The Wife Drought by Annabel Crabb

If ever there was a writer to take on the vexed work and family debate, it's Annabel Crabb. Razor sharp, witty and with some catch-your-breath insights, Crabb carefully unpacks various aspects of the discussion and breathes new life into it.

First off the bat, she debunks the belief that this debate is all about women and what we either are, or are not doing.  Phew. Time to stop blaming ourselves for not being a good enough mother, or for 'failing' to 'lean in' to our careers - or for not making both family life and career look utterly effortless. Feeling lighter already?! Excellent. 

Crabb takes a careful step back from the conversation and turns it on its head. Instead of asking who wins and loses in the workplace after children are born, Crabb examines a critical aspect that is rarely spoken about in the work/family/gender debate: What's happening at home?

In particular, for those couples with children, where one or both are working full time, who has a 'wife', and what impact does it have on their home and working life? A 'wife' being anyone (male or female) in the partnership, who 'pulls back on paid work in order to do more of the unpaid work that accumulates around the home'.

Crabb goes to the statisticians and finds this: 60% of Australian families with kids under 15 have a dad who works full time and a mum who works part-time or not at all. The reverse - where mum works full time and dad is at home or working part time? Three per cent.

Not only that, but even when mothers work full time, they still do more than twice as much household work as their full time working husbands - 41 hours compared to 20 hours.

So, in other words, Dad's are more likely to have 'wives' backing them up from home in terms of picking up the unpaid work on the home-front; and mothers working full time, don't have a wife, but still are a wife, in terms of picking up the lion's share of housework, childcare arrangements, etc.

This isn't a book that settles for taking a side in any 'gender wars'. Crabb steers away from simplistic arguments about men not doing enough, and looks at expectations, support, and structures in place (in the workplace and society), to support women and  men having more flexible work arrangements.

Things like only two weeks paid paternity leave for dads, strong workplace expectations that dads should be working full time, rather than 'taking time off' (how I hate that expression!) to look after children; and that the primary care of children is somehow 'better' done by women.

Instead of just examining what barriers face women in returning to work after children, Crabb asks a critical question: What barriers do men face in stepping back from the workplace to care for kids - what blocks their exits?

It's a fascinating read, and one that strongly resonated with me. Before having kids, and certainly afterwards, the term "having it all" in relation to women juggling kids, career and family life, drove me completely nuts (still does). Firstly, it's a term we never use for men who become dads. Primarily, because they don't do it all. They have a partner helping them navigate the childcare, housework, work commitments, promotion opportunities and everything else.

Secondly, why do we place such an impossible standard upon women to somehow 'have it all'? It's a loaded term (as is "work-life balance" I think), and Crabb does an excellent job of unpacking the assumptions we all carry around with us, every day.

This is a book I hope gets a wide audience - both men and women, although I suspect we've got a way to go before the issues around workforce participation, gender stereotypes and family life are honestly and fully examined by our leaders, politicians and society. 

Regardless of whether you are a working parent, a stay at home parent, don't have kids, or work part-time, I'd highly recommend reading this book. It's a rare mix of humour, razor sharp insights and statistical facts about the structure of Australian modern-day families, and how our society values men and women in the workplace and at home.

Read The Wife Drought? What did you think? Ever feel like you might need a 'wife' in your life sometimes?


  1. This sounds like an interesting book. I don't have kids as yet, but I always say that everyone needs a 'wife' - it's such an all encompassing job to manage a household and I don't know how people with lots of kids manage to do it. I agree that attitudes around paternity leave etc need to change and I think as we all strive for our view of 'perfection' or our version of 'having it all', no-one seems any happier despite all the technology around that is designed to make life easier! What even is 'having it all' anyway? It's so subjective and should not be modelled on other people's interpretations in a strange 'keeping up with the Jones's' sense, but on each individual family and situation. A very thought-provoking post and book!

  2. I agree Rebecca, everyone needs a 'wife' and yet its clear the managing the household chores are not evenly split. It's a good point about technology - often proffered up as the means to make work lives more flexible, but I think without truly flexible thinking in the workplace, technology alone is not the solution. Thanks for the great comments!

  3. I absolutely must get this book. I really need a 'wife'. I'm finding this juggling act just too hard to sustain. Three kids, husband, running my own business, finding time to write my blog, running a household and doing the lions' share of the housework. I realised long ago there was no such thing as 'having it all' or being a 'super woman'. Thank you for bringing this book to my attention.

    1. Deb you are doing an incredible job and all of that sounds full on. I thought the book was great, and stories in there I related to for sure. Hope you enjoy it, and I agree that there's only so long juggling so many things is possible.



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