EMOTIONAL LABOR: How the Fair Play System Helps Share Mental Load

by | Jun 2, 2020 | Resolving Conflict, Uncategorized | 35 comments

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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!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Sandra

    Wow. This is amazing.
    I remember trying repeatedly to explain parts of this to my husband and he would never take ownership, but I couldn’t figure out how to explain the bigger picture. For instance, I asked if he would “own” ONE task in the house: the kitchen trash–keeping track of how full it was, when it needed to be emptied, taking it out, and putting a new bag in. Over and over, he told me that sure, he’d take ownership–if I would keep track of when it needed to be emptied, take the bag out of the wastebasket, tie it up, set it by the door, put a new bag in, and (probably) remind him multiple times to take it to the outside bin. But if that’s all he’s doing, it’s simpler to just do it all myself instead of even pretending I have an adult partner who pulls his own weight.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, Sandra, I’m sorry! And that’s exactly what we’re talking about, too. You have to own the whole thing. Execution is actually the least of most of these tasks.

      • Eduard Hinguez

        This is an amazing concept. I have felt for years like something is missing. I try my best to share the load with my wife we both work outside the home and I feel twinges of resentment sometimes about the tasks I own. She goes out with friends almost every week at some point. And I’m glad for that. Im missing my unicorn time. But that is on my own self to claim and figure out. She did it for herself. I am learning from this It actually isn’t the amount of work I do for our home and family. I want to do it. It’s important. There’s no unicorn in me. What a helpful idea.

        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          Yes! That’s exactly it. You each really do need Unicorn time, and if she’s getting it and you’re not, that needs to be discussed and that needs to be changed. I’m glad you found this helpful!

      • TR

        This is a really fascinating topic, and I’m really looking forward to hearing more about it. I’ve brought this topic up with my husband months ago, and we’ve agreed that it’s an ongoing topic between us. How would you recommend a newlywed couple to address this? We’ve been married less than a year, and to be honest, it doesn’t make sense for us to divide everything with extremely solid lines. We both are learning, “what are our preferences for laundry? What about cleaning the house? How should we budget? How should the car be maintained? How can we approach an appliance that broke down?” Naturally, one of us may take the lead in certain topics, but we really like learning it together because we’re still learning about each other and about how we want to set up our family.
        The matter of the mental load is still very much a real concern, though. I certainly do not want to be the manager of the home, but we’re figuring out slowly how to navigate that space.

        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          I think it’s amazing that you’re even talking about it! Way to go! That will put you so much further ahead once you do have kids (if you do!).
          We’ll be talking later in the month about some other ways of handling this stuff, if you don’t want to use the cards, so stay tuned for that. But in the meantime, if you want to share some things that you’ve tried, let me know here and I’ll include it!

        • unmowngrass

          Sounds to me like you need to each take cards for a certain duration? Like say, we’ll try this and then review in a month (or a quarter) if we need to change cards?

  2. Jane Eyre

    It occurs to me that one of the headaches involved with all the “stuff” kids do is the split ownership.
    If it’s school picture time, the family has to make picture selections, send money in, and get the kid dressed appropriately on school picture day. Kid has to remember to bring home the notices and bring back the money by the deadline. (I forgot picture money one year because I was in second grade and the task was beyond my 7 year old brain.). No one “owns” the task of selecting and paying for pictures, which creates a lot of stress and hassle.
    Kids are too young to fully “own” homework in their first few years of school.
    In the baby stage, the parents “own” all the tasks, so it’s easier.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, exactly! And that’s what the system tries to do–figure out who “owns” what, so that the other spouse doesn’t need to worry about it, and so that expectations are clear. We’ll talk later in the month about how this plays out and how this can really decrease stress and what we commonly call “nagging” in the relationship. It does help!

  3. Nathan

    The cards are a great idea. I have only one gripe about them. The fact that it excludes paid work outside the home.
    If you have a household where one parent works and the other stays at home, then that system assumes that the work one parent does outside the home doesn’t really count as work. In such a household, if I work outside the home AND do half the housework, then that’s not really balanced.
    In a traditional home, it makes sense that the stay at home parent would do a majority of the household tasks, but not all of them.
    If hubby works all day (and we can assume that a stay at home mom works all day, too), then he comes home, plops down in front of the TV for the rest of the night while mom works all night (like the TV show Everybody Loves Raymond), that isn’t balanced, either.
    I work outside the home, while Mrs. Nathan stays home. I help out with dishes, laundry, sweeping, vacuuming, some child care, etc. While I believe that our load is balanced overall, Mrs. Nathan definitely does more around the house than I do, but only because she’s here all day.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Hi Nathan, That’s a great point, but that’s also why the goal isn’t 50-50 at all. The only goal is that each person gets time to themselves in roughly equal amounts, and each person gets time to pursue a passion. And then that each person takes at least 6 daily grind tasks. But other than that, it’s not about being equal. You can’t really each do equal work anyway, because how do you measure it? But you can ensure that both of you do get some down time and some time to pursue passions (and self-care, too).
      So it’s not about paid work as much as it is dividing up everything else that goes into running a household. What Rodsky says in her book is that there are 100 cards, but the sweet space seems to be 21. When the other spouse holds 21 cards, then people feel like it’s fair, even if someone else holds 79. But even stay at home spouses can’t hold everything, and even stay at home spouses need down time and passion time. Does that make sense?

