Helen Perrottet’s first official date with the man who would become her husband was over coffee at the Hughenden, a Victorian mansion in Woollahra. The lanky young law student was so nervous, he didn’t eat. “He was such a gentleman,” she says. “So polite. My parents just loved him. My dad loved him.” She liked his intelligence and sense of humour. But something was holding Perrottet back.
She’d just returned from six months in Canada. A career in defence public affairs and the military police lay ahead. As an army reservist, she’d been trained in assault rifles, grenades and the commanding of tank battalions. She wanted adventure, not a suitor. They dated for a little while, then went their separate ways before reconnecting a few years later. “I thought, actually, he’s kind of amazing, why did I say no back then?”
Yet, over the next few years of their courtship, Perrottet would remain torn between adventure and settling down with the man she loved. In her rebellious moments she resisted domesticity, fearing that she would become “a mother in the suburbs”, she says. “Until I want that, [she thought at the time], I’m not doing it.”
These days, Perrottet is a mother in the suburbs. To seven children, no less, whose father has a time-consuming job as the premier of NSW. It’s domesticity on steroids. After hearing the tales of her swashbuckling early life I ask whether, when her husband is done with politics and has time to take a greater share in the domestic duties, it will be her turn again. “This is my adventure, which I wouldn’t have thought before I got married,” she says. “I wanted this.”
We meet outside the Perrottets’ date night restaurant, Yo Sushi, an intimate Japanese bolthole in a leafy Beecroft shopping mall. Perrottet greets the owners like old friends, and guides me through the menu. We order steamed prawn dumplings, salmon sashimi and a mouth-watering beef sushi, but I pepper her with so many questions, she barely has time to eat. There’s much I want to know about the logistics of raising seven children. As it turns out, that’s the least interesting thing about her.
Perrottet, 42, grew up in Centennial Park, in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, as the sixth of eight. They were practicing Catholics but she and several of her siblings went to public schools, Sydney Girls and Sydney Boys High. Perrottet excelled at science and studied four unit maths, but lagged in senior English. Her mother enrolled her in HSC English at TAFE so she could study the same texts twice. “I studied The Great Gatsby,” she says pointedly, as we both smile; my name is the same as that of a character from the novel. “You were very triggering.”
It was an academic family. There was no television in the house. There was also a culture of financial independence. “Beyond basic needs,” says Perrottet, “if we wanted something, we paid for it.” Her first employment was as a babysitter, aged 11. By the time she was 19, she had four jobs. “I paid for my own 18th [birthday party], I paid for my 21st,” she said. “I bought my own car, I bought my clothes. I became incredibly independent. I don’t think any of my siblings had any sense of entitlement.”
Given her aptitude for maths and science, Perrottet’s parents wanted her to pursue a career in the medical field, perhaps following her mother into physiotherapy (her father worked in computer software). Unexpected success in English gave her other ideas. “Whatever [my mother] was saying, I [was] going to do the opposite,” Perrottet says. She chose communications at the University of Technology, majoring in public relations.
But it wasn’t the comms course that captured Perrottet’s imagination at university. It was the army. As a kid, her two older brothers had loved playing soldiers. In the absence of TV, young Perrottet had also worked her way through an old trunk of WWII comics and the entire collection of Biggles books, about a fighter pilot who flew in both wars. “I just thought [the army reserve] would be fun,” she says. “And it was incredible.”
Perrottet had loved her diverse high school, where girls had been taught they could do anything, but had not realised how gender segregation had subtly reinforced stereotypes. The girls studied sewing and cooking, while the boys at the neighbouring school were offered manlier pursuits.
In the army, she did everything. She can’t go into details – the Australian Defence Force doesn’t like its inner workings discussed – but reserve training typically involves training in assault rifles and grenades, going on long marches in the bush, and studying the finer details of rocket launchers. “That’s when I realised, ‘actually, I’m entirely capable’,” she says. “Your capability is not based on gender. The girls I’ve met through the army are extraordinary. They’re just like, ‘I can do it’. There are no ifs about it. ‘I’ll just crack on’.”
When she returned from her working holiday in Canada, Perrottet rang the ADF on the chance it had a PR job available. It did; the first Iraq War had just begun, and they needed help in head office. After a few years, she moved to Darwin and lived on Robertson Barracks. During her years in defence, she trained as a military police officer and became particularly interested in the legal aspects. “I was terrible with hand-to-hand combat, but I just loved the law,” she says.
