Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

The Wife Drought by Annabel Crabb

The Wife Drought
by Annabel CrabbCrabb - Wife drought

This is an impressive book. Annabel Crabb has not only undertaken significant research, but she offers some fresh thinking about the role of women and child rearing in Australia today. As is usual for her, the book is a pleasure to read, both serious enough but also with clever phrasing and personal anecdotes.

I was somewhat surprised while reading this book to find myself arguing with it, though not necessarily because I disagreed with what Crabb was saying. I suspect this reflects an uncomfortable truth: That however much I think my own views are ‘enlightened’ and that I support the ‘appropriate policies’, this isn’t going to be enough to overcome the serious problems laid out in this book. Though I’m not yet sure how it affects my political beliefs.

It did raise some questions and debates in my own mind that I can’t resolve. First, Crabb comes down clearly on the nurture rather than nature side of the debate. Women do more housework and child raising because they’ve been raised to do so. And that’s certainly true. But as Crabb hints at but never quite explores, is there also a nature aspect at work? While human social organisation is far more flexible and weird than some like to admit, the pattern of women taking primary responsibility for child raising does seem rather constant. It’s not that we should accept the current discrimination women face at work or in the home, but rather recognise to what extent this problem is one capable of being solved. By government or anyone else.

Or even the extent to which it is a problem. Our desire for spotless homes and clean safe children has had costs in immunity restrictions and less childhood experiences exploring the neighbourhood. I also see countless ‘experts’ declaring the vital importance of education during the first few years. As much as these studies are right about the benefits, we also have generations of experience that shows the absence of such education isn’t too harmful. Virtually every successful adult you see around you didn’t have the kind of early childhood education we are now being told is vital to children’s development. And while I would never want to argue against education, the cost of higher quality services does mean many parents can’t afford child care, forcing many women to stay home or work far less than they would like. Some solutions may be worse than the problem.

While Crabb blessedly skips past the ‘have it all’ concept, it does seem to inform her thinking. She rightly complains that parents* responsible for multiple kids and the hours and hours this costs them are seen as less capable at work. But I suspect she would see no problem with someone who has a second job also being seen as less capable at work. Outside hiring external help, can we ever expect child raising to be compatible with serious full time work? I strongly hope so, but I’m not entirely sure, and our use of third party options like nannies, au-pairs, childcare centres and mandatory primary and secondary education systems suggests otherwise. Maybe there are other alternatives out there we can use to also lessen the burden. (*Of course I’ve guilded the lily in the above comparison by using the word ‘parent’ rather than ‘mother’. Employers regularly accept fathers can keep their focus at work, but doubt mothers can. That is an unacceptable sexism that needs to stop. But maybe part of the problem is our overvaluing of parenting in total.)

Relatedly there is a tendency in the book to view all work and all child rearing as identical and identically valuable. But there are many different approaches and personal value systems. Some people like Crabb value their work highly and so struggle to keep it while raising kids. But for many work is just a means to a paycheck and they would much rather focus on their kids. It’s extremely difficult to separate these two groups with any policy settings, but to me it does seem to matter. When the first group can’t stay in work, that’s a problem for society. When the second group doesn’t, it’s not necessarily as bad. The problem is less about people not working and raising kids at the same time. It’s that the fact we erroneously assume men fit the first group tend to be men and women the second group.

Crabb’s best innovation (though I don’t know the literature well so maybe this is widely discussed elsewhere) is not to focus just on working women and instead urge us to try and get more men out of work and into child rearing. This is a useful addition to the debate, not only because more fathers want this but feel unable to do so, but also because it would help push towards a less gendered idea of parenting, while bettering opportunities for women at work. Unfortunately, I suspect Crabb’s line of work and desire to remain a commentator rather than pundit means she never offers any specific policy suggestions. A shame, but then it’s her general nonpartisan good standing now that helps ensure more people will read this book. So perhaps it’s better this way. Perhaps.

As this review perhaps suggests, I agree with most of what Crabb writes, even if I find myself being argumentative about how to view it. This is something for which the book should be praised. It forces the reader to think about an issue which many of us would prefer not to. This book should be seen as the standard for ‘Australian journalist writing about major social issues’. A willingness to seriously engage the extensive academic literature, a desire for fresh and clear thinking, and a crisp prose. Impressive stuff.

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