Women’s History Month: Mary Catherine Bateson composes a life

Mary Catherine Bateson writes about how women compose their lives.

As the daughter of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, Mary Catherine Bateson might have felt a tad of pressure to succeed as a child.

A tenured professor, prominent thinker and loving wife and mother, Bateson appears to have met many definitions of success.

How she has reached these accomplishment and seemingly struck an effective work-life balance is the subject of Composing a Life, her influential book about women’s lives.

Bateson writes about her own life and those of four other accomplished women in the work. While their life histories and professional experiences vary, all navigate the same territory and similar issues.

Using lifes’ discontinuities as a source of growth is one of the most major of these issues.

Like Bateson, the four women dealing with the issues inherent in pursuing their own career and meeting the obligations and responsibilities of motherhood.  Bateson writes about her years in Iran, where she went for her husband’s work, and, more generally, about how she would instantly put aside her work to meet his needs while he was far more likely to finish the task in which he was engaged.

Bateson also writes about the women dealing with caretaking, with the mutual exchange and collaboration that can spur new endeavors, and the vicissitudes of commitment, among other topics.

At base, though, Composing a Life is about just that-how women, rather than proceeding in a linear fashion toward a final objective, Joseph Campbell’s boon, adjust and reinvent and make meaning at a range of stages throughout their lives.

While the message and method is not limited to women, Bateson specifically focuses on strong women who have defied societal expectations of weakness to become contributory people in their own right.  

Some may take issue with her choice of subjects by saying that they are not representative of the “typical woman.”  This critique, while understandable, is not convincing to me.  Bateson explains her focus and the reason for it. Composing  a Life offers a profoundly different and illuminating framework to understand women’s lives and the choices they make to forge new identities and make meaning throughout their lifespan.


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