Domestic responsibilities can seem never-ending, especially to the person who is responsible for them. Eve Rodsky, a lawyer and an expert in organizational management, discovered this as the child of a single mother and rediscovered it when, as the mother of two, she somehow became the “she-fault” person responsible for the daily tasks that kept her family running.
Rodsky decided to create a system that helped couples reallocate responsibilities fairly. After beta testing it with couples from across the U.S., it’s now available through her book Fair Play.
I spoke with Eve Rodsky one beautiful afternoon in Seattle. I first asked her if people complained to her a lot about their husbands, and she laughed. Rodsky laughed a lot during our interview, bringing an infectious joy to a potentially fraught topic.
Adrian Liang, Amazon Book Review: Domestic responsibilities—like child care, grocery shopping, cleaning up cat vomit, calling in the roofing person—often fall to one person in a relationship, and that’s often the female person. Can you tell me about the genesis of the Fair Play system?
Eve Rodsky: I’m a product of a single mother. I grew up in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. And so I saw what it looked like for one person to do it all, and I vowed that I would never be that person.… I vowed to marry a true partner. I fulfilled that vow! We took turns doing dishes, doing the laundry. We took turns helping each other in our careers. He quizzed me all night on interview questions for my dream job. I helped him mark up operating agreements, because I’m a lawyer by trade, and it was very fair. Well, two kids later, I find myself literally sobbing on the side of the road over a text my husband sent me, and the text said: I’m surprised you didn’t get blueberries.
I had a breast pump on my passenger seat, a contract on my lap [because I was] trying to mark it up at every red light while going to pick up my son from his transition preschool class, a whole back seat full of nice presents that I needed to return because they were the wrong size… and this text came in on top of it of everything I was trying to do that day.
I started sobbing because, well… how did this become my life where literally every single household and child care task started to default to me?... I became what I call the “she fault” for all these tasks.
So that’s when I went on a quest, and the quest went through every single article and book that’s ever been written on the gender division of labor. I went through solutions like [going on] strike. I went through other articles and books that said the only way to solve this issue is to move to a foreign country where your husband knows a language and you don’t, so that he can fill out the school forms. I went through articles that said divorce is the best thing that can happen to women because you get time back—but actually that is not the case because I watched my mom go through a divorce and it wasn’t the best thing that happened to her, and a lot of things happened to her that made her have to struggle.
Fair Play started with the advice in one of the books that said, Make a list. I made the most epic lists you could ever imagine… and it was sourced from women all over the country. Literally everything that had a quantifiable time component in my life, I wrote down into this beautiful “shit I do” spreadsheet. Sending it off to my husband was the one of the best days of my life.
I literally just got [in response] one lonely monkey with its eyes covered emoji.
So after a quest through 500 interviews with men and women that mirror the US Census, I started to really dig into using my own skills as a mediator and someone who sets up complex systems. I started bringing them to the home, and the result of that is Fair Play. It’s a book [and] it is a card game that you play with your partner. The card game is based on a hundred cards that represent literally every single household and child care tasks that you do with your partner, and you divide it up fairly—not equally—based on the needs of your own household.
One of the things you talked about when you’re dividing up the cards is focusing on values.
Yes. I’m going to learn a lot more about you by pulling out [the Garbage] card in the Fair Play deck and saying, “Hey, how do you value garbage?” than asking esoteric questions about your life goals or values. My husband came out of the fraternity culture, so he’s happy with living with 50 pizza boxes at the bottom of his bed. I grew up with a hoarder, so if I see a piece of garbage, it really triggers me. One of our first values conversations in the Fair Play deck was about garbage. We sat down, and I said, “You saw what my apartment looked like when I was growing up. There are boxes everywhere. There are papers everywhere. That’s why I’m this neat. That’s why everything’s in the hamper. It’s my childhood. And so when you tell me that you’re going to take out the garbage and boxes of pizza boxes start piling up, it’s triggering something from my childhood. And so I really value taking the garbage out once a day. It’s just something that makes me feel sane.”
By listening to me like that, Seth said, “Okay, and I can have you nagging me 10,000 times a day asking me about when I’m taking out the garbage, but what if we said that when I am responsible for this card, garbage goes out at seven o’clock every night.”
Guess what? It did, and it still does, go out every night at seven o’clock without reminders from me because we had a values discussion about garbage. You do that with all the cards, and you just have to do it once. You can change your relationship and also change the dynamics of women being the she-fault parent or partner.
I think that there’s a perception that spouses who either don’t commute to work or don’t work outside the home have more time to spend on the domestic responsibilities, but that can be a slippery slope. Tell me how to combat the perception that the one at home should be doing everything, especially when they have the job “homemaker.”
I truly believe if one thing comes out of this cultural conversation, it is that 50/50 is the wrong equation, and ownership is the right equation.
