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Moms Still Handle the Mental Load in Marriage. Here’s How Dads Can Balance the Scales

When household management becomes a game of keeping score, couples suffer. That's why Eve Rodsky came up with a new system.

One day, with one child in her backseat of her car, and on her way to pick up her other child in daycare, Eve Rodsky was trying to sign a legal contract clutched between her legs. Then, she got a text from her husband, who was at home. “I’m surprised you didn’t get blueberries,” it said. Rodsky pulled over her car and wondered what happened to her formerly equal marriage. She started to cry. 

Rodsky had a successful career in mediation and a husband who she trusted to be her partner in everything — in chores, in work, in family management. But the blueberry text threw her for a loop. A few days after the exchange, while out with friends, she realized all of them received similar messages from their husbands ranging from “Where is Alex’s soccer bag?” to “What’s the address of the birthday party?” to “Do the kids need to eat lunch?” It was then Rodsky realized that what she had experienced a few days earlier — a blunt realization about the imbalances that existed in the invisible work, the mental load of remembering everything that needed to be remembered — was not just a problem in her marriage but a pervasive one found in nearly every relationship.

So, Rodsky spent seven years trying to come up with a system to fix it. After a near decade and more than 500 interviews with couples across the country, she came up with “Fair Play,” a household management system that helps couples move past the difficulty of dividing labor in a way that doesn’t breed resentment or micromanagement. The complementary book, Fair Play: A Game-Changing Solution for When You Have Too Much to Do (and More Life to Live) expands on its premise. It explains not only how these arguments and dissatisfactions of the division of labor take hold; but also how couples get stuck in a cycle of resentment and fighting that often leads to one person (usually the man) disengaging from the process of household management and tasks altogether. Fatherly spoke to Rodsky about what she realized, what every couple needs to understand about imbalances in emotional labor, and what Fair Play can teach. 

So, you received the infamous “blueberries” text. I assume that led to an argument and then a major change in your family dynamic. Is that right?

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I think the sad thing is it didn’t even become an argument. I’m literally a Harvard trained attorney and mediator and I still didn’t have the words to have the right type of domestic conversations. 

Fair Play started as my love letter to women, but it’s become my love letter to men, because the current system of how we’re doing things — figuring things out on the fly, who is getting the blueberries, who is getting the kids to school, who is buying the Christmas gifts, who is taking out the ornaments — whatever that is, it doesn’t work for anybody.

After the blueberry incident, I went on a breast cancer march with some of my friends. We’re all sort of marching in our pink sweatpants and glitter and it feels really empowering and we’re marching for courage, strength and power, and we were about to go to lunch. I was having this great day with my friends.

The first text comes in around noon, from my friend’s husband. “When are you coming home from the parade?” He had been with the kids all morning and it was noon and he was done. And then, after that, it was like an anthropological experiment. All of our phones started blowing up with other texts from men. “Where is Hudson’s soccer bag?” “What’s the address of the birthday party?” My friend’s husband texted her and asked, “Do the kids need to eat lunch?” These are competent, amazing partners. CEOs.

Right.

People who graduated from Ivy Leagues. Who have amazing executive function and skillsets in other parts of their lives. And that was a text she got. “Do the kids need to eat lunch?”

Yeah, that’s a ridiculous message to send. 

Yeah, it’s like, what the fuck do you think? You asshole! But you can imagine how this resentment grows, right? I had one friend, a man, say, “It’s not sexy for my wife to be in charge.” But I said to him, “You always say to me that you’ll help as long as she tells you what to do. You put her in charge. I don’t understand.”

After that day, I realized it was not just a ‘me’ problem. Something was going on. I read literally every book and article that’s ever been written on the gender division of labor. There have been 100 years of articles and scholarship on what I call the she-fault; but it has a name. That’s the second shift; emotional labor; mental load; invisible work.

Right, the work that gets done that a lot of men don’t realize that women aren’t paid for, that is essential for the household to keep functioning.

I remember thinking to myself that there’s value in visibility. Visibility is value. For nine months, I went to my friends and other women and started asking them what they do for their families that may be invisible to their partners. I made a spreadsheet and called it the “Shit I Do” spreadsheet. 

I sent it to my husband. It was a 19 million megabyte spreadsheet and said, “Can’t wait to discuss.” I got one emoji back. A monkey that covers his eyes. What I realized then was that every other book, up until this point, had said “Make lists for your spouse to do.” I made the best list you could imagine in the world.

But those don’t work! That email bombing my husband with a 19 million megabyte spreadsheet was about as effective as me sobbing on the side of the road over a text about blueberries that he probably just was surprised that I didn’t get them. But all of these things were not effective because I wasn’t understanding what I do for a living. I finally became my own client.

What do you mean? 

I decided to look for organizational management systems for the home. I figured, we do this in business, we did this for 50 years. We bring systems for work. No one goes into work and says, ‘What am I doing today? Tell me what to do!’ If you did that at your job, you’d be gone.

A majority of men told me they don’t know their role in their home and they are figuring things out on the fly. So I went to look for organizational management systems for the home. No one had brought systems to the home. I thought it was crazy.

That’s when I started developing a system for the home based on my work as a mediator, and the idea of ownership. In the workplace, we give context, not control. Netflix talks about the ‘rare responsible person.’ They only want you working there if you’ve been given context, not control, and you never wait to be told what to do. You pick up the trash from the floor. You are responsible from conception to planning to execution.

