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Well known for her political commentary and Kitchen Cabinet series, Annabel Crabb is now pondering the recipe for a perfect career-family balance. By Leigh Sales.

Annabel Crabb explores The Wife Drought

Annabel Crabb could really do with a wife. The multimedia star of TV, radio, print and online is juggling a stellar career with three young children and, like most women in that position, finds it extremely difficult. Crabb has written a book called The Wife Drought, in which she explores the pressures on women who want to combine career and family.

Leigh Sales Ms Crabb, I’ve made a pear teacake for you, which is a rather bold thing to do for somebody who bakes on television for a living.

Annabel Crabb I get a lot of that, Ms Sales. And I get a lot of really good cake as a result. I like people to bring their A game.

LS Have there been any absolute cooking disasters behind the scenes on Kitchen Cabinet?

AC Sometimes I’ll try something a little bit ambitious that doesn’t travel very well. The worst one ever was Craig Emerson. I made brandy snap baskets with passionfruit curd. In the freshly baked world of my kitchen, they looked absolutely fantastic. But after I had lovingly consigned them to a vintage tin and transported them to the seat of Rankin in Brisbane where it was hot and humid – neither things that brandy snaps like very much – by the time it came around in the shoot to me unveiling them, the poor little bastards had gone completely flat. If you have a look at that episode, there’s a very quick sweep over the dessert.

LS And a rebranding as Eton mess?

AC Craig was infinitely understanding.

LS For me, the most notable moment of Kitchen Cabinet remains when Kevin Rudd declined to take a bite of whatever it was you’d cooked for him.

AC A highly political move.

LS You could almost hear his adviser in the background: “There’s only one thing you have to do on Kitchen Cabinet, Kevin, and that’s have a piece of whatever she’s bloody well cooked!”

AC One of the most fascinating parts of that show is what people notice. There are some things that I don’t notice but then the audience will go absolutely berserk about.

LS Like what?

AC For instance, when we filmed with Tony Abbott, nobody, least of all me, trained observer that I am, noticed that the Abbott fridge had only two stars on the energy economy rating. I must have got hundreds of messages about that when it was going to air. With Rudd, it was the dessert eating. 

LS What was it again that you cooked for each of them?

AC I did this really creepy thing where I got four eggs and I separated them, and out of the yolks I made custard for Tony Abbott and out of the whites I made pavlova for Kevin. It was a sort of egg-based reconciliation. And it was really funny because when I mentioned it to Tony, he kind of gave me this “Huh?” look. Like, “There are eggs in custard?”

LS He’s like, “What’s separating an egg?”

AC Yeah, it was sort of a foundation knowledge issue. But then with Kevin, his response when I told him this arrangement was, “You gave me Tony Abbott’s leftovers.” 

LS Between your television show, newspaper columns, radio appearances, and raising your three children, you’ve now written a book, The Wife Drought. When are you going to get off your lazy bum and actually do something with your life?

AC I reckon when you go through a phase when you’re not getting all that much sleep anyway, you may as well do something with every minute. I think people have their own paces that they work to. Unfortunately for me, my resting position is probably a tiny bit anxious and slightly overcommitted. 

LS I once asked the author Jonathan Franzen about his book Freedom. I referred to the title in the first question and he said, “Oh, the title, the most boring thing you could possibly ask about.” But he’s an internationally renowned nimrod, so let me ask: The Wife Drought, what’s that refer to?

AC Well, the title is always my favourite part of the book. Okay, I was up in Brisbane, I think, speaking at a conference. I texted you from there. Remember, the time I forgot to take my make-up?

LS Oh, yes, I do, we were trying to improvise with what was in your purse.

AC That’s the one. Once you’re on television, people expect you to have your stuff together. I would never, if I was going to a speech somewhere 10 years ago, have packed make-up. Mind you, 10 years ago I probably wouldn’t have needed it. 

LS I think because people are used to only ever seeing us on TV, done with professional hair and make-up, they find it incredibly disappointing to see us in our natural state.

AC Oh, I know.

LS Like if people walked in here right now and saw me with a bobby pin holding my fringe back, and you wearing that lengthy cardigan-slash-dressing gown. 

AC On you, that bobby pin works. I’m not sure about the cardigan, given the amount of food stuck to it.

LS Anyhow, back to your slovenly appearance at this speech.

AC Indeed. Yes. I found enough make-up to put together a kind of passable “I did make an effort” look. Anyway, the next morning, I had breakfast by myself, which was very exciting. I’d just published a column about the latest round of hand-wringing we’d had as a nation about there being only one woman in federal cabinet, and why aren’t there more women in federal politics. It’s one of those discussions we have every now and again. There’s a sort of outburst because of some report, or a new cabinet with no chicks in it, or whatever. It’s so obvious to me that there would be more women in parliament if women in parliament got the same sorts of political spouses that men have had for so long. For instance, why did it take until the year 2000 for the second woman to give birth in the house of representatives? 

