How does the Fair Play system help you divide up mental load in marriage?

We’re just launching our June series about mental load, where we look at how to balance the mental work that goes into keeping the family together.

Yesterday we looked at what mental load is, and I introduced you to Eve Rodsky’s book Fair Play, which gives a diagnosis of the problem and offers a solution (again, full warning: It’s not a Christian book, and there is questionable language).

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Let me tell you how I was first introduced to the concept of Fair Play, and the solution to mental load that Eve Rodsky suggests.

The Cruise Excursion Decision

I was sitting on the couch in my cousin Danielle’s living room back in November, over on Vancouver Island. Keith was in the adjoining room checking on emails, and I was likely writing something for the blog while chatting with Danielle, who was folding laundry on her day off. As I checked my own email, I found a question about a cruise shore excursion from our travel agent, relating to the cruise we were about to take in January (we did actually take that cruise; we were on the Zaandam in South America right before COVID hit and that ship was sent searching for a dock).

I yelled at Keith, “hey, honey, Melissa wants to know if want to go see penguins on the Falkland Islands.”

“I know,” he replied. “I got the email, too.”

“Okay,” I told him. “I don’t remember what we decided, but it’s likely in that spreadsheet. So I’m deleting the email and you can reply to her.”

“Got it,” Keith said.

And I deleted it.

I didn’t think another thing of it until Danielle started to laugh.

And she proceeded to tell me that we were modelling what Rodsky was suggesting in her book Fair Play. Keith “owned” the “vacation card”, as Rodsky would explain, and so I was handing it back to him and completely ignoring it. I knew I could count on Keith to make the decisions and figure out the vacation thing, so I was literally not going to think about it at all until I showed up at the airport. And I was exceedingly happy about that.

Here’s how the Fair Play system got started

One Saturday morning, Eve Rodsky got together with a bunch of friends to do a breast cancer walk, and then have lunch together. It was their big day off without the kids. They were all excited.

But one by one, each of them started getting texts from home.

  • 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?

Over that morning, between the friends, they had 30 phone calls and 46 texts. By the end of the breast cancer walk, all the women were demoralized, and they decided to just head home rather than go out for lunch.

Eve got mad on behalf of herself and her friends, and thought she would create a list of all the stuff that women do that often is unseen, so that their husbands would realize everything that was on their plates. She did that, tried to explain it to her husband, but it only resulted in fights and arguments rather than solutions.

(Note: It’s never good to start a discussion with your spouse with the attitude–here’s everything I’m doing right and everything you’re doing wrong! And she learned that the hard way). 

So finally she settled on a better system that I think has potential for a lot of our marriages: She created 100 “cards” representing all the work that goes into the household, excluding paid work.

The Fair Play Card System

The system is made up of 100 cards, with tasks and responsibilities from these 6 areas:

Home: Everything that goes in to running the home, including meals, cleaning, organizing, paying bills, etc.

Out: Everything related to leaving home and interacting with the outside world, including school notes and communication, keeping the calendar, extracurricular activities, social plans, and more

Caregiving: Everything related to caregiving for kids, pets, and each other, including grooming, supervising homework, medical appointments, and more.

Magic: The things that make life meaningful and interesting, including church, extended family, friendships, family fun, and more.

Wild: The things that can’t be planned, like a washing machine being broken or a child getting sick at school, plus all the unexpected or difficult life events like handling aging parents, job loss, or accidents.

Unicorn Space: Time to develop passion and purpose for each person.

Each card is also noted to be either a “daily grind” task, that needs to be done regularly and at fairly specific times, like doing the dishes, packing lunches, or getting kids to the bus, or regular tasks that can be done at your chosen time. The deck contains 30 daily grind tasks and 70 regular tasks.

Eve Rodsky

Fair Play

And here’s the thing about the cards: Whoever owns the card owns THE WHOLE TASK–conception, planning, and execution.

The person who owns homework, for instance, isn’t just responsible for sitting down and making sure the kids do the homework. They also have to keep track of when homework assignments are due; check up on whether the homework is done and whether it’s in the backpack; look at the notes that get sent home from the teacher. They do it all.

The problem that we often run into is that we separate conception, planning, and execution.

  1. Conception is thinking of the issue and deciding what to do about it.
  2. Planning is figuring out the tasks that need to be done to complete the project, and figuring out when those tasks should be done
  3. Execution is about doing it.

Conception and planning take place mostly in your brain (or on an app). And so we often think that execution is the big, time consuming task. But actually, execution is often the least of it. It’s remembering all the little things that’s the most exhausting. And when you separate Conception and Planning from Execution, you can run into trouble, like this:

The Hockey Practice Execution Failure

Sandra is in a hurry, and so she says to Mark: “Can you drive Brian to hockey practice?”

