Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Book review: The Wife Drought

The Wife Drought, by Anabelle Crabb, describes the structural challenges women face in demanding careers due to the fact that male human workers with families are much more likely to get their partner to cover more of the familial duties than females are.  Ms. Crabb is envious of this, and covets a wife herself.  The book examines ways in which demanding careers are juggled with family responsibility, particularly by women, and the ways in which society can make it harder than necessary for men to bear more of the parental role.
  Crabb’s conception of a wife is best described in her own words:

“A `wife’ can be male or female.  Whether they’re a man or a woman, though, the main thing wives are is a cracking professional asset.  They enable the busy full-time worker to experience the joy and fulfillment of children, without the considerable inconvenience of having to pick them up from school at 3pm, which - in one of the human experience’s wittier little jokes – is the time that school ends, a time that is convenient for pretty much no one.  Having a wife means that if you get caught up at work, or want to stay later, either to get some urgent job finished or to frown at your desktop computer in a plausible simulacrum of working in order to impress a new boss while actually reading buzzfeed, it can be done.  Many wives work, but they do jobs that are either part-time or offer sufficient flexibility for the accommodation of late-breaking debacles.
            “In the olden days, wives were usually women.  Which is funny, because nowadays wives are usually women too.

After defining what a wife does, the book then probes how domestic duties are split among working family households (unevenly), how much of a professional asset a wife actually is, what the various means of coping without one are, and what societal pressures are preventing men from taking up wivery in any significant numbers.

The book is easy to read and extremely witty. Longtime readers of this blog will know that in the 9 years or so that I’ve been blathering here, I have had two children and four jobs, with weekly working hours varying from 1.5 to 7 days/week, in both office, lab and FIFO working environments. As my wife also works, figuring out how to juggle it all has been one of our greater challenges over the past few years.  So I found the content insightful and interesting, if not a bit sobering.  The sad fact of the matter is that there is no magic “have-it-all” solution.  Each week only has 168 hours, and they all need to be covered.  At the same time, this book makes it abundantly clear that, in many cases, it is women who are covering many of those hours, often by default.

There were a few things that I found somewhat odd, though.  In the middle of te book, Crabb intersperses data on average Australians with anecdotes of how people cope. However, very few of the people are average- they are mostly the once percent of the one percent- government ministers, high power lawyers, etc..  While this is not particularly surprising for someone of her profile, it is not necessarily that useful for the rest of us mere mortals.

The book winds up with a call to make it more socially acceptable for men to have more family time.  While I certainly agree with this sentiment, I have never encountered many of the cultural barriers that she describes. The closest thing I’ve had to a step-away-from-the-baby moment I’ve had was when I went to a Parents’ Group meeting when our daughter was small- They specifically called it Parents’ Group, not Mother’s group, so why not?  Afterwards the coordinator pulled me aside and said, “Look, I know it’s called Parents’ Group for political reasons, but some of the Mothers aren’t comfortable with dad’s around.”

I’ve been seeing those mothers at baby events, toddler events, and school for the last 7 years now, and not had any trouble from them, though.  Or their husbands.  Every employer I’ve had has been happy to offer family flexibility, although there has been a case where I’ve asked for family time and been given a raise to increase care instead.

On the other hand, most of the “manhood “ comments relating to hands-on parenting described in Crabb’s book seem to come from inner city paper pushers.  Most of the time when I was out and about with a baby was during my off weeks when I was working FIFO in the Northern Territory, so it maybe an outback industry job acts as a magic talisman against the pressed shirt preeners who measure their manhood by how hard they ride their cubicles. I never thought of this until I read this book, but it is the sort of book that makes one pause and shift one’s perspective of the framework under which we keep work and kids coexisting.  This is why I recommend that any of y’all with a job and a child read The Wife Drought.

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