Review: ‘The Wife Drought’ by Annabel Crabb

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‘I need a wife.’

It’s a common joke among women juggling work and family. But it’s not actually a joke. Having a spouse who takes care of things at home is a Godsend on the domestic front. It’s a potent economic asset on the work front. And it’s an advantage enjoyed – even in our modern society – by vastly more men than women.

Working women are in an advanced, sustained, and chronically under-reported state of wife drought, and there is no sign of rain.

But why is the work-and-family debate always about women? Why don’t men get the same flexibility that women do? In our fixation on the barriers that face women on the way into the workplace, do we forget about the barriers that – for men – still block the exits?

The Wife Drought is about women, men, family and work. Written in Annabel Crabb’s inimitable style, it’s full of candid and funny stories from the author’s work in and around politics and the media, historical nuggets about the role of ‘The Wife’ in Australia, and intriguing research about the attitudes that pulse beneath the surface of egalitarian Australia.

Crabb’s call is for a ceasefire in the gender wars. Rather than a shout of rage, The Wife Drought is the thoughtful, engaging catalyst for a conversation that’s long overdue.

I’ve had a bit of a crush on journalist Annabel Crabb for years, something that was crystalised when I saw her speak at an event last year. She’s an incredibly engaging and intelligent speaker, both funny and charming. At the time, the audiobook of The Wife Drought wasn’t yet available, and I never quite got around to buying the paperback. I was therefore very excited at the end of last month to discover that the audiobook had finally been released and that Annabel herself was the narrator.

The Wife Drought is both demoralising and insightful, often at the same time. It defines a “wife” as a part time or stay at home partner who does the bulk of the domestic duties — cleaning, school drop offs, dealing with tradies — so as to free the other partner up to pursue earning a crust. A “wife” can be a man by this definition, but the truth is that it is almost always a woman. And it’s a huge economic benefit to have one.

Annabel is a journalist, and you can see her thoroughness in this book: she draws on a number of studies that talk about pay gap trends, division of housework, divorce rates in relationships where women become suddenly successful, women in politics, social expectations on both the husband and the wife*, and much more. Interspersed throughout are often lighthearted and always illustrative anecdotes. A lot of the conclusions she draws seemed obvious to me once she’d pointed them out, but as I haven’t read a lot of feminist literature they were a bit of a revelation.

(* Note that this book is about the male and female partner dynamic. While Annabel acknowledges the wonderfully diverse society that we live in, The Wife Drought tackles the most common relationship structure. I am a single parent — no wife for me! — and I still found it fascinating.)

As one example, the book considers the idea that women are better at raising kids in light of the concept of specialisation and the human tendency to seek the most efficient or economical solution. Given that women usually stay at home with the baby in the first few months, they are the ones who get the early child-rearing experience. It’s not that they are genetically predisposed towards changing nappies; they just get more practice. As for why they stay home, Annabel points to the typical difference in pay between a man and a woman as the primary explanation. (She doesn’t touch at all on the push for women to breastfeed and how difficult that can be if a woman returns to work, which I thought was a curious omission.)

Another point that Annabel makes is that the expectation that fathers will go back to work after their children are born and, if anything, work even harder to support them is actually just as detrimental to dads and their relationship with their kids as it is to their wife’s career. The judgement (and condescending praise) heaped on men who do traditionally feminine childcare duties is a barrier to men who also want to “have it all”.

The overarching argument of the book is that women have seen a huge change in the way we get to live our lives. We are not banned from working while married anymore (yes, it used to be a thing). We are permitted — and often encouraged — to work and have children. But men haven’t seen a concurrent revolution in what society expects of them.

There isn’t an earth-shattering revelation for how to achieve this, of course. It’s a slow process, where men have to not only be given access to the same leave conditions but not be punished in the workplace for exercising the rights that they do have. The change is coming, enabled in part by the digital revolution and an increased ability to work from home. But it is slow.

Four stars

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