About a week into caring for our newborn, we had a visit from our close friend J that set a new standard for our parenting. We were both exhausted from the many night wakings, and we began to worry to J about what things would be like once my husband Aaron’s paternity leave ended the following week.
“It didn’t feel fair that my husband would go back to life as he always knew it while everything about my life was changed forever.”
I was dreading being left alone. It didn’t feel fair that Aaron would go back to life as he always knew it while everything about my life was changed forever. I was on a hamster wheel of feeding, diapers, and burping — while my body was a leaking and aching meat suit that I barely recognized. The nights were the worst part, stumbling alone through the dark house with a crying baby, milk soaking through my shirt, the dog anxiously pacing at my heels.
“Oh, no,” J said. “No, you both need to get up with the baby.” His voice was calm but firm, leaving no room for discussion.
J was recently widowed. He was now the single father of two young children, navigating work and parenting all while managing an unimaginable grief. I remember he was sitting on our sofa in soft, early afternoon light, our tiny daughter resting in the palms of his hands.
“Dad changes the diaper, and makes sure Mom is comfy and has everything she needs to nurse. And then after, Dad puts the baby to bed. Every time.”
His reasoning made perfect sense: In skipping these midnight wakings, my husband inadvertently left me feeling abandoned with grunt work, and moreover, he missed out on getting to know our child. J explained: “You won’t learn how to put her to sleep, and she won’t learn to trust you and feel safe with you if you aren’t there.”
“How could a few extra hours of sleep possibly be more important than supporting your partner and caring for your child?”
His words were powerful. Not only was he one of our few friends who had kids, he was currently living through one of those nightmare scenarios that brings great clarity to daily life. How could a few extra hours of sleep possibly be more important than supporting your partner and caring for your child? So, Aaron started getting up with me. Did it mean that we were both exhausted? Absolutely. But it also meant that we were doing this together.
This is ultimately what it boils down to when we talk about equitable parenting and fair division of labor: Both partners behaving like, well, partners. This means each person’s individual work, needs, and interests hold equal weight. In other words: one partner’s time isn’t more or less important than the other’s.
But in a culture that’s still built around the mother as the primary parent, it’s easy to slide back into that outdated model. How could we mindfully resist defaulting to the old norms?
The Fair Play Deck
Though TikTok gets a lot of mileage out of incompetent dad jokes, neither my husband nor I think it’s funny to imagine a reality in which he was incapable of caring for our kid.
“Neither my husband nor I think it’s funny to imagine a reality in which he was incapable of caring for our kid.”
We live in a world that not only excuses fathers from much of the parenting work but actively denies them the time and space to do it. Take, for example, Aaron’s two week paternity leave to my twelve weeks. Or the fact that the school and pediatrician’s office tend to call me exclusively, despite having both of our contact details on the same form. Add to this the fact that I work from home and he has to be at the office half an hour before our daughter’s school lets us drop her off, and it’s no wonder that we often find ourselves slipping into a space where I am suddenly in charge of all the kid stuff.
“We live in a world that not only excuses fathers from much of the parenting work but actively denies them the time and space to do it.”
Aaron is an active partner and father, who doesn’t need me to tell him how to parent our kid. But this didn’t change the fact that I sometimes found myself juggling all the details about our family’s daily priorities on my own. Grumpy and irritated about it, I used to try to bring this up in a way that would inevitably turn into an argument. He felt like I was holding him responsible for systemic inequities that are out of our hands, and I was convinced there was a way we could fix it. We both wanted to be fair and thoughtful partners, but we didn’t know how to address the problem.
Then I stumbled across the Fair Play Deck through Laura Danger’s Instagram account. The cards are a conversation deck for couples, a “game” based on the book by the same name by Eve Rodsky. Fair Play is essentially a system designed to support couples trying to have a collaborative and equitable partnership. There are books and even a documentary, but what I was really interested in was the card game. I didn’t need to hear about the realities of the division of domestic labor; I was living it. I wanted a practical way to address the problem in my home.
