Eve Rodsky nearly ended her marriage over fruit. Already late to pick up her eldest son – her car littered with ephemera familiar to any working mother on the school run: a client contract on her lap, a breast pump for her new baby on the passenger seat, a package awaiting postage in the back, an endless To Do list running through her head – she was floored by a text from her husband, which read: “I’m surprised you didn’t get blueberries.”
Overwhelmed by always being the “shefault” parent, responsible for every aspect of the busy household she shared with her equity investor husband, Seth, and the couple’s two children (they have since had a third), Rodsky, then a 35-year-old Harvard-educated lawyer, pulled over on the side of the road and sobbed.
Instead of opting for divorce, however, she set out on a “quest” to revolutionise the domestic imbalance that, according to her research, plagues almost every marriage, regardless of wealth, class or nationality – and somehow always disproportionately affects women.
Rodsky, who worked at J.P. Morgan before setting up her own philanthropic advisory consultancy, dealing with highly complex families (think cut-throat TV series, Succession, she says), was spurred on by the thought that if even she, with her legal background and years of organisational management experience, was unable to communicate her domestic burden to her husband, other women had to be feeling equally tongue-tied. “I’m literally trained to use my voice,” Rodsky, 43, told me when we first met last year in Los Angeles. “And if this is happening to me, then it must be happening to everybody.”
Her starting point was an enormous spreadsheet she sent out to every woman she knew, including family friend Reese Witherspoon, to fill out, which was titled “Shit I Do”. The result is a book called Fair Play, which intersperses Rodsky’s personal experiences with seven years of research – drawing on everyone from neuroscientists and marriage counsellors to hundreds of fellow parents – to create a system of family management, set out like a card game.
Rodsky suggests using physical cards (a set of 100 is available to download and print from her website, FairPlayLife.com), each of which is marked with a household responsibility, ranging from taking out the bins to packing school lunches to buying Christmas presents. Couples deal them out via nightly, weekly or monthly “check-ins”, which can be as short as 15 minutes and are best accompanied by a drink, she suggests.
Crucially, the card holder takes responsibility for the entire task until the cards are re-dealt – that means its conception, planning and execution. Rodsky gives her children’s sports activities as an example. Once her husband took on that card (“Extracurricular: Sports”) he became responsible for every aspect of it, from signing consent forms and preparing post-activity snacks to co-ordinating pick-ups and drop-offs. “Eight hours a week I got back in my life from just [handing over] that one card,” she says. “Eight hours.”
Released in November, the book, which Witherspoon has endorsed on social media, quickly became a New York Times bestseller. But it has taken on whole new meaning since lockdown, which has heaped additional domestic pressures predominantly on women. (Rodsky says she has come across one UK-based Facebook group called “Reasons I Hate My Husband During COVID” with 27,000 members.)
Above all, campaigners fear ongoing school closures will result in rolling back women’s progress in the workplace by 70 years, with many understandably unable to fulfil their corporate responsibilities alongside childcare and home schooling. Research has shown a huge gender gap in British households, with mothers doing 12 hours more housework on average than fathers, and only being able to do one hour of uninterrupted work for every three hours done by dads. No wonder that further research by The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) shows mothers are almost 50 per cent more likely than fathers to have either lost their job or quit since the lockdown began.
At the beginning of lockdown, Rodsky, who is always hungry for data, sent out another survey asking couples how they were coping. As we catch up via Zoom, she reads me some responses: “Even though we’re both working from home, I end up doing full time childcare all day so Dad can get his work done,” wrote one woman. “Meanwhile, I’m falling behind in my job.”
Another replied: “Can somebody please explain how to homeschool the kids, take care of all the meals, and also work full-time from home without adequate support?”
The answer, according to Fair Play, is this robust yet adaptable system of household management underpinned by constant communication. Something akin, in fact, to the way in which most offices operate. “Not treating our home as our most important organization, to me, is our biggest failure [in the] 21st century,” Rodsky says.
Certainly, it seems to have paid off in the Rodsky residence: although she warns me a child or two might pop up while she speaks to me from her sun-dappled home office in L.A at midday, she makes it through the entire interview unimpeded. On my end, eight hours ahead in London, I’m interrupted not once, but twice, as domestic chaos impinges on our conversation.
Fair Play is revolutionary in two ways: first, in acknowledging that women have to be the ones to encourage men to come to the table. “A lot of left-wing feminists, including my mother’s friends, said to me, ‘It’s anti-feminist to make women have these conversations’,” Rodsky admits. But, as she points out, the alternative is waiting for men to initiate the conversation, which could take “another 100 years.” “I’m going to take agency over my own life,” she says adamantly. “I’m going to redefine feminism.”
Second, in recognising that, for most couples, a 50:50 split of domestic chores isn’t realistic. Rodsky points out there are “ebbs and flows of life, where some people lean into their careers and some people lean out of their careers.” She considers it a win if women can hand over even one card.
During lockdown, she and her husband have upped their 15-minute weekly check-ins to daily, which are dispensed with each night over a tequila before settling in to watch TV. “It’s very, very transformative,” Rodsky says of the effect of Fair Play on her 15-year marriage. “The beauty of the practice is that the more Seth knows about me through [discussing the cards], the more richness our relationship has.”
For women currently buckling under the strain, however, she urges them not to let go of their rung on the career ladder. “Do your best to hold on right now,” she advises those on the cusp. “Because things will get better. These are short-term issues. And we know that once women opt out of the workforce, things don’t get easier for them. It’s not like there’s more leisure time. A lot of times it just means that more unpaid work is then put on their shoulders.”
She also adds that employers need to make sure they are doing what they can to accommodate female workers, especially those who have childcare responsibilities. “You really can’t put a price on unpaid labour, it’s everything,” she says. “It’s how we build our society. It’s how we connect, it’s who you become.”
While she acknowledges the pandemic will be devastating for many women’s careers, she is (as befitting a blonde, Harvard-educated lawyer with a penchant for pink) a consummate optimist. “I think we can harness that [frustration and anger] into a new movement for women,” Rodsky says. “One of the points of Fair Play was to make the invisible work of women visible. I do think there is nothing better than a global pandemic to have that happen.”
Fair Play by Eve Rodsky is published by Quercus (£9.99)