      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        I also think that in a stay-at-home parent/working parent situation, it’s really important that the working parent “own” a lot of the tasks surrounding kids, because kids need a relationship with both parents. So maybe the stay at home parent owns basically all the housework cards and organizing cards, but the other parent owns the homework card or the extracurricular activities card or the bathtime and bedtime routine cards. It’s just vital that the working parent has intentional, regular time with the kids (which I know you agree with; I’m just trying to explain). And it does take a lot of the load off the stay at home parent, too!

  4. Nathan

    > > The only goal is that each person gets time to themselves in roughly equal amounts, and each person gets time to pursue a passion.
    That sounds fair. Also, yes, the working parent definitely needs some involvement in the children’s lives. Be it sports, school work, taking them out to a movie, etc.
    It’s not good for dad to be known only as the guy who comes home at night and watches TV.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Exactly! And, honestly, I don’t think most dads want to be couch potatoes, anyway. Millennial dads are awesome when you look at the numbers–they change more diapers, and do a ton with the kids. We just need to negotiate more of the organizational “tasks” too that take mental load, because I think most dads do want to really be involved.

      • Meghan

        Sheila, that’s something I’ve always really appreciated about my husband. He adores our daughter and loves spending time with her. He will play with her and roughhouse and tries to include her in his household tasks like tending the garden, doing the laundry, and maintaining the vehicles…well as much as you can with an almost-3-year-old. We do both work outside the home, but his work is much more strenuous than mine, so seeing him push past his physical and mental exhaustion to play dinosaurs with her makes me love him even more. And it does help me feel like our division of responsibility is mostly fair, because while I am in charge of a lot of things around here just because I am good at planning/logistics and he is not (and because I have more energy than he does since I sit at a desk all day and he doesn’t), he is an equal partner in raising our kid and it makes all the difference.

        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          That’s so lovely! And, yes, that’s what kids really need, is just a dad who is involved and who obviously enjoys spending time with them!

  5. Nathan

    Years ago, I came across a post somewhere on the internet. A woman was talking about her situation (similar to this thread). Her husband told her that he had a dream or a passion that he wanted to pursue. He said that, as his wife, she should support him and help him make time for this. She said sure thing, and did so.
    But, when SHE wanted to do something for herself, like have lunch with friends, see a movie, read a book, sit outside and just turn off for a while, he get really weird an angry, and he couldn’t understand why she wanted to do these things.
    Hopefully, though, like Sheila said, most husbands and dads today don’t want to be like that.

    • Elizabeth

      Nathan, I think that’s a fair comment. I find it slightly odd not to include employment in the cards but that is assuming that the stay at home parent doesn’t have any voluntary roles, in which case they might be included too. I am the stay at home parent (with a 2 year old at home and 7 year old in primary school) and have taken on running a couple of parent and toddler groups during the week. Something my husband and I probably need to work out between us is whether those voluntary roles are my unicorn time or my “unpaid job”. I love doing it but feel like I shouldn’t be doing so much because it takes away time from managing the housework (under normal circumstances when groups are running).

  6. Purplecandy

    I love this concept of ownership. I think it doesn’t apply only to spouses but to children also. I use routines a lot when my children are young but then I definitely give them ownership of some tasks. That way not only do they get dressed, clean up their breakfast and make their bed but I don’t have to remind them.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      It really does! We’ll be talking more this month about helping kids take ownership. So important!