I ordered the deck, and started DMing videos from various certified Fair Play Facilitators to Aaron throughout the week, just so we could enter the conversation with a similar mindset. Then, per the instructions, we found a time when we were both relaxed and played.
The Fair Play Game: How It Works
The cards are divided into categories that cover the range of a typical household’s activities. Everything from laundry to eldercare to romance is included, along with 40 cards devoted to child-related care alone. There are also cards for big life transitions, like changing jobs or the death of a loved one. There are even cards for individual creative space (“Unicorn Space”), so that the personal growth we each gain through our hobbies and independent goals won’t be forgotten.
In the first round, you and your partner go through the deck and try to whittle it down to the cards that are relevant to your life. We decided to look at it by our weekly tasks, so things like “mortgage” wouldn’t be in this round. In the second round, you divide up the cards you’ve chosen by who typically handles the task. This is where it can get a little dicey — in the Fair Play world, holding a card means that the person is responsible for every stage of work that goes into the task, which they call Conceive, Plan, and Execute (CPE). So, if one partner takes the kid to school but the other partner is the one has to tell them what time to be there, make sure the car line sign is in the car, and also carry the child out and buckle them in when it’s time to go, who actually holds the card for “child transportation” might be up for debate.
“Every partnership is unique, so the game will look different for everyone who plays.”
In the third round, you review the division of the cards, and if one person’s pile is significantly higher for the week, you redistribute them so it can be as equal as possible. While the goal isn’t necessarily to be 50-50 all the time, there is hopefully something close enough that feels fair to the couple playing. Every partnership is unique, so the game will look different for everyone who plays. It’s a flexible tool that can help all couples to take an objective and rigorous approach to managing their lives.
Here are our most significant takeaways from using the Fair Play cards:
Empathy for the Mental Load
Both Aaron and I carry a mental load, and some of our most difficult moments come when, overtaxed and stressed, we get the sense that we are somehow disappointing the other by not doing enough. This happens when the weeks are especially busy and we’re both in head-down, getting-through-it mode. All it takes is one comment about the overfilled trash can or the dirty coffee mugs filling up the sink and we’re suddenly in a late-night argument, when what we really need is to just go to bed.
“Some of our most difficult moments come when we get the sense that we are disappointing the other by not doing enough.”
By dividing up the cards at the beginning of the week, we know exactly what the other one is juggling. With this in mind, we can make a little room for some of the places in our lives that can get rough around the edges. We can also check in on how the workload is going, offering support and, crucially, visibility to what otherwise could have been a time-intensive, stressful, and unspoken private experience.
Here’s a typical example of what happens when we aren’t aware of the other one’s mental load:
“Being in the thick of a busy time can make it hard to share everything on your plate.”
One work day Aaron took the car in for an oil change in between meetings. He’d also noticed we were out of milk on the way out that morning, so he was planning on stopping at the store on the way home. While he waited in his car, I texted asking if he could do kid pick-up, so I could combine a run and going to the post office after a deadline. I thought I was saving time by exercising and completing an errand simultaneously, which would make it easier for him to do a workout when he got home, while I could take our daughter and start dinner. But in order to make it to kid pick-up, he had to reschedule his oil change and wasn’t able to make it by the store. When I got home, I commented that we were out of milk. He felt like he’d dropped two big items on his to-do list in order to accommodate me. Meanwhile, I thought my plan would buy him time to work out. Our evening quickly devolved from there.
Communicating is the key to so many problems, but being in the thick of a busy time can make it hard to share everything on your plate. The cards helped us to see each week what the other one was carrying. It shed light on the invisible labor that had previously been ongoing in our heads, and made us more aware of each other’s daily investment in our life together.
