Fair Play in Love and Relationships

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Last month I promised I’d share more about my experiences with the book, Fair Play, by Eve Rodsky after my husband and I tried playing the game. So here is the full update…

I’ve been married 16 years to a wonderful man but was starting to feel resentful. He was so busy travelling for work that I was left holding down the home front. And he kept giving me more and more of the household responsibilities until I felt that I hardly had any time for my own work and business. I have huge goals for LifeCoach.com, and it has been years since I’ve written a book. I was drowning in life administration and was unable to carve out the time to string together two cogent sentences. And, mind you, I’m great at delegating chores and have a house cleaner. But with running the girls to and from appointments, sports, tutoring, etc., there was little time left to think.

Then, after emptying the dishwasher, tidying up the house and doing two loads of laundry, putting one of them away between coaching calls, my dear husband came home and complained about the pile of clean laundry on his dresser. I blew a gasket and said that he couldn’t see all the work that had been done. All he could see was what wasn’t done. This is the invisible work that women generally take on without fuss or complaint.

Ironically, when I married my husband, I very clearly told him that I don’t clean the house, I don’t iron, and I don’t file. I wanted to make it clear up front that he wasn’t getting a stereotypical traditional wife. I was a business woman, not a house wife. Then, we had kids and I had no idea how much work they would be. My first clue was discovering how much time was needed to breastfeed. I soon learned I couldn’t sneak in a coaching call while the baby was supposed to be napping either!

Gradually, I found myself morphing into a stereotypical traditional wife. I was trying to be supportive of my husband’s business by taking on more of the household work. Yet, I felt like a glorified au pair. I even joked with my husband to cancel my life insurance because if I died, he could simply replace me with an au pair. That is about the time when the resentment started to creep in.

I’d be up early making the kids banana pancakes for breakfast while he slept in. Then he’d go out for a coffee and Cross-fit training at the gym. Somehow the balance had gotten off kilter in our relationship. And, while he has always been super supportive of my business, and said that I could just take the time I needed, I felt that I couldn’t take on any more of anything. I was at the end of my rope and felt trapped by the life I had created.

Then I found the life-changing book, Fair Play: Share the Mental Load, Rebalance Your Relationship and Transform Your Life by Eve Rodsky. It has made a huge difference already, even though we’ve really only just started to play the game. Rodsky has taken the invisible work of running a household and made it visible. She has identified 100 tasks (cards) that it takes to run a household with children and 60 tasks without children. The tasks run the gamut from Mythical Beings (Easter bunnies and tooth fairies) to Laundry. Every task gets a card.

The first step is to choose the cards you want to play with based on what is important. My husband was ready to toss the “Birthdays Other Kids” card away. Then I asked, “Who will take the girls to and from the party, make sure she has a card and a gift and the correct costume or overnight bag?” In the end, after evaluating every card, I think we were able to discard about four of them (e.g., Diapers, Potty Training) mainly because our kids are past that age.

The next step is to pick cards you will handle. That means that you own the full responsibility of the task, including any research and planning necessary. This is critical because it relieves the mental load associated with that task. For example, one of the cards is Weekend Meals. If you hold this card, then you create the menus for the weekend, check the pantry for supplies and make a grocery list for the person who holds the Grocery card. The beauty of Rodsky’s system is that it frees up mental space and it prevents nagging and duplicate work.

My husband opted to take the Trash card. Now he doesn’t complain if it starts to overflow because it is his job. I let the trash pile up until he takes action. He used to come home and question why the recycling wasn’t emptied. Now he can see that we fill it up in a day. (I’m working on reducing plastics, but we have a way to go). Now that he is in charge of the trash, he has noticed that the bin is broken. He told me we needed a new bin. I said, “It is your card.” So he ordered a new bin.

When he is travelling, I will empty the trash. But I can see there will be no need to remind him in the future. If he comes home and it is overloaded, he’ll know to empty it himself instead of asking me because it is his card. Hooray! It is also his job to put trash bags on the shopping list when we are running low. I can already see this is working. When the garbage collectors neglected to collect our trash for two weeks, Paul called them up and arranged a special pick up. How wonderful not to have to think about this one daily task. Even better, there’s no more criticism!

We hit an impasse in the game. We have a bunch of cards that we said were important, but neither one of us has chosen to own. So we clearly need to keep dealing or think of another solution. Rodsky says to keep playing until all cards are dealt. So the game isn’t over for us. She also says that you have to keep playing each week until you get comfortable with it. We are both reluctant to take more cards, as we both feel we have plenty to do already. But we both agreed those tasks were actually important.

Despite the fact that we are in the middle of Fair Play, the resentment I was feeling has disappeared. My husband seems to appreciate just how much I was taking on and is less critical when he arrives home. He has suddenly taken on a number of household repairs that have been lurking in the background.