LS The carpet had never recovered?

AC Men reproduce in politics all the time! Anyway, I wrote this column to say it’s not the same for men and women in politics. Men can go into politics and have a family at the same time because they tend, on the whole, to have spouses who shoulder the responsibility for all that stuff at home, or share it to a disproportionate degree. I’m not saying it’s not hard for men. It is. I think one of the other things we do is we underestimate how hard it is for men. We don’t ask them how they’re feeling when they have to leave their children all the time. But we ask female politicians all the time how they’re feeling. “How are you? How are you going now? How are you doing now? And now? Are you okay? No, are you really okay? What about your children? Where are they? Are they okay?” No one ever says that to Christopher Pyne. “You’ve got four children, Christopher. Are they okay? You’ve been in parliament their entire life. They only see you X weeks a year. What about your wife? How is she coping?” It’s just such a disparity in the treatment. Anyway, lots of women wrote to me to say, it’s not just politics. So getting back finally – and I know you thought I wasn’t going to – to my solo breakfast in Brisbane, I decided then and there to write a book about all this and the title, The Wife Drought, was the first thing I decided because the problem is not so much a shortage of women to take up senior positions, the shortage is people at home to help make that possible.

LS Is there much formal research that looks at the role of having a stay-at-home partner on the primary breadwinner’s career, which is usually the man’s?

AC No. It’s incredibly underdiscussed. When I thought about writing this book, I thought, right, first of all, I need to confirm my suspicion that there are lots more working fathers who have stay-at-home or part-time spouses, which is what I call a “wife”. It works in different ways in every family, but usually there’s somebody who takes a bit of a step back from the workforce and looks after that stuff. I thought, I want to check how many working dads have wives, compared to working mums. I couldn’t find those figures anywhere. Eventually, I found this great researcher at the Institute of Family Studies who knows her way around the census data. The answer is kind of confronting, really, which is that of full-time working fathers, 76 per cent of them have a spouse who is either not employed at all or employed part-time. Of full-time working mothers, only about 16 per cent have that arrangement. That is a spouse who is working less in the workplace and more at home. It alarms me how little energy we put into, as a society, encouraging men to have the same flexibility women expect when they’re having a baby. Really, a lot of men, when they have children, it doesn’t change their work pattern at all.

LS Is it because they don’t want it to change?

AC This is the million-dollar question, really. There is research suggesting that a lot of men would like to work differently but they are much less likely than women to ask. When they do ask, they’re more likely to be rejected.

LS You write in the book about your husband when he was taking some time off to help with your eldest child. 

AC Yeah. We were coming back from London, and our baby was six months old. We were talking about how awkward it was to explain to his law firm that he was going to take a bit of time to just hang out with his kid. We were kind of rehearsing all these other things. What if we say that you have a serious prescription drug problem or you’re going on a surf tour? It just felt that would be somehow more acceptable. The truth is, there still is a reservoir of anxiety about that, about what you are signalling by asking that. In a funny way, these things that are confronting male parents, fathers, as they kind of gingerly negotiate this kind of minefield is exactly the sort of thing women have dealt with. The anxiety among men is: What if people think I’m not ambitious? What if the company thinks I’m not that committed? It’s the exact opposite question to what a woman would be asking herself, which is: What if I go back to work when my baby is two seconds old, and everyone thinks I’m ambitious.

LS Ambition can be a dirty word for women.

AC Yeah. The truth is, having a baby for a man means completely different things professionally from having a baby as a woman. NATSEM [the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling] has got this amazingly interesting research where they’ve done modelling on the different outcomes for average Australian young people starting out on a life of work. They kind of model what happens. They worked out that a 26-year-old average male Australian can expect to earn $2 million over the course of his 40-year career. And if he has children, that goes up to $2.4 million. An average woman age 26 starting a 40-year career can expect to earn $1.9 million. But if she has children, that goes down to $1.2 million. The truth is that men who have children are thought of as better employees, more reliable, more justifying of promotion, better leadership figures, and deserving of a higher income. It’s exactly the opposite for women. Women who have children are assumed to be less reliable, less committed, less worthy of promotion. 

LS You mentioned the debates we have periodically in Australia about women in senior positions. What about when you look at this stuff at the CEO level?

