We need a male equivalent to the term 'working mother' and other lessons from Annabel Crabb's book The Wife Drought

Annabel Crabb, author of <i>The Wife Drought</i>.

Annabel Crabb, author of The Wife Drought.

Could there be anyone more perfect than Annabel Crabb – astute political commentator, social satirist, TV-presenter, scribbler, baker, author and mother of three – to write about the work-life balance? We spoke to Crabb about her new book The Wife Drought: Why Women Need Wives and Men Need Lives and in the process pondered many other whys: like why we need a male equivalent to the term working mother, why we need to start asking men how they balance family and work and why apathy is the solution to the gendered division of house-work.

Women and politics

Daily Life: What made you write this book, given that you’ve said you don’t like being on record about political issues? Is this issue bigger than politics?


Annabel: It’s not really a political view; it’s more of an observation. I have young children and I have noticed is that there are a lot of women in my situation who are racing around doing this kind of work-family juggle. It seems to be a very female arena and the work-life balance is seen as a female thing.

I started thinking about it through the political framework about a year ago when Tony Abbott swore in his new cabinet. There was a lot of public debate about how there was only one woman in that cabinet, and he said that he wanted to speak for people who were forgotten about, like women struggling to balance work and family. I wrote a slightly terse column around that time, where I said ‘look, frankly there would be more women in federal politics if they got the same sort of spouses as the men get. When you’re doing a job where you have to travel 18 weeks of the year at least then you really need a very particular sort of spouse.’ I wrote the column and was pummeled by correspondence. And a lot of women said, ‘it’s not just politics, that’s everywhere.’

Then I started looking at the stats. I was looking for a breakdown of the comparative rates of wife-having between men and women and it just wasn’t anywhere to be found. We do so much research into women’s fortunes in work, why not look at what else she’s doing with her time?


DL: You say that we don’t often talk about these issues, but surely we’ve been having this conversation for a while now. What’s new here?

Annabel: I don’t think we always talk about it. The studies that we do of women’s fortunes at work are often just restricted to those workplaces or focus on quotas or mentoring. I’m a supporter of quotas and of mentoring, but a woman is not forging ahead because she has another 40 hours a week to do at home then having drinks and nibbles at 7pm with other women in the industry isn’t the way to fix that.

I think that you’ve got to stop only talking about women.

The great galvanizing force of feminism has totally worked for women in the last fifty years, but men haven’t really changed. Certainly fathers haven’t changed the way that they work. Twenty years ago 87 per cent of father worked and now it’s 90 percent. For women the big tectonic shift has been from stay-at-home mums into part time work but they haven’t really dropped the housework and this has given rise to a generation of mad jugglers.

We need to look at men and ask how they could have the same flexibility that a lot of women enjoy in the workplace. There is substantial evidence that there are more men and fathers who would like to work flexibly and spend time with their families than are currently taking up that option. As long as there are significant barriers, both structural and cultural, against men working flexibly in line with their family commitments then I think you can’t solve the woman problem either.

DL: Is that a problem with the fact that Australian men have such a narrow range of acceptable models of masculinity? I mean, Norwegian men don’t feel like gender deviants when they look after children.

Annabel: Norwegian men! People always say ‘well but Norway’! The Norwegians, apart from cleverly investing all their money in a sovereign wealth fund, also introduced a form of paid parental leave that radically encouraged men to take it up. Their policy was to say that there is a sizeable chunk of paid parental leave that is only available to your family if the Dad takes it. And that really changed the proportion of men taking parental leave, which has changed the division of household labour, and it’s changed the participation of women in the workforce.

Daily Life: Is that also to do with them having free, universal childcare?

Annabel:  Yes, and there’s no doubt that that would change things quite significantly. But there are other things that I think exert an impact on the long-during nature of this breadwinner model. There’s the gender pay-gap of course, which in the lower pay-segment of the workforce is only about 8% but up in the higher echelons it’s about 28%. The decision about who is going to go part time when a couple has a baby is explicitly skewed by the likelihood that the guy on average is going to be earning more than the woman. People don’t make decisions that financially disadvantage themselves. And the other thing that makes a difference in Australia is that we have a higher rate of part time work and that’s largely undertaken by women.  You have this situation now where 45% of mothers work part time but only 5% of fathers.

Social Change

DL: So what do we do practically do you go about changing that?