While studying law by correspondence, Perrottet worked as a police officer for the Australian Federal Police in Canberra, another job that opened her eyes to the world. “You’d have your regular burglaries and theft,” she says. “There was a lot of domestic violence. You have a lot of heartbreaking moments, but then really rewarding times.” It was never going to be a forever job; she had her eye on the legal world. A move back to Sydney was always on the cards. And then her boyfriend proposed.
Perrottet’s first-ever meeting with the future premier is disputed. She says he crashed her party. He says he would never crash a party. They got to know each other properly on a trip to Toronto for the 2002 World Youth Day, a Catholic festival for young people held every three years in a different country.
“We clicked,” she says. “There was depth. We could debate. [There was] an intellectual connection.” She knew he was interested in politics; she was too. They had Catholicism in common (like Labor leader Chris Minns, faith is important to the Perrottets, but they rarely discuss it publicly).
But she stayed on in Canada when he went home, and it wasn’t until she returned, in 2003, that they had their coffee date at the Hughenden. She is a few years older than him (he is 39), which doesn’t matter now but did then. “I thought I was a bit too cool at that point,” she says. A few years later, she changed her mind – “what was I thinking?” – and they became an item.
Dominic proposed, for the first time, about 18 months later. He had hidden a bottle of Moet on a balcony overlooking the harbour, and went down on one knee. “It was beautiful,” she says. They organised a party. And then Perrottet got cold feet. “The day before the engagement party, I said, “I’m not sure about this,” she says. “‘It’s not you’ [she told him]. I’d had amazing adventures, running around the country. I was terrified [of settling down]. The poor guy.”
They stayed together for a while, then broke up, but couldn’t quite keep away. Over time, and long distance, they worked through their issues. Then, one night over a quiet dinner at Mere Catherine, a famously tiny French restaurant in Potts Point, he asked again, and she said yes, knowing this time it was exactly what she wanted. They married at St Joseph’s Catholic Church in Edgecliff in 2008. Dominic is one of 12 children. Their immediate family accounted for 50 of the guests.
The Perrottets now have seven children of their own, ranging in age from six-month-old Celeste to 13-year-old Charlotte. “It’s not as hard as I think it sounds,” she says. The army training helps. “I have to be really organised. I would say the mental load is a killer. ”
She’s developed mum hacks, such as to only ever buy one style of socks, so there’s no post-laundry pairing necessary. For friends’ birthday parties, “I bulk bought birthday presents, bulk bought birthday cards, bulk bought wrapping paper – bags, actually, never wrapping paper, that’s just one extra thing. You have to build these efficiencies into every day because there’s a thousand things.” And, of course, they have a people mover. “A Tarago,” she says. “That’s the worst part of it.”
A big family is intense – “I have a better appreciation now of the work involved, what my parents went through” – but it’s also fun. “It’s a party atmosphere,” she says. “At dinner time, there are huge debates, or laughing, or stories. There’s always action. There’s also support. At the drop of a hat, I’ll have four women [her sisters] around me, just like that.”
Caring for babies also becomes easier, and more enjoyable, with each arrival. “I think I’ve got a good sense now of when something is wrong, and what works,” she says. “It’s less stressful.” When I ask if there will be any more Perrottet babies, she is coy. “I’m 42, so I think the chances of that are pretty low,” she says. “We’re pretty lucky already.”
Perrottet works three days a week, one at an employment law firm, and the others with the Australian Defence Force, helping those facing disciplinary or employment issues. The work is flexible, and can be done from home. A nanny looks after the youngest children on her workdays and on Monday night, which is date night.
But there’s no getting around it; a lot of the time, Dominic is not there to help. They try to have a coffee together every morning. He tries to get home for dinner. When he can, he’ll work from home. He’ll get up at night with a sick baby, and do the sport run on Saturdays. But he’s the premier of NSW, and he’s got an election coming up.
“I’m very much the advocate for [the children],” she says. “If there’s a parent teacher interview, I get that locked in the diary. He did the bench duty at basketball on Tuesday night with Charlotte. I’ll go through his diary and as much as possible incorporate the kids’ activities so they can feel that he is their dad, and he’s there, and they’re most important to him. I say, you’ve got to … hug her, talk to her, kick a ball with him, and I almost provide that structure for him to make sure.”
We have finished lunch. Perrottet has to get back to work. I ask whether she is looking forward to the times after politics, when she will get her husband back, and her daughter will not come home from the station with questions about posters attacking her father, and asking, “do people hate dad?” Perrottet smiles, and answers diplomatically. “I think that’s every political wife.”
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