November 2014

Arts & Letters

The wife and times

By Anne Manne
Annabel Crabb. © Random House
Annabel Crabb’s ‘The Wife Drought’

It took me many months to complete my recent book, hunched over the keyboard, eyes glazed with concentration, fingers flying – except, that is, when I paused to sip a cup of tea made by my husband. The final drafting was made infinitely easier by the fact that he stepped back from his own work and took care of every aspect of the domestic empire.

When I mentioned this appreciatively to people, my statement seemed to lack credibility. Some questioned me, “Really?” Others said, in a tone of awe, “That’s amazing!” Their eyes grew moist. My husband taking over the care role seemed a reversal of the proper order of things, like a waterfall suddenly flowing upwards. In earlier times, when I took on that role, under more exacting circumstances with small children to care for, reactions ranged from condescending to dismissive. I cannot recall a single instance of tears shed in sentimental gratitude.

The depth of our attachment to ideas about which gender should care and which should work is the subject of Annabel Crabb’s engaging and lively new book, The Wife Drought (Ebury Australia; $34.99). Though Crabb writes with her characteristic impish wit and flair, her central thesis is nonetheless a serious one. Despite the handwringing, the lack of women in politics and in the higher echelons of elite professions – gender inequality – rests more than anything else on one simple fact: men have wives, partners who work part-time or not at all and take care of the home front; women don’t.

Crabb argues that the idea that men should be at work and women should be in the home is still strongly held by many Australians. While women’s work has changed, domestic lives have not. Men have always had “terrific wives” whose work in the home means they can hit the ground running, through long decades of establishing themselves in careers, unencumbered by care for dependents. Such women change their work patterns to take responsibility for “being there” for child care, elder care, calling the plumber and taking Fido to the vet. This is the decisive factor in why so few women reach positions of power, and why those that do are often childless while men in power “breed like hamsters”.

Having a “wife”, Crabb argues, is an extraordinary advantage. She is right. Although she is hardly the first person to argue this – there is a whole subgenre of feminism that examines the care side of the equality equation – she does so in her inimitable and very readable style. What she describes is, however, less “Wifework” and more “Motherwork”. There is a huge gap between our public rhetoric about “how much things have changed” and reality. Indeed, there is a lot of wishful thinking. “Parenting” – in the sense of primary caregiving – is actually still overwhelmingly mothering.

“I get a lot of journalists ringing me about stay-at-home dads,” Jennifer Baxter from the Australian Institute of Family Studies told Crabb. “Everybody wants a story about how they’re on the rise. But they’re not, really.” In Australian families with children under the age of 15, 60% have a father who works full-time and a mother who works part-time or not at all. Working fathers are five times more likely to have a “wife”. Only 3% of families have mothers who work full-time and a father who is at home or works part-time. “Who gets wives?’ Crabb asks rhetorically. “Dads do.”

It is especially true of the highly paid end of the corporate sector. One study of CEOs that Crabb cites found that of the 30 men interviewed 28 had children, and all 28 had a stay-at-home spouse. Of the 31 female CEOs interviewed, only two had stay-at-home husbands, and even then they were self-employed. In the 44th Parliament, male MPs and senators had an average of 2.1 children, females 1.2. Or, as Crabb puts it, there is “a one-child penalty for women in federal politics”. Forty per cent of female MPs are childless. “Childlessness is still probably the biggest natural advantage a woman can give herself in terms of dealing with the demands of a successful career in federal politics.”

As a press gallery insider, Crabb tells amusing stories about family lives that are as divided on gender lines as any 19th-century household during parliamentary sittings. She writes of the very spunky Carolyn Pyne, whose good humour survives husband Christopher’s self-dramatising “re-entry” to the family hearth, his phone pressed to one ear morning till night, and his old-fashioned instructions on “proper” 1950-style parenting. She doesn’t want him at her university graduation – “something for myself”– while he threatens to don a Cyrano de Bergerac disguise to smuggle himself in. She can’t stand the thought of all the palaver and so bans his presence, a sentiment that at least some of the electorate would empathise with.

At other points, however, Crabb’s exuberant humour actually works against establishing her case – that if “women need wives, men need lives”, meaning time with children. She is better at the horror stories of disenchantment with kid wrangling, like the story of her baby having a “super-void” into his nappy just as the final boarding call prevents him being changed, horrifying the man sitting next to her. It’s very funny, but it works against the idea that childrearing is part of any “magic” of life. In fact, it sounds a whole lot better to be the man in a suit, undisturbed, downing a scotch in business class, than to be the one holding their nose as well as the baby. Family life with two working parents often sounds more like the film Modern Times, where a hapless Charlie Chaplin tries to keep pace with a sped-up conveyer belt.

