New Game Teaches Men to Handle the “Mental Load” of Raising a Family
Stop nagging about fairness. Make him pick a card and have fun learning to carry the entire weight
The Problem? Mental Load is Invisible
Like most couples, the concept of carrying the mental load didn’t feel like a problem until we had a kid. We’re old millennials, roughly the same age as Mayor Pete, and so we went into our marriage believing we would tackle laundry, diapers, and all the rest of it as a team, just like our feminist mothers had taught us.
Sure, I was vaguely aware that I did more around the house than my husband, but it never bugged me. I noticed mess more than he did, I reasoned. Eric happily made dinner when I had to work late, and he always remembered his side of the family’s birthdays. We were fine.
Fast-forward to life with a five-month-old. One Sunday morning, we were sitting in our “mommy and daddy and me” class, and one of the moms brought up a cartoon that had been making the social media rounds called You Should’ve Asked. It showed how women end up being the default parent in charge of everything home-related, and how frustrating it is when men see their overwhelmed wives despondent over dishes, and assume that the solution is for the wife to just ask for more help.
She wanted to know if anyone else had seen it. All the women nodded excitedly and began shouting out their favorite parts of the comic. All the men, likely a bit over-proud of being the types of guys who signed up for parenting classes at a place called The Pump Station, exchanged nervous glances.
Why Do Women Accept an Outdated System?
It turned out I hadn’t minded doing so much work because I had plenty of time to do it. I could vacuum twice a week and still feel like a whole human being who had actual interests, and the space to pursue them. But once the baby came, my days were timed down to the minute, to make sure there would always be plenty of breast milk thawing in the fridge and a load of laundry going in the dryer before I even left for work. My interests drained down to how many burp cloths we’d gone through, and how many times I’d come off as at least somewhat competent in the office that day.
Everyone in the class had stumbled into the same outdated division of labor as I had, but none of us knew how to fix it. As Harrison grew, I’d occasionally worry about the example we were setting for our tall blond son with a charming smile, the kind of kid who could easily rely on those traits to get whatever he wanted. Figuring out how to manage the mental load took on outsize importance to me — it was the issue my feminist mother was counting on me to solve for my generation, and also something I had to do to stop my son from becoming another #MeToo horror story. But I was too tired to even know where to start.
What Real Fair Play Looks Like
Until I found the book Fair Play by Eve Rodsky. Rodsky is a Harvard-trained lawyer and mediator who once broke down crying on the side of the road because of a text her husband sent about blueberries. She wasn’t sure how she’d become the only one in the house who could possibly manage buying blueberries, but she had. And she realized the way to change it was to apply the same managerial principles to her home that she did to her clients. Gamification had always helped in business, so she created a game for doling out tasks.
Fair Play is simple enough: couples deal out 100 cards (available as a free download when you buy the book) , each of which represents a household responsibility — handling school drop-offs, filing taxes, taking out the garbage, etc. — with the idea that the cardholder will perform that task completely until the next time you play the game. You’re supposed to play often and switch up responsibilities a lot, since no one enjoys sorting mail enough to want to do it for eternity. The goal isn’t to end up with a 50-50 split of all household tasks; it’s to keep a conversation going about what a fair share of work looks like at any given time, and to let both members of the couple have time for outside interests if they wish.
We decided to use it. Or if we’re being honest, I decided we were using it, and Eric recognized the look in my eye to mean he’d be wise not to question it. Right away, two things clicked for us. First, I no longer felt like getting Eric up to speed would take more time than just doing it all myself, since the cards already spelled everything out for him. And second, going through the cards and seeing how many tasks I’d been in charge of simply by default woke him up to how unbalanced things had gotten. “So basically, I sort of do some of these, kind of, and you do everything,” he said the first time we sat down.
What the Game Can Teach Men about Themselves
The “sort of” doing things has been the biggest challenge for us. I’m sure many men would have agreed with my husband, who truly believed he was already in charge of dishes before we started Fair Play because he put them in the washer after dinner. Never mind that he’d often forget to actually run the dishwasher, rarely unloaded it in the morning, and definitely never cleaned up dishes from breakfast or lunch. When you hold a card in Fair Play, you’re asked to fully own every aspect of the task, from conception through execution. So if you hold the extracurricular sports card for your kid, you don’t just show up on the soccer field. You’re also in charge of registering her, buying equipment, bringing a snack, and everything else. It’s a big shift, and I often have to point out what standards we agreed to for the various cards. I hate nagging, but at least there isn’t a passive-aggressive rage about to boil over — no one’s withholding sex or throwing laundry in each other’s faces.
And I have hope it’ll stay that way. The other day, Eric, who holds the morning routine card, was getting shoes and socks on our son while I, holder of the school drop-off card, warmed up the car. “His shoes are getting tight,” he informed me while strapping Harrison into his car seat. “I’ll order some in the next size up today.”
A few months ago, he would have considered the task taken care of just by telling me about the tight shoes. But now, he’s realized he’s just as capable of picking out shoes as I am. We’re tackling laundry, diapers (tackled, thankfully), and all the rest of it as a team, just like our feminist mothers taught us.