lifestyle

Mamamia speaks to Annabel Crabb about kids, work, and why all women need a "wife".

Annabel Crabb — ABC political reporter, Fairfax columnist, Walkley winner, TV host, mother-of-three and all-round superwoman — has written a book.

It’s called The Wife Drought, and it argues that to achieve true gender equality, women need to start taking wives. Well, sort of.

“I use this term ‘wife’ as sort of a wink towards the concept of the stay-at-home wife,” Crabb says. “We think of the concept (of “wife”) as a bit outdated, but the patterns throughout Australian society are still there.”

Crabb points out that while women have been successful in taking on more paid work over the last five decades, they have largely maintained their unpaid jobs at home too – a trend that spells bad news for women.

“This is free-and-easy, egalitarian Australia’s intriguing little secret; our attachment to the male-breadwinner model is deep and robust,” she writes in the book.

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Mia Freedman with Annabel Crabb.

“The obligation that evolves for working mothers, in particular, is a very precise one; the feeling that one ought to work as if one did not have children, while raising one’s children as if one did not have a job,” she says.

“To do any less feels like failing at both.”

We wanted to know more about Crabb’s call to action — and how she manages the work-life juggle herself — so we sat down to interview her about everything from paternity leave, to choosing the right man, to jellying her breast milk (yep, really).

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Here’s an edited version of our chat.

MM: What was your main reason for writing the book? How did you identify this gap in the discussion about gender equality that your book addresses?

A: Having been around politicians for a long time, I always noticed that the experience of women in politics is subtly different to that of men in politics, and I always noticed the difference between parents who were women in the parliament compared to parents who were men in the Parliament.

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Maternity is an expensive time.

And about a year ago when Abbott swore in our Cabinet and we had that debate about “oh, there’s only one woman,” I wrote this column that was not an angry column, but a “for God’s sake”-type column. I said, “Listen… I think one that we often miss is that women doesn’t get the same sorts of spouses that the male politicians get”. I mean, being a political spouse is a major job because your partner is away 18-20 weeks a year; they really need a spouse who’s really prepared to pick up a lot of that stuff…

I had a really strong response to that column. People wrote to me and said listen, its not just politics, it’s lawyers, academics, diplomats.

I went in search of figures, and what I found was that 76 percent of full-time working dads have a spouse who either is at home half-time or not working… whereas the flip side, only 15 per cent of full-time working mums have that arrangement.

I think that’s a great and hidden disparity; it explains so much.

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MM: You and your partner Jeremy both work full-time and have three kids. How do you make it all work?

A: Jeremy and I both work full-time. But I work pretty flexibly because I’m mainly writing online, I go into the ABC when I need to be in the studios and I manage my time so I quite often can make school pick-ups, and then I go back to work when my kids are in bed… I also am in the fortunate position that I’m well-paid, so I can outsource and get help with cleaning.

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“You can just do less stuff,” Crabb says. Which is actually rather excellent advice.

And my partner, who also works full time — he works a half-day week from home, he brings home work as well, so he works at a time when he’s involved in dinner and putting the kids in bed.

Our house is kind of a mad house, like lots of houses with these children are. But we’re all putting in. It gives you a sense of companionable equality.

MM: You use a terrific term in the book when describing how you meet all your responsibilities at home and at work: “I use every scrap of the day like an Italian farmer uses all of the pig.” Does that describe the lives of many working mothers you know?

A: Sure, yeah! I mean (I know many) people who can multi-task. The absolute standout leader board winner from the book is a woman called Lisa Annese (the CEO of the Diversity Council Australia).

[In the book, Crabb tells a simultaneously hysterical and horrifying anecdote about Ms Annese participating in a 5:30am conference call while her children constantly interrupt to progressively tell her the family’s guinea pig was giving birth, that the father guinea pig was eating the baby guinea pig, and then that the funeral for the baby guinea pig would be held IMMEDIATELY.]

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Every chick who is a working parent has a stock in trade of these kind of ridiculous stories. For me, there’s filming that last series of Kitchen Cabinet when my baby Kate was three months old… My producer actually held my baby in a sling, with an earpiece so she could still produce my show… I jellied my breast milk for a while because it was a way of feeding her!

It’s fun to talk about that stuff, but it’s sort of a real part of life for working mothers. But I think often, it’s a bit sad that men don’t really get that experience much.

MM: What needs to happen for men to feel okay about being more flexible with their work, or taking up a role within the home while women work full-time?

A: It’s assumed that men – it kills me how deeply this assumption still runs under our society – that men won’t change the way they work when they have children. But we all expect women to do it.

I think with the workplace, lots of workplaces have flexible work policies but often, even implicitly, they’re designed with women in mind. And a lot of men that I spoke to (when writing the book) had low-level difficulties where they asked to work flexibly and their bosses were like, “what?”

the wife drought

MM: Your research revealed that even when mothers work full-time, they still do more than twice as much household work as their full-time working husbands. How can women start changing that?

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A: There’s two things you can do about that. You can just do less stuff!

The other? You stop wordlessly expecting men to be shit at housework and raising children. I mean how often do you hear “I’d never let my husband dress the children”?

… I think there’s often a bit of gate keeping that goes on among women.

MM: Women are often told that they are “lucky” or “blessed” to have partners that support them and their careers . How long do you think we’ll keep saying that?

A: For as long as it’s unusual. and I hope not forever! I mean, people are only surprised by things at are unusual… People are still surprised when women have a stay-at-home spouse. You shouldn’t feel lucky! I mean, no one is surprised when a  man has a stay-at-home spouse.

MM: Does change have to begin at the top, with better workplace laws around, say, paternity leave? Or does change have to begin with individual men and women making different choices about what they prioritise?

A: All of those things, obviously. But I think with paternity leave, finding ways to encourage men to take it and to take it for more than two weeks (is important).

When men and women first get together and have kids, that’s when a lot of those patterns start… women, because of their breastfeeding get an opportunity to become competent at an earlier stage; they’re just obliged to become more hands on. She becomes good at babies and he becomes the well meaning dunderhead who’s just sort of hanging out with them…

That’s why I think that paternity leave policies that actually encourage men to take the leave is really important!

MM: Some of our readers are in their mid-20s or 30s. Their careers are taking off and they’re thinking about having kids. What advice would you give them? 

A: Sort it out. Sort it out before you do it!

If you’re having a kid, work all this stuff out before you do it. Tell you what, once that little nipper turns up and everyone’s really viscerally terrified by this hostage to fortune, that is not a good (time to work it out). If possible, sort it out before you start to date that person!

The Wife Drought by Annabel Crabb (Ebury Australia, $34.99) is out now.

What other Australian journos, public figures would you like to see Mamamia interview?

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