This is not a minor point. When we consider alternatives to mothers caring for children, the father, who also loves a child beyond reason, is the first person that should come to mind. Yet to move from the men who “breed like hamsters” but also take as little interest in their offspring to the kind of engagement Crabb wants, we need to develop new ideals that transcend such indifference. Consider the enchantment that Tim Winton conjures in The Riders, where he writes about a man who wants to be the “first parent”, his overwhelming gratitude at his child’s very existence, his pleasure in being the one the child runs to and who has “most of their days”. Simply by evoking what love is, that prose has the kind of depth we might need, taking us closer to a new way of imagining men and care of children.

Crabb gives plenty of telling anecdotes about old prejudices that run along traditional gender stereotypical lines, making working mothers feel as if they should mother “as if one did not have a job”. When people question where a woman’s baby is or seem ready, she jokes, to award a father the Order of Australia “for remembering the sunscreen”, anyone who deviates from old patterns can be made to feel that the default position “ought to be mother at home, father at work”. But we also need to pay attention to who is making these remarks. If it is Great Aunt Ethel or a school teacher, it’s offensive, but their world is much less a domain of power, and surely has less influence, than an employer, cabinet or treasury.

Crabb gives examples where Australian employers have been hostile to fathers requesting flexibility to care for children. Yet, as she points out, these old cultural expectations are not inevitable. In the early 1990s, Norway introduced a non-transferable, “use it or lose it” period of paid parental leave for fathers. Now, 90% of Norwegian fathers take at least some weeks of parental leave. A new norm was created, with the full authority of government.

Yet what is our government saying? Crabb’s book lacks the kind of analytic framework to take us beyond examples of individual sexism and into the realm of political economy, where the tectonic plates undergirding these old patterns are shifting profoundly. The persistence of gender norms cannot explain why a federal cabinet full of old white men, a number of them prominent conservative Catholics like Kevin Andrews, Joe Hockey and Tony Abbott, are so determined to get all mothers back to work as quickly as possible. This is seen most brutally in relation to mothers on welfare. Overwhelmingly taken up by mothers, the sole-parent pension began as a meagre recognition of and financial support for their important work as mothers. If old gender norms are still so powerful, all those conservative gentlemen should be fiercely defending that benefit. Instead neoliberal ideology has produced Joe Hockey’s cruel division of the world into lifters and leaners, and these men have jettisoned deeply held Catholic beliefs about the importance of maternal care. These vulnerable mothers are seen as lazy scroungers.

“Farewell to maternalism” is a phrase coined by the American sociologist Ann Orloff to explain the determined shift among Western elites to move women into paid work, as falling fertility means there are fewer younger workers to support the huge cohort of ageing baby boomers. One could be forgiven for misinterpreting this as feminism … until one reads the fine print. It is clear that women are expected to go on managing or providing or arranging household and family care. The “flexibility” desired in neoliberalism is about efficiency and the bottom line, not balancing family and work. As workplaces don’t change, the danger is a new “feminine mystique” of “effortless perfection”, as women “juggle” and “manage” their “many roles” while the painful collisions between family and work are airbrushed out of the picture. They are depoliticised and reconstructed as an individual woman’s failure, her guilty secret.

The wealth at the top of politics – like multimillionaire Joe Hockey and his wife, Melissa Babbage, a former head of the global finance division at Deutsche Bank, who can afford what Crabb calls a “battalion of nannies” – mean too few have any real clue how ordinary folk deal with child care that is too expensive, too crappy or both. And such lifestyles do not in any way change men’s attachment to extreme worker norms. Just think of Kevin 24/7, who also had a millionaire wife. The ideal of the “lifter” of neoliberalism, not to mention the greater work insecurity and high consumption, has only further entrenched men’s attachment to working in old ways, and with it, the continued need for “a wife”. The new ideology around work, as the way we all prove our value to the world, has not taken us towards a new ideal of care that might include men, but away from it.

People were shocked when they learnt that my husband was looking after me because successful men are understood and expected to be care commanders, not care foot soldiers. They are not meant to step “down” into the care realm, even if, like women, they may find much that is meaningful there. The Wife Drought, notwithstanding its imperfections, is an extremely useful invitation to do some serious thinking, from economics to ethics, not only about how women need wives, as Crabb suggests, but also more deeply about how we now devalue care and penalise those who do it. 

Anne Manne

Anne Manne is the author of Motherhood, the Quarterly Essay ‘Love & Money’ and the memoir So This Is Life. Her most recent book is The Life of I: The new culture of narcissism.

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