Research shows that men are better than women at asking for everything from pay to better conditions, but the thing that they’re really crap at asking for is less work. How do we change that? Well, legislation doesn’t change that. What could change that would be reasonable people having a think about the assumptions that they make: why do we have names for working mothers and not for working fathers, why do we not ever ask working fathers who they manage?

That’s why I wrote the book. It’s worth thinking about this stuff. I have spoken to a lot of men about their experiences and I used the stories of the ones who had given it a shot, met mild resistance, ploughed on and got there in the end. We are going through this sort of work-place evolution in terms of flexible working, I just think that we need to give it a little nudge to communicate that it’s not just for women. It’s one thing for a CEO to release a document and say that they’re so proud of their flexible work policy, it’s another to be spotted leaving the office at 4pm to pick up their kid from sport. That sends a really powerful message.


DL: Is it time to start looking at other relationship models? How do we get a village to raise a child? Should we start thinking more about community?

Annabel: Sounds terrific doesn’t it! I think that the notion of community is changing really rapidly and it’s about communication. It used to be so dependent on geography and the new notion of community is something that is much more about becoming intimate with people you’ve never met, either through Facebook or you may be part of an online collective, or business models that are actually based on old-fashioned concepts which ultimately built on trust, like Airbnb.

DL: So can we do that with kids? Can we pool that labour more communally?

Annabel: I don’t know. Logic would tell you that the old fashioned idea of it taking a village to raise a child must resurface at some point. George Megalogenis the other night was talking about how when he was a kid migrant women always worked and they would have communities that would look after the kids while mum was at work. So you would have these women who would be in charge of a troop of 7 kids. So do we, in this era of high child-care costs and high stress and centres that don’t cater for people’s flexible need is there room for an entrepreneurial genius to cater for people’s shared child minding needs?

You’d have to say that one of the barriers to that would be that standards of parenting have intensified. Stats from the United States show that a working mother today spends more hands-on childcare time with her child than her mother did, who didn’t work at all. So the barrier these days to our dream of village childcare is in the public liability issues…

DL: Beliefs in attachment parenting would probably also be a pretty big barrier to collective models of parenting…

Annabel: Oh totally! Human procreation patterns are just such an interesting thing. I spend half my time feeling guilty that my kids haven’t grown up on a farm, like I did. It’s just such a fraught business…you’re haunted by the ghosts of your own childhood in a good or bad way and you feel this incredible obligation towards your own children.

Failing as a parent is just a quantifiably different thing to failing at work. I think that guilt is such a factor in so many women’s experiences. They mention it so early in the conversation. One of the reasons why women find it really hard to let go, in terms of the gendered division of labour, is because they’re not entirely confident that their spouse will do as good a job as they do. And it’s hard to admit because it makes women out to be complete nutbars but it happens for a number of reasons. One of these reasons is that the assumption is that you will be the primary caregiver that you will be better at that than anyone else and to relinquish that is hard, as hard as it is for men to relinquish the idea that they’re the primary breadwinner. And I think the other thing is about external approbation as well. Because of those assumptions, a woman whose kid goes to school with odd socks on will often feel in some degree as if she’ll be blamed by others when they see that and not her husband.

The workplace is more straightforward in many ways. One of my interviewees in the book said, ‘with parenting you have no idea if you’ve done a good job, give it twenty years and see how they turn out.’ If you’re used to a structured workplace where you get all this feedback and rewards and bonuses and whatever then parenting can be pretty confronting. Those moments where you’ve done your absolute level best and you’re so tired that you want to sob and your kid tells you that you’re a terrible mum or comments on some aspect of your parenting, and that can really hurt!


DL: And then when you add domestic labour on top of that… Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique has such a lovely description of the endlessness of housework, how invisible it is and how utterly unrewarded…

Annabel: Yes, there is a strange detail about housework. It’s such a source of stress in households because it’s not just a finite and mutually agreed group of tasks that can be divided up. It’s a fluid amount of work because in any normal relationship two people will have different ideas about what constitutes cleanliness. Two people who live in the same house may look at that house and one may say that it’s a pigsty and the other will say, it’s pretty tidy isn’t it? Often it’s just about realizing what is making you grumpy and working out whether you’re working from the same assumptions or not.

There’s a guy called Jonathan Chase, who wrote an article called ‘The Case of Filth’, and he talks about how sometimes the answer to these arguments about housework is to just do less of it.  He says: The inequitable division of household labour is one of the only areas of inequality in the world that can be saved by genuine apathy.