Once I started bringing that into the home was when things started changing. What that meant was I went out and interviewed people across all walks of life. The smallest details are creating the biggest problems. The blueberries, right. The fighting over who is bringing Hudson’s soccer bag and whether kids need to eat lunch. 

One man told me he was locked out of his house over a glue stick.

Wow.

Look at it from his perspective. He had no context. That was all control, no context. He was told what to do, bring home a glue stick, he had no context for that request, he was texted in the middle of his workday, so of course he’s going to forget. But from his partner’s perspective, she and her son had been working for three weeks on a homework assignment. They went to the library, xeroxed pages, put it on the poster board, and all she needed to do was glue those pictures on. The small details were creating the biggest problems. 

Right. Also, it’s probably about way more than the glue stick. A lot of things must have led up to that. 

As mediators, we often say the pressing problem is not the real problem. The real problem is that we weren’t treating our home like our most important organization. We bring no respect and rigor to the home.

When you do that — when you bring ownership and accountability and knowing your roles — things change. It doesn’t have to be hard. It’s not 50/50. 50/50 is the wrong equation. 

What do you mean? Isn’t it about balance, and divisions of labor?

Fair Play is based on a card game of 100 cards. When you hold a card in the fair play system, you hold it with full conception, planning, and execution. You hold the full ownership [of the task]. You are the “Directly Responsible Individual” for that card. I call it the life-changing magic of mustard.

There are “four rules” to the Fair Play system. What are those rules? 

Rule one: All time is created equal. Society does not value women’s time as equal to the rest of us. We view men’s time as finite, like diamonds, and women’s as infinite like sand. And to hold your child’s hand for an hour in the pediatrician’s office is as valuable as an hour in the boardroom. A lot of men couldn’t understand that statement — they said they wanted to believe it but they didn’t. But that’s my goal. The reason I’m on this earth.

Rule two: You have a right to remain interesting and to have an interesting life. Once we become workers and parents, we forget we have the permission to be interested in our own lives. 

Rule three: Start where you are now. Fifty-fifty is the wrong equation. Division of labor is not about taking the fair play cards and saying, here’s your 50, and here’s mine. Sometimes it’s just starting with garbage. Once you have that first conversation, things change.

Rule four: Establish your values and standards. That’s really about communication. 

You mention the life-changing magic of mustard? Mustard is good, but…

When I went out and I asked people, who is the one person who knows that your son Johnny likes French’s yellow mustard with his hot dog, it’s the woman. In organizational management, we call that the conception stage. Someone has to monitor that fridge’s yellow mustard, and when it’s running low put it on the grocery list along with everything else you need for the week. That’s the planning stage. You put it on the list when your monitor is running low. And then someone has to get their butt to the store to purchase the yellow mustard. We call that the execution stage. 

What I found was that men step in at the execution stage. They’re going to the store for the mustard, but they’re bringing home spicy dijon. Men told me all over the country that they’re not going back to the store for their wives, or their partners, because they always do something wrong. They were like, “I do go to the store, but when I bring home the mustard, it’s wrong.” And women all over the country were saying to me, “What is this estate planning card? You want me to give ownership in estate planning to my husband and trust him with my living will? The dude can’t even bring me the right type of mustard.”

Right. It seems like an impossible game to win. 

This is not about spicy dijon vs. French’s yellow, or blueberries, or glue sticks. This is ultimately about trust and communication and how we do things in the home. When someone holds and owns the mustard card, everything starts to change.

My husband and I started with extracurricular sports. I said to Seth, “I appreciate you saying you own extracurricular sports, but you think that just means showing up to the field on weekends.” [He had to know about] the other 18 conception, planning and other tasks I am doing just to get to the little league field. Choosing sports and who they will play with; logging onto sports portals; knowing the deadline for registration; printing out the consent form; what equipment do they need, what you need to bring when you’re snack mom, here’s the Venmo for the coach’s gift. Here’s the coordination for getting the kids to practice; here’s the carpool. When he saw that there were 18 other tasks, he really realized what it means to own a card.

Here’s the thing: you made a spreadsheet showing your husband what you, and other moms, do all the time. That didn’t work. What about the cards made the division of labor in your marriage way more fair?

It’s a system with actual rules. Fair Play is ultimately about context, not the control. 

For example, one card is garbage. Garbage should have been easy for me and my husband. What I realized for myself was that even though he had the garbage card, I was still following him around like a shadow. He said, “Owning garbage is not working for me. You’re still stalking me!”

I realized I had missed a major step. In my work, I use values-based mediation. I always start with, “What is your why?” That’s crucial step to entering this on-boarding system. So I sat down with Seth and told him why garbage matters to me. 

My why is that I grew up in a household with a mom who didn’t invest in a garbage can. Things were very chaotic. She was a single mom. And so we just had one of those garbage takeout bags that sat on a knob in our kitchen and garbage would spill out all over the floor every day. This was the 80s, on Ave C and 14th, and things were not clean. We’d have cockroaches and water bugs everywhere. My mom pretended we had Cocoa Krispies even though they were Rice Krispies because of meal bugs. It was so fucking disgusting. 

Right.

So I told Seth that I feel like a 7-year old-again with no control over my life when I see garbage piling up. That’s my trigger. And so he was able to hear me in a different way. We were having a values conversation over garbage. That’s the key to unlocking the Fair Play system. When you’re vulnerable and have conversations about why these things matter to you, men will be way more willing to own things. 

Fair Play is about speaking your values and coming up with what’s reasonable. It’s very different than handing over a list.