What does Mark believe is being asked of him at that moment? He thinks that he has to get Brian in the car, along with his hockey gear, get him to practice on time, and then get him home again. If he does all of those things, then Mark thinks he’s done a great job.

But the problem is that Sandra knows that last week, Brian borrowed one of Jared’s jerseys, and needs to return it. But where is the jersey? Has it been washed yet? Plus this is the week that all the fundraising money is due from selling chocolate bars. That has to be collected and the form has to be brought in. Plus it’s our turn to sign up for snack, and we need to pick up the big tupperware container that held the nachos we brought last time.

Driving Brian to hockey practice is about so much more than just driving Brian to hockey practice. And as Sandra tries to bark out all of these extra orders, it sounds to Mark like she’s gone a little bit insane as she yells at everyone to find Jared’s jersey. Is it still in the dryer? And where is Grandpa’s check for all of the chocolate bars? She thinks it was on the side table and it was never put into the fundraising envelope. 

Sandra is always fussing about everything and can never quite calm down, and now everyone is stressed.

What went wrong?

When the person doing the executing doesn’t understand the conception and planning, problems happen. It’s why the person doing the grocery shopping doesn’t know if you can substitute the red pepper for the orange pepper, as we talked about yesterday.

They don’t know what dish the pepper is for.

And it’s why Danielle was laughing at us with the cruise emails. She pointed out there’s another problem: When it’s not clear who owns the cards, you can each do the execution, and mess everything up. What would have happened if I had emailed our travel agent saying, “yes, we want to see the penguins”, but Keith had emailed saying, “No, we already have another cruise excursion booked”? Because I deleted the email and let Keith “own” the whole thing, we didn’t double up and we didn’t confuse each other.

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It’s not about delegating tasks to someone; it’s about someone taking the full ownership of a task, so that the other person can completely drop all of the mental load associated with it.

As Rodsky explains:

It’s not a partnership if only one of you is running the show, which means making the important distinction between delegating tasks and handing off ownership of a task. Ownership belongs to the person who first off remembers to plan, then plans, and then follows through on every aspect of executing the plan and completing the task without reminders.
Eve Rodsky

Fair Play

What are the rules for the Fair Play system?

First, go through the cards and discard those that don’t apply to you, or those that you decide you can live without (do you need to send out Holiday cards?)

Then, once you have the ones that you’ve decided you must keep, divide up the cards between you. They don’t have to be divided up evenly, and often they shouldn’t be. If one person does most of the outside paid work, it makes a lot of sense for another to take most of the cards. And what Rodsky has found is that 21 seems to be the magic number. If one spouse takes at least 21 cards, the other spouse feels like things are fair, even if they’re holding a much larger stack. At least not all details are in one person’s head.

  • Everyone takes at least one daily grind card from each stack, because the daily grind tasks are the ones with the most mental load that are most exhausting
  • Everyone MUST get “unicorn time”, or time to develop their own passions and discover their purpose
  • Everyone MUST get self-care cards
  • Everyone gets roughly the same amount of free time.
  • When you own the card, you own the WHOLE thing: Conception, Planning, and Execution

So you don’t have to work the same or do the same number of tasks, but what studies have found is that people feel things are fair not if they’re all doing the same amount of work, but instead if everyone gets roughly the same amount of down time.

Personally, we don’t use the cards, though we have talked through them.

We figured out a similar system on our own. But if you’re a visual person, the cards are a great idea! So check out the book, which has download instuctions (plus full details on what conception, planning, and execution look like for each task). Or you can purchase just the cards!

Honestly, I think talking through a system like this (whether you do it exactly this way or not) is so important for couples, because it helps clear up expectations. Sandra was upset at Mark in our story yesterday because he didn’t remember about piano practice, and birthday parties, and science fair projects, and laundry–but Mark didn’t know he was supposed to. It was never spelled out. Mark is a good guy. Had they sat down and said, “This year, Mark, you be responsible for making sure Brian does his homework,” then Mark likely would have realized Saturday morning that before they went on the bike ride, he should get Brian to do half an hour on his project. It wouldn’t have been a big deal. But because he didn’t “own” the task, he didn’t think of it. And Sandra was disappointed because she felt like she owned everything, and she didn’t have a partner.

Here’s a way to set out those expectations.

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Now, Keith and I have got this down to an almost science, and we don’t use the cards. For some people they might be overkill. We ended up discussing these ideas on our own, and we figured it out. But for some people, a visible system like this may be exactly what they need! 

We’ll talk more this month about what daily grind tasks look like, how women can “let go” of tasks, how we can all start doing less, and why we each need what she calls “unicorn space”. But I’ll leave it there for now, because that’s enough to chew on today!

So let me know: do you run into these “hockey practice” problems? What are some of your biggest frustrations with dividing up mental load? Let’s talk in the comments!