First, my “fair” is not going to look like your “fair,” and that’s why 50/50 is the wrong equation. Somebody who identifies with the Fair Play personality as an intentional traditionalist, whose life goal is to stay in the home—whether as a stay-at-home dad or a stay-at-home mom—their card game looks a lot different. But not one person can hold all the cards because the power dynamic is not right. When that happens, women report illness, they report burnout and report nagging. So all I’m saying is at the end of the day the core value of Fair Play is at all time is created equal. It doesn’t mean I won’t choose to spend more time in the home doing more domestic tasks, but we have to come to an understanding that my time is as valuable as yours.
When I talked to woman and ask, Why do you do two-thirds or more of the domestic work in your household? (Which is the national statistic: women do two thirds of what it takes to run a home and family regardless of whether they work outside the home). Their number-one answer was, I find the time. What I like to say to women all over this country, and men too, is that unless...we’re in science fiction, there’s no “finding time.”
All time is created equal. I would like women to have as much choice over how they spend their time as men.
One of the things that I found eye-opening was the whole concept of Conception, Planning, and Execution. You have, I believe, an example where one spouse said, Yes, I cook dinner. And you said, Well, do you plan dinner? And do grocery shopping as well? And he said no. So he was missing two out of the three stages of Conception, Planning, and Execution.
That’s the most important takeaway in the book. A new Harvard study that just came out shows that women hold the cognitive labor, which is what I call Conception and Planning. Men often step in at Execution, which is visible. [Women] are holding a lot of invisible work and it takes time.
That a person is responsible for their tasks from conception to planning to execution doesn’t mean you’re always executing, but you’re overseeing it. Sometimes I’m going to ask my mom to help me or a babysitter or a friend, but as long as you’re not asking your partner [to execute] and you’re owning your sh--, you’re owning your task from conception to planning to execution.
I’ll tell you one really quick story about CPE [conception, planning, execution] which shows you how transformative it can be, and that it doesn’t have to be the biggest deal. It can literally start with one card.
One of my early beta testers said, “I really want to try out Fair Play because you told me that when I need help, I’m not allowed to go to my husband, Mark, and say, ‘I need you to get all the supplies for our son Zeke’s secret Santa gift.’ But I can’t deal with this secret Santa gift. It’s a big project this week for school. My mom is sick in the hospital. I’m losing my mind. I need him to take it over.” So I said, “Okay. So in our world and your world we would be telling him to buy all the stuff and then you’d be assembling it late at night after you get back from the hospital. Let’s Fair Play. Let’s try this. What if we talk about values? What if you just tell him why you want him to take over this project this week? Say, ‘Mark, I need you to take this project over for me this week. I’m feeling highly overwhelmed. My mom is sick. The school really cares about it. It’s the signature project of the year for second grade, and Zeke pulled this little girl that he wants to do a really great job for because she’s bullied. She’s not athletic. Our son’s popular, we’re trying to foster empathy in him, and it would be really nice for this little girl to get a beautiful secret Santa gift from a popular boy in the class. And so I really hope that as a family we can value this gift, and that I won’t have to feel like I need to tell you what to do but that you could try with Zeke to figure out what type of gift you’d like to do. I completely trust you because I know you’re going to do a good job.’ ”
She was scared. She told me she was scared because if he didn’t do it right, it really implied that it was going to mean bigger things for the relationship. I said, “Well, you’re cracking already. So do you want to get sick or do you want to just try to trust your husband with one homework card for one project in one week? Let’s try.”
[Mark later told me] they went on YouTube to look at secret Santa gifts for girls. That’s Conception. They pick a jewelry box that they want to make. That’s Conception. They start writing down what they needed to get this jewelry box done. That’s Planning. So they go to Michael’s [craft store]. They’re doing this whole project: they’re gluing the popsicle sticks together, they’re finishing the top. And Julie walks in.
She finishes the story with me by saying, “I felt like my life changed. The moment I saw glitter on my husband’s hand… it meant he was in it with me. It meant that he now understood how hard glitter is to get out of things and how it never washes out of anything.”
I want to change society one glitter hand at a time. Conception, planning, execution—it starts there. It starts with ownership.
What about same-sex couples? What sort of feedback did they have to the Fair Play system?
Oh, so interesting. Very typical gendered patterns were coming down on my same-sex couples too, [especially regarding] how time is money. In a lot of the male same-sex couples I interviewed, the person who made more money did less. I heard things like, “You should; you have more time. My time is more valuable.” And so usually one person in that relationship felt the pain of doing all of the invisible labor, the invisible work, the emotional labor. My interviews with same-sex women couples were very interesting because they still had a lot of inefficiencies, but it was a different inefficiency. I talk about it in the book, and I call it the “both” trap [in which both people do the same tasks]. If you don’t know who’s doing what in the house, you’re going to end up wasting a ton of time.
I will end with just saying that this book started as a love letter to women, especially my mother—a single mother who had to hold all the cards. But what I didn’t realize is that it was going to end up being a love letter to men. When men feel empowered to do more in the home, when there’s more context and trust and we sit down to treat our home like an organization—our most important organization—things change. I promise they do. But it’s a system that takes time, takes communication like everything else. [My husband] Seth and I check in every week. We prioritize it. That communication system has changed our marriage from me sobbing over blueberries to being able to go on a book tour where he’s literally holding all the cards.