  7. Crystal

    I’ve been told by him “I make the money, you do everything else”
    He only wants the mindless tasks. Mowing the lawn or emptying the garbage is okay with him. But not much else.
    Nothing to do with emotional investing, or anything that requires effort and thought.
    Never helping figure out any aspect to holidays or trips.
    I figure out ALL the logistics. He’ll load the trailer.
    I figure out ALL the logistics of the holidays, what’s our budget, how to find the items, figuring out WHAT items to get in the first place, figuring out the menu, the food, every aspect of everything. He’ll show up for the event.
    He always wanted to just be told what to do, and he’d do it. But then again, a lot of times he wouldn’t…..like I said, only if it were direct and simple. He’ll unpack. I do everything. He’ll show up, I do everything else. He’ll make the money, I do everything else.
    This is one of many reasons our marriage is over.
    Because I was alone in everything already. He made no effort.
    For a long time, his favorite expression was “My answer is I have no answer” whenever I tried to broach an issue that NEEDED an answer!!
    I’m alone in everything already, so, what’s the point?
    If your husband continues to be disconnected, I highly encourage you to look up “Intimacy Anorexia” and Shiela, this would be an amazing and enlightening topic to cover in an article. I see it much too often, and people don’t realize it’s a deliberate behavior that needs to be addressed specifically if there’s ever going to be a chance. Unfortunately, my approach has had to be to no longer tolerate it because he showed no initiative to change it.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I’m so sorry, Crystal. I’ve heard that from a lot of people–“I make the money; you do the house.” To a certain extent it works, but you also can’t disengage from everything at home (and especially from the kids) and still expect to have a relationship.
      I’m sorry that you’re husband didn’t understand this.

    • Crystal

      Another Crystal in the same situation!
      Except my husband will then criticize every decision I (am forced to) make!
      I’m exhausted…

  8. AspenP

    Very helpful to hear you spell out what owning the whole task means. Often I still do the conception, planning, and most often also the execution, but even on the tasks that aren’t “mine” I’m still responsible for the conception & planning. I’ve never wanted to nag…. so often I’ll just do the execution too if it’s not getting done. Other things sit undone for months or years if it’s something I can’t do well myself. Rock and a hard place.
    I really like the idea of cards. Maybe that would help.
    I’ve also started reading up on attachment styles and anxious-avoidant marriages. I think for myself at least that is a helpful piece behind some of the why so much of daily life tasks are avoided and how the dance continues.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, that’s so true! Have you read How We Love by the Yerkovichs? Such a good book!

      • AspenP

        I haven’t! Thanks for the suggestion Sheila!

  9. B

    Interesting. My soon-to-be-ex had me thinking I was a lazy person because he “had to lower his standards and do it himself” with the housework, but looking at the card categories, I realize I was doing almost everything else almost entirely by myself. No wonder I could never get enough sleep!
    Our kids have chores they are responsible for. It helps, but I’m still the supervisory parent. I’m really struggling right now, with the divorce, job hunting, homeschooling 4 kids, managing everyone’s appointments, co-parenting, ev.er.y.thing. I don’t know what I can let go of, though! Prayers are much appreciated.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I’m sorry, B! This is a really tough time for so many.

      • B

        Thank you. It really is, and I recognize my situation could be much worse.

  10. Sandra2

    What a great article! This is an important subject to understand. My husband is the bread-winner and for the past two years has also returned to school for his BSN and now MSN.
    He usually shares in housework and daily owns and executes dinner cleanup. He also takes excellent care of our cars.
    We have four kids and up until a couple of years ago, I homeschooled them all.
    So now his master’s program has ramped up and clinical training, along with homework and his regular FT job, is taking every second.
    He feels the pressure of going to school and juggling it all.
    I’ve told him to just focus on school and work and I will take care of everything else for the next 9 months. After reading your article, I see that I am normally responsible for most everything that happens in our house anyways.
    This current phase overwhelming even though there is an end in sight.
    Maybe we can get the cards to work on next spring….

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Honestly, I did it all too when my husband was in training for pediatrics. He always took on a lot of the childcare and kid stuff when he could, though, because kids matter. Best wishes during this busy season! You can do anything when there’s an end in sight.

  11. Kim P

    This is a game changer Sheila! I knew ab mental load, but never heard it so clearly explained and as such a crucial piece of marital happiness. I have carried the mental load for almost every single task from bills to kids’ schedules, meals, vacations, down to the tiniest details you could think of. He has been the executioner (though not always even that). This all makes so much sense!! I’m excited to take this to my counselor so that maybe my marriage can turn around. I’m not exhausted bc I am just an easily overwhelmed person; I’ve been carrying a huge load and my brain needs a break!

  12. Amy Forgey

    This is SO helpful!!! Thank-you!

  13. Anonymous

    My husband has ADHD and I’m currently being assessed. Let’s just say that this concept is important to both of us because we frequently find ourselves demoralized when it comes to household tasks! He’s perfectly willing to do his fair share and “own the task” but was raised in a home where very little was expected of him, so he doesn’t always understand what all is involved. Add to that the complications of ADHD and we have a pretty scattered home life!


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