head one Saturday when she attended a breast cancer march with friends. As soon as it ended, the questions from husbands started: Where is the gift for so-and-so’s birthday party? Do the kids need to eat lunch? Ms. Rodsky tallied the incoming communications: 30 phone calls and 46 texts. For 10 women. Over 30 minutes.
Ms. Rodsky began reading about the gendered division of labor and asking women what they did outside of work. She texted a few friends, who texted others, and eventually she had spoken to more than 200 women — and had created a spreadsheet of 1,000 unpaid tasks organized into 98 categories.
She soon discovered that a list without an action plan, however, merely created more resentment. So Ms. Rodsky took a cue from her day job, where she often uses cards to help with difficult meetings.
She wrote each of the 98 categories, from pets to travel, on an index card, splitting them with her husband based on what they were responsible for (her: many; him: almost none). Then they re-dealt the cards in a way that felt more equitable.
One of Ms. Rodsky’s biggest rules, which she also borrowed from her project management background, is: Whoever holds a card is 100 percent accountable for any duties within that category, from conception (noticing the dog’s fur is getting mangy) to planning (calling the groomer) to execution (taking him to the appointment). Ms. Rodsky calls this “CPE,” for conception-planning-execution; the economist and parenting expert Emily Oster uses a similar strategy called “total responsibility transfer.”
Divvying Up Tasks
Ms. Rodsky still remembers the first card her husband took over: kids’ sports. Although he had previously driven their children to games, he’d never been responsible for everything behind the scenes: signing up for the team, ordering uniforms, packing their bags. All of a sudden, Ms. Rodsky could show up to the soccer field without giving a second thought to sunblock or snacks. “There was just something so profoundly powerful in that transition,” she said.
Ms. Rodsky recruited a dozen more people to start playing with their own index cards. As people came up with questions, she came up with rules. Do you have to hold a card forever? No. What do I do if he has the laundry card but isn’t doing it frequently enough? Determine a minimum standard of care, such as: Sheets and towels must be washed once a week, hampers emptied whenever they are full. What if my partner’s not, um, getting it? Discuss it at a mandatory weekly check-in.
The book has a distinctly girlfriend-to-girlfriend voice, featuring lingo like “she-fault” for default and “unicorn space” for passion projects. The cards are more prosaic, delineating tasks from the obvious (dry cleaning, lawn care, weekday dinners) to the hidden (birth control, holiday cards, social plans). There’s even a “magical beings” card for whoever’s charged with making the tooth fairy, etc. come to life.
Over the past two years, Bryn Martinez Zavras, a psychologist and certified Fair Play facilitator in Cincinnati, said she has seen an uptick in clients asking about Fair Play, a majority of them women.
Dr. Zavras, who also uses Fair Play at home, said she appreciates the physical nature of the cards. “For a lot of clients, just seeing the cards has been really mind boggling and eye opening,” she said.
That was the case with Jenny Reitmeier, an electrical engineer who spoke to The Times while pumping from her office in Denver. After her first baby was born, Ms. Reitmeier noticed that, in addition to breastfeeding, many tasks were defaulting to her, from calling the pediatrician to paying day care. So she posted in her company’s channel for working moms, asking how her colleagues balanced household duties. One suggested Fair Play; Ms. Reitmeier read the book, as did her husband.
When they later divided the Fair Play cards, Ms. Reitmeier wasn’t surprised to see that she was carrying most of the invisible tasks. But she was surprised by how many of the traditional chores — home maintenance, garbage, cleaning — her husband had been managing. “That was really good to get out in the open,” she said. “He felt like he wasn’t being seen either.”
The couple have now used the cards for nearly two years, and Ms. Reitmeier said the practice has reduced stress and animosity.
‘I’m Sorry, but Cleaning Is One Card?’
For those outside the heterosexual-couple-with-kids mold, however, some say the language in the Fair Play book and social media channels can feel a bit narrow. Summer Roger, a Phoenix mother and postpartum doula who uses Fair Play with her female partner, wishes the brand’s tone were more inclusive.
To same-sex couples or couples without children, Ms. Roger recommends starting with the cards, rather than the book, as they are completely customizable — and less centered on Ms. Rodsky’s personal story. “There are cards like hosting and who’s going to manage the money,” she said. “That’s always going to be relevant, whether you’re gay, straight, whatever.”
Not every couple has found that Fair Play works for them. Eve Ahrens, a therapist who lives in Utah with her husband and five children, bought the book and cards after hearing about it from friends and colleagues. “You see it recommended everywhere,” she said.
But reading the book left her feeling discouraged. “A lot of it reinforced what you’re trying to undo, which is how much of the labor is on, typically, the wife to read the book, to consolidate the book, to manage the partner’s emotions,” she said. “It seems like an enormous amount of mental and emotional labor to get the project going.”
Ms. Ahrens also took issue with the way some cards were categorized. “I’m sorry, but cleaning is one card?” she asked. “What world do you live in where that’s equal to birthday gifts?”
Ms. Rodsky said in response that the cards are a conversation starter, not a score-keeping tool.
In fact, that’s precisely why Ms. Rodsky believes Fair Play has been so successful. “It’s not prescriptive,” she said. “Live your life however you want, but know that these unpaid labor tasks are going to have to get done.”
Susan Shain is a reporting fellow for Headway, a section of The Times that explores the world’s challenges through the lens of progress. More about Susan Shain
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