Well, This Is Fascinating

How Watching Fair Play With My Husband Shook Up Our Whole Marriage — For The Better

The “invisible load” I’ve been carrying is a bit lighter now.

Written by Alexandra Frost
Ariela Basson/Scary Mommy; Stocksy, Amazon

When a few couples in my friend group started talking about Fair Play — the book by Eve Rodsky and, later, a documentary — I didn't pay much attention. Sure, all the moms I know carry an "invisible load,” including myself. Among my worries? How much protein my kid eats on any given day, and whether it's enough not to get a migraine, something he struggles with. Or how many upcoming playdates each kid has and which one I should focus on next to ensure they all get social engagement. And, of course, much more depending on the day, child, and season we're in. But I figured it was all part of momming, which I'd signed up for times five.

What I didn't expect was how much this book and documentary would impact my marriage and the types of conversations within it. To be honest, I thought we really didn't need it. With two full-time jobs and almost five kids, we were both working our tails off quite literally from sunup till sundown, pitching in at home, financially, and elsewhere the best we could. So, when we plopped down at 10 p.m. for some relaxing screen time, I didn't think a documentary would spark conversation — and change — in our relationship of over a decade. But it did.

The Concept

Author Eve Rodsky started collecting data on families in 2011, using the metaphor of holding a deck of cards. Each partner in a family has these cards, which represent obligations and make up the mental load of parent and family life. She gives an example of Ed, a hardworking dad in a patriarchal, traditional relationship. He had to take one of his wife's "cards" when her mother went into hospice, and she couldn't oversee their daughter's homework. Before long, the dad who'd never laid on the ground playing with kids, let alone designing a full-blown glitter art project for a Secret Santa-style gift exchange at school, had taken the lead completely. Since her book, she's coached businesses and individuals to improve the balance in their marriages and parenting, as she did with Ed's family.

Perinatal therapist Sarah Baroud describes this as an issue with "dumping your cup," explaining, "We can't fill our cup up with more if it's already filled with domestic responsibilities. We don't have room to add on workplace demands, so we'd need to dump some of our domestic cup into our partner's cup." She wants these conversations about the "invisible load" to become more visible. "Women have a lot more opportunities in the workplace, which is phenomenal… but nothing was offloaded."

The Truth That Just Hit Differently

Dividing laundry and dishes and driving kids places wasn't really an issue for us — we tended to communicate well, we both felt the other was giving everything they had, and life was good. Then we hit the section in the documentary that talked about workplace equity. We both got a little fidgety on the couch and, all of a sudden, it felt like we were at marriage therapy, not chilling watching a fun show anymore.

One of the couples in the documentary discussed how it seemed unfair that she would take off work whenever a kid was sick because she had the more flexible career. She added that due to that flexibility, her partner was more apprehensive about taking off, citing he didn't have as much "social capital" at work to just leave for family-related issues, describing a company culture that many still face even as workplace changes valuing families improve.

In an interview, Rodsky explains to me that the workplace structure never changed, even as families became more co-parenting friendly and moms more often work than they did 50 years ago. "The culprit is that we've never redesigned workplaces except for the same exact structure (same sh*t, different decade) of one person being in the workplace and one person handling everything else offscreen. That's how workplaces were designed," she says.

She points to research she did in which she surveyed male partners, asking them if holding their child's hand at the pediatrician carried the same value as an hour of their time in the boardroom. The resounding answer was no, pointing to the underlying social pressure some couples feel to not equally divide sick days or other responsibilities that involve stepping back from work obligations.

The Trouble With Time

My husband and I started chatting about the many, many disagreements we had that all revolved around the same rub — I didn't want to "blow up" my work day, rescheduling calls and plans whenever one of our five kids needed something during the school day. Neither did he. So, this would lead to comparing and justifying whose career was busier. More stressful. Less flexible. And ultimately, though it wasn't often said, more important. Luckily for us, this had never been about money or comparing salaries, but it's easy to see how it could turn into that for some couples. Instead, it had to do with the value of time, which is one of the founding principles of Fair Play.

"Regardless of how much money you make, the other person's time is equal to your time — that's the hardest one, and why Fair Play is a movement," Rodsky says. "In a patriarchal culture, in a capitalist culture, we believe time is money. Time is not money. Time is time. My hour is equal to your hour." She adds that if a couple actually believes they deserve as much choice over how their time is spent, regardless of income, then you understand it shouldn't be predetermined or left to one parent.

Yet, many obstacles often prevent one partner from fully splitting time off equally, as my husband and I found out. For one, he may have up to 10 meetings in a day, whereas I might have around three. He has a boss, while I'm my own boss. All this adds up to an equation where it becomes "easier" for me to rearrange the day — until, that is, we look at the cohesive picture and how much more I'm affected. During the pandemic, for example, I had 60 days in a year where this happened, the equivalent of over two months of work missed. Though deadlines were moved and still met, the stress of rearranging that many times wears on you.

Working Toward Work-Life Balance

Rodsky is convinced that this won't resolve on a societal level until more workplaces create a structure where missing work for family concerns is a valid reason that doesn't result in obvious or not-so-obvious penalties. These come in many forms, from demotions and being fired to being passed up for a project for someone else who probably will never have to leave to get a puking kid at school on a Tuesday morning.

Also, she says, sometimes it's not as much of a real threat as it is a perceived one. "It's important to understand what type of safety they have in the workplace. If everybody around them has stay-at-home spouses, then it's going to be a lot harder to have this conversation," she says. "Often since men are penalized less for those conversations when they realize… women are always penalized for these things, it's like, use a little bit of your capital on this change because that's real allyship." She adds that change will only come when men especially start doing unpaid care and that there's a "lot less penalty" than people might be anxious about.

Baroud helps couples advocate for family life balance in the workplace with a simple script: "My job's really important, and my wife's job is really important. I'm going to need to take some sick days — I'm going to be also helping with doctor's appointments," she suggests. But the conversation is at the partner level, too, respectfully navigating who has more seniority at their job, more flexibility, and what the benefits versus consequences might be for each partner's scenario. The conversation isn't easy, and one that has led her clients to couple's therapy, she validates.

The Takeaway

So what did this mean for us, sitting on the couch pondering equality in our careers and sick days especially? It wasn't an instant tangible shift. When my partner realized that it had become the expectation — starting with taking off in the early days when I was nursing and a kid would be sick — that I stayed home and put my career second, things improved. It wasn't that he took over sick days completely. It was an awareness in our conversations. Now, when a kid gets sick, he asks, "What do you have today?" The conversation moves to a collaborative solution-making task, where we juggle kids and rides and appointments and meetings that can't be changed.

For me, the awareness is the most important learning we'll take from Fair Play, along with the mutual respect for the other's career, even amidst hiccups that disrupt it. Let's be real — my new love language is "I'll watch the kids while you work."