In our culture, more often than not, right or wrong, women tend to own the mental responsibility for house and children, even if they have a full-time job. This is the default setting of society and most women naturally assume this role without thinking. If they have children, they also tend to assume that the children are their primary job. You know this is true because when dad has the kids, he is “babysitting”. I never hear a mother say she is babysitting her own children. As if!

When women take on part-time work or careers outside the home, lo and behold, suddenly they have three jobs—home, children and work! This takes its toll. So women naturally ask their partner to help with a few tasks on occasion. Men often hear this request for help as nagging. They are often completely unaware of just how much the wife has taken on because they don’t see it. This might leave the woman feeling unappreciated and resentful. A few years of this and it is obvious why 50% of marriages end in divorce. This is why Rodsky’s work is vital to a successful, loving relationship whether you are just starting out or have been married for years.

She points out that the game is very helpful in same-sex couples, as well, because they don’t have the traditional gender default settings (i.e., woman does cleaning, cooking and laundry, man does cars and lawn and finances). I like that the cards enable you to actively choose your task opposed to it being a default or “she-fault” setting. You can then really think about why you have assumed a task and can even try different tasks to see if you like them better.

What shocked me most in reading Fair Play were three things:

1. Most women usually feel pretty happy when their partner has just 21 cards. Rodsky reports that 21 seems to be the magic number for feeling equitable. So it isn’t that men even need to take 50 cards (I haven’t told my husband this, though). Rodsky wisely says, “What is fair is not always equal and what is equal is not always fair, so don’t expect a 50/50 split.” The goal is equity, not equality. She does say that one person can’t hold all the cards even when one partner does not work outside the home.
2. There is a hidden “mommy tax” that decreases a woman’s earning power by 5 to 10 percent for every child she has due to missed opportunities for promotion, pay increases and bonuses. Companies prefer workers who are unencumbered. Amy Westervelt sums it up: “We expect women to work like they don’t have children and raise children as if they don’t work.”
And, this is precisely why women feel they aren’t doing a good job at home or at work. Usually, the woman is the one who sacrifices her career while the man stays relatively unencumbered. There is also an unfair double standard. When a man says, “I’ve got to leave early to look after my sick child,” people think, “What a great dad!” When a woman says the exact same thing, people think she isn’t carrying her weight at work.
3. Most horrifying, though, was the cautionary tale Rodsky recounts. It’s about a judge who ruled that a woman who chose to be a stay-at-home mother while her husband chose to work was not entitled to a 50% split of assets when they divorced after 20 years of marriage. Why not? Because she chose not to work. This judge needs to read Fair Play as he clearly has no idea how much work raising a family and looking after a house actually is! How on earth is she now supposed to waltz into a good-paying job after 20 years out of the workplace? She has had to take on three odd jobs just to make ends meet while her ex gets to carry on at his high-level job, having been unencumbered all these years. This is why women are absolutely entitled to half their partner’s pension pot, as well. It would be impossible to recover the time lost, even if you happen to land a fabulous, high-paying job. Pension pots take a lifetime to build and there is no way you can grow one quickly late in life because you’ve simply run out of time for compounding to work its magic. This is a simple mathematical fact–one of which the judge should have been aware. So women, take note: just because you didn’t earn the money yourself doesn’t mean that you aren’t entitled to a fair share and you shouldn’t feel bad about that fact either. You earned it by enabling your partner to work unencumbered all this time. Most men vastly overestimate how much work they do around the house and underestimate how much time chores take. So naturally, they will think they are entitled to keep their earnings.

I highly recommend that any couple setting up house read the book and play the game. It works with or without children and is a great tool to get started on the right path to domestic bliss or at least, prevent domestic mayhem. You can re-deal every week and pick new cards. And, even if your partner starts by just picking one card, that might be life-changing for you. One woman was thrilled to gain an extra eight hours a week when her husband took the Sports card and took their kids to and from athletic events and training. Not only does she have more time, but also she has freed up all the mental space associated with that task.

Now that our kids are older, I thought they could each take a card or two as well and assume responsibility for the task. They have started with the animals. Rather than share the task for the chickens and the cat, we decided to follow Rodsky’s model and created a separate Cat card and a Chickens card. They can redraw each week. What we’ve seen is that my youngest was always nagging the eldest in an effort to get her to help clean the coop. Now she has to bite her tongue. I can see this will improve their relationship because my eldest doesn’t like to be told what to do by anyone and most certainly not her little sister!

Note: Fair Play doesn’t come with a deck of task cards. I went online, downloaded the card template and then laminated them so they would last for many rounds of play. It might be easier to print a sheet and check off your tasks. But to start, I liked that it feels more like a card game than a chore list. Anything to make the drudgery of housework more fun!

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