How to Fix the Holiday Work Imbalance


Eve Rodsky helps gameplan the holidays, from partners to extended family

The holiday season is upon us. It’s a time for warmth, tradition, family and… for some of us, awkwardly trying to figure out who should be doing what. Luckily, Eve Rodsky is here to help. The Harvard Law grad and relationship expert helped us fix the work imbalance at home in her book Fair Play (and in an October interview with us — which you should definitely check out here). Now, she’s here to help us navigate the holidays as well. From divvying up work among partners to figuring out awkward situations with your extended family, here’s Eve’s advice.

Katie Couric: Before we get into navigating these difficult situations, can you talk about some of the scenarios that pop up around the holidays when it comes to divvying up the workload — whether it’s with extended family members or whether it’s with partners?

Eve Rodsky: We know that in cisgender heterosexual relationships, women take on two thirds of what it takes to run a home and family during the year. But what I found in my research is that women are still taking more than their fair share of this domestic load during the holiday season. I call it the “holiday hands.”

Fair Play is a metaphor based on how many cards you’re holding. What happens when your hand gets so full that you’re falling over? With the holidays, the big and small details to keep this spirit of magic alive for your children can feel endless, and it’s really time consuming. There’s also a lot of conception and planning — and there are a lot of partners who help on the execution. But the behind-the-scenes prep and planning that go into the holiday season is completely overwhelming.

What aspects of holiday planning can be the most overwhelming?

First, let me say: You have to play the holidays; don’t let the holidays play you. “Holiday hands” are the cards that my interviewees identified as being extra stressful during the holidays. When I was wrapping up interviews for Fair Play last year, I was really interested in how the holidays affect couples. I found out in my survey data that one partner is still disproportionately responsible for the conception, planning, the behind-the-scenes prepping. Maybe their partners are putting on the Santa suit, but they’re the ones planning what holiday events the family’s going to go to, what secret Santa project they’re going to make for their kids, what time the winter concert thing is happening, all that stuff.

Some of the cards from the “holiday hands” are as follows. One of the main ones is childcare. For some couples, this means finding babysitters for adults-only holiday parties — because a lot of times, people are invited to work holiday parties. So it becomes even more important to find childcare help. Another card: home goods. That’s the holiday decor, buying ornaments, extra Christmas lights, any sort of thing you buy for a holiday from Target or from Bed, Bath and Beyond. Hosting was another card that was pulled.

So what can be done with these cards?

You really have to take an inventory, and consider why you celebrate the holidays and what’s important to you both. I want partners to sit down with each other before they divvy up the tasks and say, “I’m baking. I’m making the turkey. I’m hosting your family. Here are the gifts for the teacher. But if we’re not going to take an inventory about what we value most, we’re just gonna stay on this crazy treadmill.”

Why are you doing what you’re doing for the holidays? Is it because of external expectations? Are you consciously choosing how to spend your time?

When I did that with one couple, it was a really beautiful exercise. I’ve done this a lot with different couples, but in this instance, it was a cisgender heterosexual couple. The wife was very, very resentful and overwhelmed, because other things were happening for her around work that were stressful. Last year I got them to write three or four things that matters to them, and they realized that they only really wanted a few things. It was very helpful.

What advice would you have for people who are navigating this sort of situation with their extended family? For example, maybe it’s adult siblings trying to figure out who’s hosting. What advice would you have for that situation?

Have your game plan in advance. Start with your partner. Have an honest discussion and determine which traditions are most valuable and worth the effort. Then you can deal out those cards.

Next, I ask people to get granular. For example, figure out who is going to host and/or prepare the holiday meal. You delineate and assign full ownership of tasks to certain people. Then set your expectations and standards for that task, and establish a measure of accountability. Communication is key.

When you give tasks in the moment like, “Oh, go pick up those flowers right now,” It usually fails — especially around the holidays. I don’t want your partner to have to be running to the store at midnight for eggnog. That’s unfair to that person, and to you. Assign those tasks in advance and give full ownership to those tasks. With extended family, it’s even more important to set those expectations and boundaries early. I’ve seen extreme success with that strategy.

What about the people who are going to be reading right before the holidays? They might be saying, ‘Oh no, I should have figured this out earlier.’ So what last minute changes can they make?

Don’t worry, if you’re reading this now, you’re still able to set expectations early — because it’s not on the day of. There’s a big difference between saying go get me this or that at 9 p.m. on Christmas Eve, versus saying right now, “I’d love for you to be in charge of this thing,” so they can budget time and energy in advance. It’s these small changes and it’s all about communication, and you still have time to do it.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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