Can a deck of cards really help couples rebalance the distribution of chores and domestic labor in their relationship?
My introduction to the Fair Play method of redistributing domestic labor was back in January 2020, just before the pandemic disrupted life as we knew it. I was talking to one of my best friends about how housework and life admin were encroaching on my working time and how I didn’t seem to be able to have a constructive conversation with my husband about it without getting emotional and quickly shutting down. Why did I find this issue so triggering and so hard to think straight—let alone talk—about?
When my friend handed me Eve Rodsky’s New York Times bestselling book Fair Play, I gave a long exhale. Rodsky’s work—years worth of research drawing on interviews with thousands of people from a diverse range of backgrounds—felt incredibly validating. It shed light on years of unspoken (or half-spoken) frustration and gave me the vocabulary and newfound confidence I needed to think and communicate about the issue; I was finally able to put an end to the mental gaslighting I’d been subjecting myself to.
What is Eve Rodsky’s ‘Fair Play’ method?
Eve Rodsky is a time equality activist who is passionate about helping couples rebalance the domestic load in their relationship when it feels off-kilter. She’s a fierce advocate for a society where women’s time is truly valued and considered as precious as men’s.
Research consistently shows that women still tend to do more domestic labor and have less leisure time than men, even when they are in full-time paid employment (a fact that impacts mothers most of all).
In her book Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference, neuroscientist Cordelia Fine cites a study conducted at the University of California that found that faculty fathers generally have two hours of leisure time a day while faculty mothers, on average, have just 26 minutes a day to themselves. Meanwhile in 2018, the UK’s Office for National Statistics reported that men spend an average of five hours more leisure time than women a week (adding up to roughly 260 more hours of leisure time a year than women).
This data shows that domestic and unpaid labor, which seems to many, at first glance, like a minor issue because unpaid labor is so extravagantly unvalued by our society, actually adds up to hours, days, months, and even years of time inequality over the course of a lifetime.
Domestic and unpaid labor, which seems to many, at first glance, like a minor issue because unpaid labor is so extravagantly unvalued by our society, actually adds up to hours, days, months, and even years of time inequality over the course of a lifetime.
In her first book, Fair Play, Rodsky outlines her findings about the division of domestic labor in the home and presents a clear and practical system to support couples in rebalancing when that division of labor feels uneven. She breaks domestic labor into 100 task cards, each card pertaining to one domestic task. You and your partner will need to check in with each other regularly to agree on which cards each of you are going to have in your deck for the week ahead and therefore who will be in charge of each task.
As a couple, you need to onboard into the system together before you get started: This means having a conversation where you decide which cards are important to you in this season of your lives. You’ll also need to agree on a minimum standard of care for each task (how often should the trash be taken out, for example, and what exactly does a clean toilet look like) and agree that the person who holds the card for each task at any given time takes full responsibility for every part of that task, including;
- Conceiving: assessing your family’s needs and defining what you’ll do to meet those needs.
- Planning: creating an action plan that outlines what will be required to do this task from start to finish.
- Executing: doing the work.
The idea is to build yourself a deck of cards with as few cards as possible in it each week—no one person or couple can do the full 100 tasks in the pack, and they won’t all be relevant to your life, so you want to go through and be as ruthless as you can, picking only the essentials for that week.
Rodsky is very clear that the number of cards each person holds in a relationship will look different for each couple depending on their circumstances and that “fair” doesn’t necessarily mean a 50/50 split of tasks. It’s also important to remember that no one is supposed to be “stuck” with a card forever; ideally, you’ll take turns holding different cards, especially with the more repetitive and onerous “daily grind” tasks (that include things like meals, grocery shopping, dishes, laundry, and so on).
What happened when we started implementing ‘Fair Play’
Shortly after I started reading Fair Play, many pre-existing issues were exacerbated by the outbreak of COVID-19; as I was self-employed, it was easier for me to reduce my working hours and look after the kids than it was for my husband, so that’s what I did, along with millions of other women around the world.
When I hear women admit that they struggle with achieving a fair division of domestic labor, it’s usually answered with a statement like “I wouldn’t put up with that kind of behavior” that both shames the woman who shared her struggle and her partner. Fair Play reassured me that I wasn’t a weak person or a bad feminist. I loved that it also doesn’t paint my husband as the bad guy in the situation, allowing for the fact that it’s far more complex than that; we are both part of a broken system and had stumbled into unhealthy patterns because they were the only blueprint for living that we had. In our different ways, we perpetuated an unhealthy status quo without questioning whether it worked for us as a couple and as individuals.
