It was a funny sort of setting for a personal light-bulb moment. I was interstate at a "summit" - one of those networking events at which various professionals and public policy experts waft about politely waiting for one another to finish before sharing their own views. I was already in a bit of an ill temper about it. Having accepted the invitation to attend, I belatedly opened the conference program and immediately experienced a familiar, sinking feeling as I scanned the columns and columns of male names - economists, business figures, foreign policy experts - and realised I had very likely been invited to chock up the event's skirt-rate.
All the signs were there. The morning involved a series of panels in which the panellists were all blokes and my job - as moderator - was to provide some sort of perky connective tissue. I noticed with particular horror that the following day I was scheduled to cross-examine, for 60 minutes, a chap who was a world expert in some sort of climatology in which I was significantly less expert. Of course, these things usually turn out to be interesting and worthwhile, and so indeed did this one, but as I headed to lunch on that first day, I could not quite subdue the plaintive little voice in the back of my skull asking why I had abandoned my children for this.
As luck would have it, I ran into an old pal at lunch: a fellow who had been a ministerial adviser in Canberra, but was now doing less, for more, in the private sector. We exchanged enthusiastic greetings.
"What's new with you?" I asked.
"I'm married! And we have a toddler!" he announced. Much mutual agreement ensued about how lovely children are, and so on.
"Yes, life is great," he continued, digging with gusto into his French-trimmed lamb cutlets. "My wife has quit her job, so I can be absolutely confident our child's getting the best of care. It's all worked out really well."
Now, I like this bloke. I really do. And I wish him nothing but happiness. But why did I suddenly want to push his smiling face into the potatoes dauphinoise? Was it just because I was in a huff after spending the morning trying to make a group of economists sound interesting, while back in Sydney my own children nosed through rubbish bins for sustenance?
I looked around the room, and I recognised what was going on. How many of these blokes had wives at home - picking up kids from school, digging Play-Doh out of the cracks in the floorboards for the gazillionth time, taking Nanna to the doctor, waiting around for the phone guy to turn up "between the hours of eight and 12", which, as any veteran of the game will tell you, actually means "30 seconds after you have disappeared round the corner for a quick sortie to school to deliver the lunch bag that was left on the table this morning".
The hour of 2.45pm would never, for these men, bring that faint, but always perceptible, neural pressure. They had wives. I looked at the women I could see in the room. Was it my imagination or did they look kind of distracted?
I glanced back at my companion, chomping obliviously through his delicious lunch. He didn't even realise how fortunate he was; what a lucky door prize he'd won. What a weird and - for him - wonderful crimp in the sociological evolution of humanity it was that allowed him to walk out the door at 8am, work a full and rewarding day, eat a nice lunch with both his hands, and come home - or so I imagined - to a newly bathed baby poised for bed.
He thought that was just how things worked. And the worst thing of all? He was right. Men get wives, and women don't. I had wife envy, and I had it bad.
Bouts of wife envy strike me periodically. Sometimes it happens in airports, where I see squads of booming businessmen flocking together into the Qantas Club, while I am skulking by, possibly with a nipper strapped to my chest who has just observed the baby's prerogative to go what Martin Amis once termed "super-void" in an already spongy nappy just as the final-call sign starts flashing. The resultant reproachful personal paging and walk of shame onto the flight, to be confronted by the politely horrified eyes of my seat neighbour, only exacerbates my envy.
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). This sort of work goes into overdrive once you add children to the equation, and the list of household jobs grows exponentially to include quite specialised work, such as raising respectful, pleasant young people, and getting stains off things with a paste of vinegar and sodium bicarbonate.
A "wife" can be male or female. Whether they're men or women, though, the main thing wives are is a cracking professional asset. They enable the busy full-time worker to experience the joy and fulfilment 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.
This is an extract from "The Wife Drought" by Annabel Crabb (Ebury, Australia). To read more, pick up the latest issue of marie claire.
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