Ask Eve Rodsky why resentment seeps into your relationship, and she might ask you, “How did the mustard get in your fridge?”
Not who bought it in the supermarket, but who noticed that the container was almost empty? And then who added mustard — not just any mustard, but that special kind your 8-year-old needs for his hot dogs — to the list?
Rodsky, an author who has interviewed hundreds of couples in 17 countries, said that in most heterosexual relationships, even when men do the actual shopping, it’s the women who do the noting and adding. And for many women, that mustard is just the tip of an iceberg full of checklists from dentist appointments, thank-you cards, and fridge repairs.
Whether this planning and remembering is labeled as invisible or cognitive work, or a mental load, many women do it in addition to the more obvious forms of caregiving and housework, which they already do more often than men anyway, according to the American Time Use survey.
Rodsky, a Harvard-trained attorney specializing in organizational management, experienced this disparity in her own marriage. And because of her background, she felt particularly well placed to come up with a solution. After seven years of research and testing, she introduced Fair Play, a system designed to help couples share household responsibilities more fairly. It started in 2019 with a book that sold more than 250,000 copies and was soon followed by a deck of cards that challenged couples to split 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. Sundloff and his wife had very “traditional roles” back then, he said. “My wife was a little upset – or she could say very upset – and I thought, ‘We’ve got to do something about this.'”
After the cards were dealt, Sundloff took over the laundry and dishes. But he said the biggest shift has been in his perspective: he’s finally realized how much his wife has done. “She just took it for so many years,” he said.
The timing for fair play could not have been better. Though discussions about invisible work have simmered among friends and on the internet for years—and even longer in certain circles—Rodsky’s book came out just months before the coronavirus pandemic. Her work fused the popular niche of relationship counseling with modern feminist concerns at a time when household imbalances were being thrust into the national limelight.
Today, the Fair Play empire is co-owned by Rodsky and Hello Sunshine, a media company co-founded by Reese Witherspoon and Rodsky’s husband Seth. It includes a documentary about Hulu; an updated home economics curriculum sponsored by Dawn and Swiffer; and a non-profit institute that, among other things, trains fair play moderators.
Although Eve Rodsky’s book was given a boost by her association with Witherspoon (it was a Reese’s Book Club pick the month of its publication and landed on the New York Times bestseller list for two weeks), the word-of-mouth popularity of the system suggests it has one element of the zeitgeist. Many fans said they learned about Fair Play through friends or social media, and weekly sales of the book are now three times what they were in 2020.
As Allison Daminger, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who studies cognitive labor and gender inequality in families, puts it: “There’s a growing recognition that so much of the household experience just isn’t accessible through our normal ways is recorded.” thinking about traditional tasks.”
Daminger said that women who complete tasks that require anticipation and follow-up face a “mental opportunity cost.” “Humans have limited bandwidth,” she explained. “You can’t be trying to come up with a backup childcare plan while you’re chewing on an important task for your job.” (Bearing the mental strain can also lead to chronic stress.)
In 2012, after the birth of her second child, Rodsky felt the pressure firsthand.
Things came to a head one Saturday when she took part in a march against breast cancer with friends. As soon as it was over, the husbands’ questions began: where is the gift for so and so’s birthday party? Do the kids have to eat lunch? Rodsky added up the incoming messages: 30 phone calls and 46 text messages. For 10 women. Over 30 minutes.
Rodsky began reading about the gendered division of labor and asked women what they did outside of work. She texted a few friends, who texted others, and eventually she’d spoken to more than 200 women — and created a spreadsheet of 1,000 unpaid tasks broken down into 98 categories.
However, she soon found that a list without an action plan only aroused more resentment. That’s why Rodsky took inspiration from her job, where she often uses cards to help during difficult meetings.
She wrote each of the 98 categories, from pets to travel, on an index card and shared them with her husband based on what they were responsible for (she: many; he: almost none). Then they dealt the cards again in a way that felt more fair.
One of Rodsky’s most important rules, which she also inherited from her project management background, is that whoever owns a card is 100% responsible for all tasks in that category, from conception (noticing the dog’s coat is getting mangy) to planning (call the groomer). ) to the execution (bring him to the appointment). Rodsky calls this “CPE” for conception-planning-execution; Economist and parenting expert Emily Oster uses a similar strategy called “total delegation of responsibility.”
Rodsky recruited a dozen other people to play with their own flashcards. As people asked questions, she made up rules. Do you have to keep a card forever? No. What do I do if he has the laundry card but doesn’t do it often enough? Set a minimum standard of care, such as: sheets and towels must be washed once a week, baskets must be emptied when full. What if my partner doesn’t understand? Discuss it at a mandatory weekly check-in.
The book has a distinct girlfriend-to-girlfriend voice, using phrases like “she-fault” for standard and “unicorn space” for passion projects. The cards are more prosaic, describing chores from the obvious (dry cleaning, lawn care, weeknight dinners) to the obscure (birth control, holiday cards, social plans). There’s even a Magical Creatures card for whoever is tasked with bringing the Tooth Fairy, etc. to life.
Bryn Martinez Zavras, a psychologist and certified fair play presenter in Cincinnati, said she’s seen an increase in the number of customers asking about fair play, who have been overwhelmingly women, over the past two years.
Zavras, who also uses Fair Play at home, said she appreciates the physical nature of the cards. “For many customers, just looking at the cards was really stunning and eye-opening,” she said.
However, for those not among the heterosexual couples with children, some say the language in the Fair Play book and social media channels can seem a bit cramped. Summer Roger, a Phoenix mom and postpartum doula who practices fair play with her partner, wishes the brand’s tone was more inclusive.
For same-sex couples or couples with no children, Roger recommends starting with the maps rather than the book, as these are fully customizable — and focus less on Rodsky’s personal story. “There are cards like hosting and who handles the money,” she said. “That will always be relevant whether you’re gay, straight or 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, purchased the book and cards after hearing about them from friends and colleagues. “You see it recommended everywhere,” she said.
But as she read the book, she felt discouraged. “A lot of that reinforced what you’re trying to undo, which is how much work is usually directed at the woman to read the book, solidify the book, and deal with the partner’s emotions,” she said. “It appears to be a tremendous amount of mental and emotional work to get the project off the ground.”
Ahrens also had issues with the way some cards were categorized. “I’m sorry, but cleaning is a card?” she asked. “What world do you live in where that’s tantamount to birthday presents?”
Rodsky said in response that the cards were a conversation starter and not a scoring tool.
This is precisely why Rodsky believes fair play has been so successful. “It’s not mandatory,” she said. “Live your life however you want, but know that those unpaid work assignments need to get done.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.