Helen Perrottet’s first official date with the man who would become her husband was over coffee at Hughenden, a Victorian mansion in Woollahra. The lanky young law student was so nervous that 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 humor. But something held Perrotte back.
She had just returned from six months in Canada. A career in defense public affairs and the military police lay ahead. As an army reservist, she had been trained in assault rifles, grenades and command of tank battalions. She wanted adventure, not a suitor. They dated for a while, then went their separate ways before reconnecting a few years later. “I actually thought he’s kind of awesome, why did I say no 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 and feared she would become “a suburban mom,” she says. “Until I want it, [she thought at the time]I will not do it.”
These days Perrottet is mother in the suburbs. To seven children, no less, whose father has a time-consuming job as Premier of NSW. It’s domesticity on steroids. After hearing the tales of her exuberant early life, I ask if it will be her turn again when her husband is done with politics and has time to take a bigger part in the household duties. “This is my adventure, which I would not have believed 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 centre. Perrott greets the owners like old friends and guides me through the menu. We order steamed shrimp buns, salmon sashimi and a mouth-watering beef sushi, but I pepper her with so many questions that she barely has time to eat. There’s a lot I want to know about the logistics of raising seven kids. 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 attended public schools, Sydney Girls and Sydney Boys High. Perrottet excelled in science and studied four units of maths, but faltered 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 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 economic independence. “Beyond the basic needs,” says Perrottet, “if we wanted something, we paid for it.” Her first job was as a babysitter, aged 11. By the time she was 19, she had four jobs. “I paid for my own 18 [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 math and science, Perrottet’s parents wanted her to pursue a career in the medical field, perhaps following her mother into physical therapy (her father worked in computer software). Unexpected success in English gave her other ideas. “No matter what [my mother] I said [was] will do the opposite,” says Perrottet. She chose communication at the University of Technology, specializing in PR.
But it wasn’t the communication course that captured Perrottet’s imagination at university. It was the army. As a child, her two older brothers had loved playing soldiers. In the absence of television, young Perrottet had also worked his way through an old trunk of WWII cartoons 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 hadn’t realized how gender segregation had subtly reinforced stereotypes. The girls studied sewing and cooking, while the boys at the neighboring school were offered more male pursuits.
In the army she did everything. She can’t go into detail – the Australian Defense Force doesn’t like its inner workings discussed – but reserve training typically involves training with assault rifles and grenades, going on long bush walks and studying the finer details of rocket launchers. “That’s when I realized, ‘I’m actually quite capable,'” she says. “Your ability is not based on gender. The girls I’ve met through the Army are extraordinary. They’re like, ‘I can do it.’ There’s no ifs about it. ‘I’ll just go for it.’
When she returned from her working holiday in Canada, Perrottet called ADF on the off chance that it had a PR job available. It did; the first iraq war had just started and they needed help at head office. After a few years she moved to Darwin and lived at Robertson Barracks. During her years in the armed forces, she trained as a military police officer and became particularly interested in the legal aspects. “I was terrible at 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 would have your regular burglaries and thefts,” she says. “There was a lot of violence in the home. You have a lot of heartbreaking moments, but then really rewarding times.” It was never going to be a permanent 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 prime minister is controversial. She says he crashed her party. He says he would never throw a party. They got to know each other properly on a trip to Toronto for World Youth Day in 2002, a Catholic festival for young people held every three years in a different country.
“We clicked,” she says. “There was depth. We could discuss. [There was] an intellectual connection.” She knew he was interested in politics; so was she. They had Catholicism in common (as did Labor leader Chris Minnsfaith is important to the Perrottets, but they rarely discuss it publicly).
But she stayed in Canada when he went home and it wasn’t until she returned in 2003 that they had their coffee date at Hughenden. She’s a few years older than him (he’s 39), which doesn’t matter now, but did then. “I thought I was a little too cool at the time,” she says. A few years later, she changed her mind – “what was I thinking?” – and they became an object.
Dominic proposed, for the first time, about 18 months later. He had hidden a bottle of Moet on a balcony overlooking the harbor and went down on one knee. “It was beautiful,” she says. They arranged a party. And then Perrotte 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 had had great adventures, ran around the country. I was terrified [of settling down]. That poor guy.”
They dated for a while, then broke up, but couldn’t quite stay away. Over time and long distance, they worked through their problems. Then one night over a quiet dinner at Mere Catherine, a famous little French restaurant in Potts Point, he asked again and she said yes, knowing that 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. Army training helps. “I have to be really organized. I would say the mental strain is a killer.”
She has developed mom hacks, such as only buying one type of socks, so there is no need to pair after the laundry. For friends’ birthday parties: “I bought tons of birthday gifts, bulk birthday cards, bulk wrapping paper—bags, never actually wrapping paper, it’s just an 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 understanding 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 big debates, or laughs or stories. There is always action. There is also support. I have four women [her sisters] around me, just like that.”
Caring for babies also becomes easier and more comfortable with each arrival. “I think I’ve gotten a good sense of when something is wrong and what works,” she says. “It’s less stressful.” When I ask if there will be more Perrottet babies, she is adamant. “I’m 42, so I think the chances of that are pretty low,” she says. “We’re already pretty lucky.”
Perrottet works three days a week, one at an employment law firm and the others with the Australian Defense 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 working days and Monday evening, which is date night.
But there is no way around it; often Dominic is not there to help. They try to get a cup of coffee together every morning. He’s trying to get home for dinner. When he can, he works from home. He wants to get up at night with a sick baby and do sports races on Saturdays. But he is the Premier of NSW and he has an election coming up.
“I’m very much in favor of [the children],” she says. their father and he’s there and they’re most important to him. I say you have to … hug her, talk to her, kick a ball with him and I almost provide that structure so that he can be sure.”
We have finished lunch. Perrott has to go back to work. I ask if she looks forward to the time after politics when she gets her husband back and her daughter doesn’t come home from the station with questions about posters attacking her father and asking, “do people hate dad?” Perrott smiles and replies diplomatically. “I think every political wife is.”
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