AC There’s this completely fascinating study that I drew very deeply on, done by a University of Queensland [then] PhD researcher called Terrance Fitzsimmons. He sat down with 30 CEOs of either gender, and asked them some really deep questions. People study CEOs all the time, but it’s normally about their work, how to get here, what are your leadership techniques. Fitzsimmons asked them all sorts of stuff about the way they got to where they are, and their own life stories. There was some totally fascinating stuff in there, including that of the 30 male CEOs, all of them had played football as youngsters, and 29 of them had captained their teams. It was this incredibly homogenous life experience that all come from stable homes with working dads and non-working mums, whatever. But the women CEOs were really different. They had much more disparate life experiences. Interestingly, they were much more likely to have had a complicated childhood in some way, the death of a parent, moving around, illness or somehow being thrust a bit early into a kind of sphere of responsibility of growing up.

LS Did the female CEOs have partners who took up more of the slack at home?

AC No. This was the really interesting takeout from this study. I think of the 30 male CEOs, all but one had a non-working wife, who looked after the children and took responsibility for the domestics. Of the women, it was completely different. I think only two-thirds had children, a third didn’t, which is something a lot of women end up doing. If they have a massively successful career, they end up not having families.

LS At the end of the day, I guess women are sizing up, whether consciously or subconsciously, I don’t want to work 80 hours a week and be the primary caregiver, and that’s what I’m staring down the barrel of. 

AC Yeah. I think that’s fair. I think it continues to be a very difficult decision for women. Also, there is this not very vocalised but nonetheless very settled expectation in Australia about which jobs belong to whom. When people turn that upside down, and have a female breadwinner and a male primary carer, they have these weird experiences. 

LS They get that stereotype of the bumbling dad, the assumption that if you’re a father looking after your children, you must be making a hash of it. What’s the movie with Tom Selleck and the three guys?

AC Three Men and a Baby. They found that one on the doorstep, which is obviously a very convenient way to deliver a baby. There’s a huge market still in this joke about the bumbling dad. I think that’s really offensive. It’s really mean, and one of the things I’ve written about in the book. I’ve done a whole chapter on competence, the idea of competence. I think while in the workplace you would get immediately hauled before the Equal Opportunity Commission if you said something like women directors are all bubble heads, it’s perfectly fine to say of men they are hopeless at cleaning. “I wouldn’t get my husband to do the whites wash, or whatever.” It’s perfectly acceptable in the domestic context to make really sweeping generalisations about how shit men are. I think it sends a really powerful, regular and sustained message to men that they’re not welcome in that whole world of managing a life. 

LS Speaking of competence, I think you reached peak mothering competence when you jellied your own breast milk.

AC That’s very kind of you to bring that up.

LS Did you think really I was going to read the book and there was a reference to that and I wasn’t going to mention it?

AC Thank you so much. My baby was tied to me most of the time; she sort of lived in this sling. Anyway, she wouldn’t take milk from a bottle. She would take food off a spoon, though, so I devised a delicious treat consisting of leaf gelatine and the requisite fluids.

LS I reckon this is a good lesson to me to never go fossicking around in your fridge for treats.

AC What you think is panna cotta is not. It’s momma cotta. Creepy.

LS I think another of your great parenting accomplishments is having been at David Marr’s house when a child threw up and you didn’t allow one drop of it to land on his floor. 

AC Yeah, I just pointed the kid down my dress, which was belted, so there was no spillage coming out at the bottom. The disgusting things you do. For the book, I collected war stories. The best one is this woman I talked to who managed to hold up her end of an international teleconference work call at 5.30am while the family guinea pig was giving birth next door. Screams of delight turned to horror when the daddy guinea pig started eating the baby guinea pigs. She dealt with all this while still holding up her end of this call. That’s hardcore. I do think there are a lot of women who do this juggle, have stories like this. I find it a kind of exhilarating part of life. It’s kind of hilarious and a bit madcap. You cry probably more of the time than you should. But it also feels like life, and I think it’s sad that a lot of blokes get curtained off from that kind of experience.

LS It’s a way women relate to each other. You can bond with women you don’t really have anything in common with, other than the fact you’ve done something like have a guinea pig give birth during a live conference call. 

AC “Nice to meet you, you’ve got chuck on your collar.” I don’t think it needs to be a secret world, though. I think it can be a lonely place for men who are having those same kinds of experiences. 

LS Well, thank you, Ms Crabb. This has been like an episode of The Trip with better hair and teeth.

AC Let’s not photograph either the hair or the teeth today, okay? Deal? 

LS Deal.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 11, 2014 as "Annabel Crabb's wife force". Subscribe here.

Leigh Sales
is the anchor of the ABC’s flagship current affairs program 7.30 and the author of two books.

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