My husband genuinely wanted to do his fair share and used to ask me regularly, “How can I help you?” In a dynamic that I’m sure many couples recognize, my reply was usually an exasperated, “I don’t know! Why can’t you just see what needs doing and do it?”
I was already feeling chronically overwhelmed, and delegating tasks to him felt like it would create more work for me rather than less. Ultimately, the desire to make me happier and healthier is what motivated him to try the Fair Play system for eight months (though we had many stops and starts during that time).
I was already feeling chronically overwhelmed, and delegating tasks to him felt like it would create more work for me rather than less.
When we first started using the cards, I was working part-time hours as a freelancer while he was in full-time 9-5 employment in a demanding academic research and teaching role. We chose a total of 55 task cards, initially assigning 16 to him and 29 to me, leaving us with 10 unassigned cards.
From the outset, our biggest challenge as a couple was figuring out how to divide and assign certain tasks, such as the bedtime routine for our two young kids (we generally tend to do this together, taking the lead with one child each), discipline, gestures of love, and spirituality. Rodsky is very clear in Fair Play that you shouldn’t share tasks so that you maintain clear boundaries and complete ownership over a task while you’re holding that card. Try as we might, though, there were always a few jobs we just couldn’t figure out how to assign to just one of us, and this remains our biggest struggle to date.
Lessons learned from using the ‘Fair Play’ cards
My husband and I tried using the Fair Play cards for eight months, and here’s what we’ve discovered so far.
Start small, and don’t stress about doing it perfectly
Despite the fact that I was carrying more “daily grind” task cards than my husband (meal planning, grocery shopping, cooking, after-school child care, and so forth), I immediately felt a sense of relief that we’d made the invisible labor of our home visible. Even if we didn’t have a perfect division of labor, just talking about the cards we were trying to hold helped clarify why we felt stressed and what we could make a conscious decision to let go of that week.
My husband took ownership of a few tasks that I probably would have ended up doing or feeling somehow responsible for (with a nagging sense of background guilt) if we had allowed for any ambiguity about ownership—things like organizing a birthday present for his dad, communication with his parents about Skype dates, bicycle practice with our daughter, filling out and returning school forms, renovation admin and communicating with the builders. I could already feel myself relaxing a bit, having removed some things from my mental to-do list altogether; if those things didn’t happen, it wasn’t my fault, and that felt like a massive relief.
A few months into our experiment, I got a full-time job. This was the first time in the decade we’d been together that we’d been in full-time employment at the same time; I lasted six months before handing in my notice and starting the transition back to part-time freelance work.
Before implementing the Fair Play system, I might have felt defeated about this turn of events, but instead I felt empowered to make a choice that was right for me despite the fact that it could easily look like a kind of failure to the outside world. When it hit me that I was very near burnout, I was able to pause, look at the cards I was holding, and figure out which ones I could hand over or forget for the time being and which ones I actively wanted to keep. Being there for my daughter after school to help her process her day in this season of our lives, I realized, felt like a non-negotiable. Yes, I could try harder to find after-school child care, but what I realized looking at those cards was that actually, deep down, I didn’t want to do that.
These days, I’m generally holding around 33 cards, and my husband has around 16 he regularly holds. We’re still not following the rules of Fair Play perfectly because there are 12 cards that we both share, but we’re slowly trying to figure out how to maintain a sense of clarity in the division of duties so that we don’t double up or, worse, let something important drop.
I’ve learned that there are some tasks that my husband is happier for me to delegate parts of to him rather than him holding the whole task card himself (Rodsky calls these “randomly assigned tasks, or “RATs”—for example, I’m holding the grocery shopping card, but I ask my husband to stop by the grocery store for some items on his way home from work from time to time). We know this isn’t ideal, but somehow, the clarity of me holding the card and both of us acknowledging the invisible labor I’m doing in conceiving, planning, and delegating some of the execution of that task feels like a positive step forward for us.
As Rodsky herself reassured me when I emailed her in a panic about the fact that I felt we were doing the Fair Play system “wrong”: It’s OK to start small. Implementing a tiny part of the Fair Play system is better than not doing anything at all.
