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Fair Play

Started: 2023-11-04 20:15:31

Submitted: 2023-11-05 17:34:12

Visibility: World-readable

A book review

My pithy one-line review of the book Fair Play by Eve Rodsky:

This book saved my marriage! Three stars.

That's a lot to unpack. This book came into my life in 2019, while we were living in Seattle, when we were trying to find a new stable equilibrium in our marriage. San Francisco didn't work because Kiesa had an outsized share of our childcare responsibilities (and a bruising commute); Seattle wasn't working because I couldn't handle the bleak winters and missed the Bay Area. Before we moved anywhere we needed to adjust our household responsibilities to divide them more evenly. Fair Play was the framework we needed to repair our relationship; without it we might not have made it to our twenty-first anniversary this summer.

The biggest problem I faced, when presented with the obvious evidence that I needed to do more around the house, was that I wasn't sure what I ought to be doing, nor was I sure how to do it, and I felt like my partner was not able to help me figure this out because even telling me what I needed to do was itself emotional labor. This presented a catch-22: I couldn't take on more responsibilities because figuring out what I ought to do (and gaining confidence to actually do it correctly without feeling like I was being judged for doing it wrong) was beyond our collective capacity. Fair Play addresses this by laying out the universe of household tasks and setting up clear rules for couples to decide whether it's important, what the minimum standards of care are for each task, and how to assign the tasks to a single person who's entirely responsible for the task end-to-end. (The book uses the metaphor of "cards" for each task, and talks about shuffling and dealing the cards between the couple.) This is a powerful and adaptable framework. Getting through all of the tasks to decide how to approach them was a slog, but once we did it was much easier to divide everything between ourselves, and reassign tasks as needed. As long as the agreed-upon minimum standards of care are met, tasks can be freely reassigned. (We use a shared spreadsheet to divide the tasks, which lets us subdivide tasks more finely than the original "card" metaphor implies, and makes it clear who's doing what without having to keep track of physical artifacts.)

My first critique of the book is the way it's structured. It's clearly written to be read by women who feel like their husbands aren't taking their full share of household responsibilities (which may not be unfair, since they're likely to be the ones most acutely aware of the problem), but it spends the first several chapters explaining the problem in detail and validating these women's perspectives in a way that was hard for me to read, because it made me feel like I was a failure as a partner, and I'm not especially comfortable with this level of honesty into my own shortcomings. It doesn't quite say "... and this is why your husband is a horrible person and you're miserable" but it seemed like that was implied. (If I had read it a year earlier, before I had really internalized the depth of the problem in our division of household labor, I probably would have bounced off the first few chapters.) These chapters make me feel like the book should have a warning label on the cover; I can't unconditionally recommend it without this giant caveat.

My second, more minor, critique is the way the book lays out the tasks, and how it insists task assignments be atomic. The whole list of potential household tasks ("cards") didn't quite line up with what we really wanted to do in our household. The book gives us permission to decide what we actually want to care about, and to discard cards that aren't relevant to us; but this meant we had to filter through a bunch of cards to get there. The book is quite definite that each card should be assigned to a single person who is responsible to "conceive, plan, and execute" the task. This is clearly in response to the problems caused by one partner planning and the other partner executing, if the partner responsible for the execution doesn't have all of the information or background needed to complete the task. I understand where the book is coming from but it feels like this introduces some inefficiencies.

The final interesting idea in the book is the idea of a "unicorn space", where each partner is given the space to find something they enjoy and do it, as a card baked into the task-assignment system. The author expanded this idea in a follow-up book (titled Unicorn Space), but I haven't read it so I can't form an opinion about it.

(I also feel like I should point out that the book is very centered on the experiences of straight people; the very premise of the book is that women have an unfair share of household responsibilities and this is a framework for men to step up. I don't know what classes of household labor distribution problems same-sex and non-binary couples have, and the general attitude of the book may be off-putting to them; but I do think that the framework that the book provides ought to be useful regardless of the couple's gender identities.)

The book Fair Play reached me in my life at the right time to save my marriage, and for that alone I'll be forever grateful. But the structure of the first third of the book makes it difficult for me to recommend to without a warning label.

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Flower on patio tea plant