The Wife Drought

I kinda love Annabel Crabb.  She is razor-smart, super sharp, damn funny, and comes across as quite a nice person, actually.  However when her first book The Wife Drought was published, the subject just turned me off.  “Women need wives and men need lives”, I mean, tell me something I don’t know.  But on the recommendation of an equally sceptical friend, I borrowed it off her.  Essentially, Crabb has thoroughly researched a really important subject, and writes just so well.

I’m afraid Annabel can’t claim total credit for this book: it is my mum’s personal theory from her time at the Bar that every successful professional needs a wife.  To feed them, to run a home, to take care of the kids.  From Crabb:

“If you are working full-time, and your spouse is working either part-time or not at all, then – congratulations!  You have a ‘wife’.  A wife, traditionally, is a person who pulls back on paid work in order to do more of the unpaid work that accumulates around the home (cleaning, fixing stuff, being around for when the plumber doesn’t turn up, spending a subsequent hour on hold to find out why the plumber didn’t turn up, and so on)…A ‘wife’ can be male of female.  Whether they’re men or women, though, the main thing wives are is a cracking professional asset…

In the olden days, wives were usually women.  Which is funny, because nowadays wives are usually women too.”

It is more than slightly depressing that my mum’s observations from forty years ago are still topical enough in 2014 to be published in a book.

You have to accept certain things about Crabb’s approach beyond the headline-grabbing title.  Yes, wife is a gendered term but right now the unpaid spousal home and child-carer in a heterosexual has been and still is a woman.  The word ‘spouse’ is used to designate any live-in romantic partner.  Crabb is also exploring only heterosexual relationships, and references to work engagement or acceleration seem to be only concerned with the professional white-collar sphere.  A limited theory is fine, there is no need to dismiss it on this basis, but the boundaries of her exploration need to be acknowledged.  Even in this realm, there is no panacea; and to expect every piece nominally about feminism to sort our every problem for every woman ever is at best naïve, at worst deliberately designed to keep women down.

The Wife Drought isn’t one journalist’s long opinion piece.  Within her rather personal and select theory, Crabb has done some thorough research, engaged with experts, and has an entertaining smattering of anecdotes and examples to keep it all readable.  She writes with a trademark wit, wry and self-aware.  But there is also a self-consciousness at times to her tone, as if she really wants to think she is not preaching to the choir and generally not trying to scare the boys away, often over-explaining as a form of apologising for the chosen topic.

But I am the choir here: reading this book involved a lot of head-nodding with familiarity, despite the fact I don’t have the kid element in my domestic set up.  Sometimes I read and re-read statistics, to better knock into my head the reality of my observations; the stats behind my own anecdotes.  So, nothing new here, Crabb just extends my already established knowledge.

Then, what is the point of this book, and why did I still hesitate to recommend it heartily?  I think it comes down to the conclusion: after covering the home front, the work front, the financial worth of wives, history, the realities of role reversal and more, her conclusion is… keep trying.  What?  The system is undeniably broken, men and women are unhappy, and when we try something different we get crap and judgments from other people but… keep going?  Not larger systematic change, not reviewing how we value home and caring work, our parental leave approaches, addressing our media, not a discussion on our culture of unpaid overtime at work for advancement, just keep going you good thing?  No thanks.  Individual equality in a broken system is no real equality.

In the end whatever I think about her conclusions, Crabb’s premise is important and irrefutable: more women than ever have entered the paid workforce; women’s unpaid labour in the home has not decreased; women’s participation in the workforce drops out beyond middle management.  Her book is warm, intelligent, full of facts and very witty, making it readable and interesting.  Even if all the exploration comes to naught it is still a valid, if limited, contribution to the discussion.

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