“Unicorn Space” is the most important card of all
Immediately the easiest and most joy-filled part of the Fair Play system was the Unicorn Space card, which we implemented long before we got started with the other cards: “Unicorn Space” is what Rodsky calls time spent doing something creative that we share with others, an activity that brings us joy, makes us feel alive, and helps us fall truly, madly, and deeply in love with our own life. In fact, this principle is so important that Rodsky’s second book, Find Your Unicorn Space: Reclaim Your Creative Life in a Too-Busy World, is all about it. The Unicorn Space task card is pretty much the raison d’etre of all the other task cards; the whole point of dividing up the domestic labor more equally is so that you both have more time to spend doing the things you love.
For his Unicorn Space, my husband took up painting miniatures—something he’d enjoyed doing when he was younger—and we set aside the first Saturday of every month for him to go to a local war gaming group to share this passion with other enthusiasts. I joined a weekly writing group and carved out two hours every Friday evening to spend doing writing exercises and supporting each other in our craft. I found myself coming back from my writing sessions refreshed and ready to be a loving mother and wife.
Ever since we introduced Unicorn Space to our schedules, I’ve stopped resenting the time my husband takes to pursue his passions because my own needs are being taken care of in that area, too. And if I feel it slipping, we’ve developed a code phrase, “the Cinderella Feeling,” which means “Mummy really needs some time to herself ASAP!” If you only implement one thing from Fair Play, make it the Unicorn Space concept.
If you only implement one thing from Fair Play, make it the Unicorn Space concept.
Everyone needs Unicorn Space, but I’d especially encourage full-time stay-at-home parents to advocate for it in their lives. We often feel that because our “job” is to be the homemaker, we have to hold the majority of the Fair Play cards—all, that is, except for the Unicorn Space card.
If you think about it, though, this doesn’t make any sense; say your full-time job is to be the homemaker for your family while your partner is the primary earner working for pay. They get to have paid time off, weekends, and an end time to their working day when they can come home and relax. You may not feel like you can hand over many of the domestic labor cards to your partner because they’re working hard and deserve a break, and that’s a very valid point—but it’s just as true of your life and work as theirs. I love that Rodsky encourages us to extend the same courtesy to the lead homemaker as we do to the lead earner of the family. It’s just common sense, but it feels unexpectedly radical.
The division of domestic labor is more emotionally loaded than I realized
The thing about the Fair Play system, as I discovered the hard way, is that no matter how much you study it beforehand, it takes two to actually put it into practice. You have to be able to get your partner on board and communicate with each other well, otherwise your careful preparation, color-coded notes, and meticulously underlined copy of the book are good for nothing.
Using the Fair Play cards has revealed patterns and habits that my husband and I have unconsciously absorbed—from our parents and from society at large—over our lifetimes. It’s had me questioning everything, from my own behavior patterns to what I want out of life. I’ve found myself reflecting on the sacrifices my mother and grandmother made and the ways I’ve stumbled into similar traps without even realizing. I’ve wrestled with the fear that it’s too late to change. I’ve wept over the way our culture belittles domestic labor and faced down the voice in my own head that tells me I’m silly for “making a big deal about housework.”
It turns out, the division of domestic labor is an incredibly emotionally loaded issue.
There is no quick fix for couples seeking domestic harmony and equality; there’s no perfect one-size-fits-all formula that will make your life feel less overwhelming and more balanced. Being in a relationship and running a household with another human is hard work. If you and your partner engage with the Fair Play method in a genuine spirit of curiosity and openness, though, you’re bound to learn a thing or two about yourselves that help you feel like a real team and fall back in love with your life together.
If you stick with it, it will eventually become second nature
One evening roughly eight months into our Fair Play experiment, standing in the kitchen doing the dishes while my husband sat patiently in the dark answering our daughter’s big, existential questions that always seem to surface just as she’s going to sleep, something suddenly clicked for me: We were making the Fair Play method work for us, and it finally felt natural and intuitive, so much so that we barely had to think about it.
In that moment, I felt the deep sense of peace that comes from sticking with the hard, uncomfortable conversations until the tension turns and the solution flows and things become easier again. It’s not necessarily going to be easy, but it is definitely worth it.