Clarity on Completing Tasks
When dividing up cards in the third round, one partner might end up with some tasks they haven’t typically held before. This is a great opportunity to talk through what CPE for each card looks like and to agree on what Fair Play calls a Minimum Standard of Care (MSC). This is essentially agreed upon expectation of what it means to complete a task.
“Minimum Standard of Care (MSC) is the agreed upon expectation of what it means to complete a task.”
Here’s an example of what this looks like in our house:
If I have an early morning meeting and I ask Aaron to do our daughter’s morning routine, the MSC looks like this: Aaron makes sure she has gone to the bathroom, puts on clean, seasonally appropriate clothes, and feeds her breakfast. He also makes her lunch and packs a snack, checking the backpack for any important communication from the school. Then he gets her to drop-off on time. Everything else — the dirty breakfast dishes on the table and the sandwich crusts on the counter, the various toys and art supplies she somehow already exploded all over the living room during this routine — can be left where they are.
CPE for this card means that Aaron does not need to consult me about what to pack for lunch or what to make for breakfast, where to find her clothing or even what she’s allowed to wear to school. He knows what time drop-off is, and he also knows the procedures and has made sure the car seat and drop-off sign are in his car. He is fully in charge, so I’m not both at my meeting and somehow managing this routine by text from afar. Otherwise, what’s the point of splitting up tasks at all?
Choosing the Default
There are some places in our household where our cards fall on traditional gender lines, but in playing the Fair Play deck out, it’s because we have chosen these tasks rather than simply defaulted to them.
“It’s a small thing, but going into a chore with the perspective that there is even a sliver of pleasure in it makes it less onerous.”
I like doing laundry, for example. I like organizing our clothes, and I love that I can fold while watching a show or listening to a book. Aaron likes doing the yard work — he listens to a podcast and gets in a workout at the same time. These were cards we have always held, but when we got around to dividing up the deck it made us realize which tasks we actually enjoyed. It’s a small thing, but going into a chore with the perspective that there is even a sliver of pleasure in it makes it less onerous.
We also discovered tasks that we’d defaulted to that the other one actually wanted to take on. Weeknight dinners, for example, are now Aaron’s. It helps him to decompress after work, and he says he actually really enjoys creating meals for us. I took on the morning dog walks, which freed up some extra time for my sweet not-a-morning-person-husband to sleep in or enjoy his coffee before rushing to the office, and helped transition me from our kid’s routine into my work day.
Realizing All Time Is Equal
The decision to both get up and do newborn night wakings together changed the course of our relationship. Before, we had been behaving as if Aaron’s time at the office was somehow more important than the time that I was spending with our baby during the day, and that we needed to prioritize his rest as a result. When we started treating both of our time with equal value, it shifted the way we talked about our domestic responsibilities and helped us to avoid the sand trap that only one of us deserves rest, or has an infinite bandwidth for unpaid labor. Because caring for our daughter and home is valuable and important work, but it is work we are doing together.
“Each day’s tasks and responsibilities are the life we are living — not just the vacations and the celebrations we can fit in a few times a year.”
The Fair Play deck is one of many tools, like couples therapy and prioritizing physical exercise, that Aaron and I use to support our partnership. And while our weekly responsibilities ebb and flow so that sometimes one of us has to hold more than their usual share of cards, we have built the kind of trust and competency that helps ease the pressure during high-stress times. We feel more like a partnership than ever, with an equal investment of time and energy into the life we are living together.
Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Each day’s tasks and responsibilities are the life we are living — not just the vacations and the celebrations we can fit in a few times a year. This means that sometimes we don’t even bother dividing and conquering at all: We hold many of the cards as a team, cooking dinner or walking the dog or doing the bedtime routine together, just so we won’t miss out.
Stephanie H. Fallon is a writer originally from Houston, Texas. She has an MFA from the Jackson Center of Creative Writing at Hollins University. She lives with her family in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, where she writes about motherhood, artmaking, and work culture. You can find her on Instagram or learn more on her website.