The blueberry text was the final straw.
Eve Rodsky was a harried working mother of two, en route with one of her young sons to pick up the other. Stopped at a red light, she was trying to use every spare moment to mark up a brief for her work. That’s when the text came in.
“I’m surprised you didn’t get blueberries,” it said.
“I pulled over to the side of the road. And I just started sobbing,” Rodsky recalls. How did this happen to her? She was an educated woman, attorney, mediator, product of a single mother, and “obsessed with organizational management” largely from helping her mother keep on top of bill paying from the time Rodsky was 7 years old. Her plans were to have an equal partner in life. And, now, she was struggling to balance a demanding career and the lion’s share of household duties and caretaking, too.
Women’s “invisible” labor
To many women, Rodsky’s story is a familiar one. It’s no secret that heterosexual women often take on more housework and caretaking than their male partners. When children enter the picture, one study found that mothers do more than two hours of additional work per day versus 40 additional minutes for fathers. Another study suggests that mothers with a husband or live-in male partner sleep less and do more housework than even single mothers. And they’re even asked to do more of the emotional labor at work, too.
As Rodsky began to mull over her situation, she began a “shit I do” list. The list, in actuality, was an Excel spreadsheet that had 98 tabs and more than 1,000 tasks that Rodsky performed between household and caretaking demands. Being the “she-fault” emotional and home labor provider was taking its toll. She sent the list to her husband, eager to share her breakthrough and find a solution.
He sent back an emoji of a monkey covering its eyes.
More than just chores
That’s when she realized that reaching true equitable division of labor in households needs to be more than just divvying up a chore list, Rodsky says. As she conducted research for her book, Fair Play: A Game-Changing Solution for When You Have Too Much To Do (And More Life To Live), she studied the frustrations men and women often voice over household labor.
She sums up the issue using mustard as an example. Let’s say you have a child who is a picky eater and is on a hot-dogs-and-yellow-mustard kick. The easiest way for you to have them eat something is to serve up a hot dog with yellow mustard. If you’re out of yellow mustard and someone brings home spicy Dijon, suddenly, you’ve got a problem.
“Men all over the country were telling me, ‘I’m not going to do anything for my wife anymore. Anytime I go to the store I’m always doing something wrong.’ And women were saying to me all over the country, ‘Geez, you’re telling me you want me to trust him with my living will and he can’t even bring home the right type of mustard?'” Rodsky says.
She boiled her list down to 100 master tasks, like house cleaning or setting up childcare. From there, she combined her research with her own mediation and organizational management expertise to develop a “figurative card game,” essentially turning the massive responsibility of running a home into a life-management system using “task cards” that each partner can pick up, hold, play, and re-deal. At the heart of the game is a three-step approach for each task.
- Conception: The problem with the spicy Dijon example is that the request for mustard came without context, Rodsky says. “Somebody has to know that your son, Johnny, eats his protein with yellow mustard. That has to be shared.” Discuss the details of what has to be done and be specific about any details that are important.
- Planning: Once the information has been shared, it should become part of a system or directions. “That has to be written on a list somewhere,” she says. “‘French’s yellow mustard’ along with the other groceries for the week,” Rodsky adds. By providing context and specific instructions—just as you would for a coworker embarking on an assignment—you eliminate much of the margin for error. Each person understands the reason why a specific product or way of doing things matters.
- Execution: The third step is actually doing what needs to be done. But, conflict arises when someone jumps—or is thrust into—execution of a task or responsibility without the benefit of conception or planning. Rodsky points to companies like Apple, which coined the term “directly responsible individual.” If you’re responsible for a task, you’re also responsible for finding out the backstory and context. “Imagine if you walked into your boss’s office and just said, ‘Okay, tell me what to do today.'” she says. When you take ownership of getting up to speed on what needs to be done, as well as why and how it needs to be done, the target is easier to hit.
Couples should work on the three-step system for household tasks together—this shouldn’t be another system that one spouse shoulders disproportionately—which can foster greater understanding about the quirks we all have about certain chores. Rodsky says she is “obsessive” about getting garbage out of the house because of the conditions she grew up with as a child. Garbage attracted roaches in the apartment. Once she explained that to her husband, her intensity around the subject was easier to understand. The process can also help spouses understand, for example, why a particular brand of laundry detergent or a certain way of packing the dishwasher is important to one of you. If you’re unclear about the task’s three phases, ask questions.
“It’s not about mustard, it’s about trust,” Rodsky says. “That is the fundamental core of Fair Play, it’s this idea that when you own your shit—when you have one of the hundred pass cards in the Fair Play system with full conception, planning, and execution, not only is it more efficient, but the person knows what mustard to buy because they already have the context.”