In “Fair Play: A Game-Changing Solution for When You Have Too Much to Do (and More Life to Live),” which hit shelves earlier this month, Eve Rodsky tracks how she became the default parent — which she dubs the she-fault parent — in her marriage. She stayed home on a longer maternity leave after her first son was born, she writes, so the domestic workload defaulted to her. In “Fair Play,” Rodsky lays out a system she developed to address the inequality: a figurative game with rules and “task cards” that are dealt between the two partners — or players, in this case. In this excerpt, Rodsky writes about the moment she realized something needed to change in terms of how she and her husband, Seth, shared the burden of emotional labor, mental to-do lists and more.
Soon after my second child was born, we moved back to Los Angeles. I caught my breath as a mom and went back to work full-time. I formed my own consulting ﬁrm, the Philanthropy Advisory Group, to provide services for private individuals and family foundations. But even with my return to a paid job that took me to an office, I was still shouldering two-thirds of the work required to run a home and raise a family, a statistic I wasn’t aware of at the time but was undeniably living. I was still the she-fault parent charged with doing it all, buying the blueberries and masterminding our family’s day-to-day life while my husband — a good guy and a wonderful father — was still not much more than a “helper” rather than a collaborative partner/planner/participant in all that took place for our family.
Late one night, I was using my phone ﬂashlight to ﬁnd the outlet to plug in the baby monitor. Seth was asleep in our darkened bedroom and I was careful not to wake him up. But when I accidentally bumped my nightstand, upsetting a precariously tall, Jenga-like stack of books that came tumbling to the ﬂoor, he snapped awake.
“What are you doing?” he asked with groggy accusation. “Can’t it wait until tomorrow?”
No, I thought but didn’t say aloud, all the invisible planning and coordination that happens when you’re asleep needs to happen before tomorrow morning in order for our household to function! In a ﬂash, I recalled a YouTube clip a friend had recently forwarded to me of author Joyce Meyer reading from “The Conﬁdent Woman,” where she details the endless work that “Mom” attends to before going to bed:
“Wash the dinner dishes, set out cereal for the morning, prep the coffee pot, pull meat out of the freezer, ﬁll the dog’s water dish, let out the cat, put wet clothes in the dryer, empty the wastebasket, lock the doors, look in on the kids, write a quick note to the teacher, lay out clothes, wash and moisturize her face, and then add three more things to her To-Do list for the next day. Meanwhile, her husband turns off the TV and announces to no one in particular, ‘I’m going to bed.’ And without doing anything else, he does.”
Frustrated and hurt, I crawled into bed. My mind still racing, I lay there considering all that I’d done over the course of my second shift — emailing Zach’s teacher about an upcoming ﬁeld trip, lining up weekend play dates, scheduling the babysitter, registering for mommy-and-me swim lessons and negotiating the cellphone bill with a 24-hour help line. Suddenly, our situation became clear. What my favorite childhood detective Encyclopedia Brown may have dubbed “The Case of Going Bump in the Night” would invariably continue in my marriage until Seth and I made some serious changes. That night, our options seemed limited. In fact, the only thing that came to mind was moving to a foreign country where Seth speaks the language and I don’t (an actual suggestion that made it into the New York Times). In this scenario, I’d kick back on the beaches of Ibiza while Seth, the only Spanish speaker in the family, would be forced to take on more domestic tasks and childcare communication. ¡Qué bueno!
I decided to sleep on it. By the next morning, I felt less tired and cranky and put off my late-night plans to move our family to another continent. Instead, I followed through on the plan with my girlfriends to do a local walk for breast cancer awareness.
Some of my dearest friends, along with their moms, sisters and nieces, met in downtown Los Angeles to unite as a community to honor breast cancer survivors, including some of our friends and family. We were covered in pink glitter from the signs our kids helped us make, and as we marched through the streets in pink leggings, chanting, “Not just a women’s problem,” it felt like a true girlfriends’ getaway. We all remarked on the palpable sense of high-energy sisterhood and female badassery in the air. That is, until the ﬁrst text came through around noon:
> When are you coming home?
It was from Jill’s husband, who’d spent the morning with the kids and was already “done.” As we watched her type back a prompt response, nearly every woman in the group felt her own phone come to life as a similar message appeared:
> When is the babysitter coming?
> Where did you put Josh’s soccer bag?
> What’s the address of the birthday party?
> Do the kids need to eat lunch?
The mutual experience was remarkable, and we began sharing each message as it came through. “Eat lunch? What do you think?” Suzy wondered out loud in amusement-turned-disbelief-turned-irritation.
As we laughed and griped in equal measure, I got my first call:
“Where’s Anna’s outﬁt you picked out? She doesn’t have any pants.”
It was Seth, breathless and frustrated. Again. “Well, I guess we’re not going to the park because you” — he emphasized — “didn’t leave me any clothes.”
Really? I’d quietly left them out after he’d gone to bed the night before. As calmly as I could, I suggested, “Try the dresser. Try the laundry hamper. And if you still can’t ﬁnd any pants,” I tried not to snap, “put her in shorts.”
After 30 calls and 46 texts from our husbands and from the “substitute” women like sitters, neighbors, and mothers-in-law who’d been called in to rescue and cover for our husbands, Charlotte was the ﬁrst to say what we were all thinking: “Maybe we should just skip lunch and go home?” She was immediately joined by Amy, who suggested, “I probably did leave him with too much to do.” Lisa shrugged and said, “It’d just be easier if I were there.”
And just like that, the same group of women who — 30 minutes before — had marched together in the spirit of “courage, strength and power” disbanded and returned home to relieve babysitters, ﬁnd the soccer bag, wrap another kid’s birthday present and prepare lunch.
As I drove home that day, I reﬂected on a line I’d read somewhere — resentment grows out of perceived fairness. Darn right, it wasn’t fair! I was so frustrated on behalf of my girlfriends and all mothers who receive texts that require us to rush home or return a call to educate our husbands about basic stuff they should know or be able to figure out about caring for our kids and the home. The biggest problem in our marriages, it seemed, were the small details. As I pulled into our driveway still fuming, something new occurred to me: Visibility = Value.
In a bolt-of-lightning moment, I realized: There was another option to shift the imbalance of work in my home that did not involve moving to a foreign country or joining the 50 percent of marriages that end in divorce (which would leave Seth doing more, but I’d be doing no less). Rather, if I wanted to stop score-keeping with Seth and have him “own” some share of responsibility for all it takes to make our life happen, I had to stop sneaking around in the middle of the night, elfin-like, silently and magically making stuff happen. If I expected Seth to be an informed partner, well then, I needed to first treat him like one by making the full breadth of what I did for our family visible. You can’t value what you don’t see, right? And neither could Seth. And my girlfriends couldn’t expect their men to value it either. But … if our partners recognized the small and large details that go into keeping the ship afloat, maybe they’d appreciate all that we do. Heck, maybe they’d even volunteer to take a few things off our lists.