In her interesting and nuanced book Composing a Life, Mary Catherine Bateson explores the issues women face in crafting a meaningful, purposeful life with different segments and focuses over time. Using her own experiences and those of five other women, each remarkable and admirable in her own way, Bateson respectfully and insightfully looked at the ways that women are especially equipped to handle the ambiguity and fluidity of modern life, balancing callings and homemaking, families and communities, and looking at problems as creative opportunities. This is a feminism I can understand – the willingness to see all women as valuable contributors, no matter if their current phase of life is in the boardroom or the nursery or both.
I was encouraged by the stories of the women profiled, as they honestly weigh their academic and professional lives and value their homes and families. I loved their honesty about balance and how striking that balance deepened their contributions even if it took them off of their initial paths.
The book encouraged me to think deeply about how we train our children to think about their futures. Bateson points out that the world is increasingly changing, and to be successful our children will need to be able to reinvent themselves time and again. I sometimes feel unusual for being a chronic reinventer, but this book helped me to see that tendency as productive and creative and helpful, rather than something to apologize for.
Although I didn’t agree with all of the author’s positions, I did appreciate her thoughtfulness about valuing the entire range of women’s accomplishments. Too often feminism says that a woman’s contribution is only valuable outside the home, but Bateson celebrates homemaking as a vital part of society. Her definition of homemaking is thoughtful – she is not talking about the concept of homemaking as being tied to household chores and having to bake your own bread and handsew all of your children’s clothing. Rather, she means the actions of creating a warm and stable refuge for your family, investing time and nurture in your children and spouse, and giving them a solid foundation. Bateson herself followed her husband around the world, raising their children and creating a career in academia. Only one of the women she profiled was home full time throughout her children’s entire childhood, but I liked reading about how each woman made her home a priority and didn’t feel the need to sacrifice other callings as a result. Bateson is not vicious in her positions but she does question the feminist goal of “the chance for…women to be like middle class white men” and instead calls for the affirmation of “the freedom of men and women to move in different directions.” That sort of definition allows for unique callings and definitions of success that I think are ultimately more productive and satisfactory than going against the grain to prove ourselves.
Some of the setbacks and inequality the women suffered (their stories are from my mother’s and grandmother’s generations), especially in academia which is supposedly liberal, astonished me. I have often considered going into academia at some future phase of my life, and this book made me think carefully about whether I could balance my enjoyment of scholarship with the disheartening sexism and double standards Bateson described. I wonder if these are things women in my generation are dealing with as well. Hopefully there has been some improvement. Still, I was impressed with the gracefulness of how the women responded to their situations – they were good examples of how femininity need not be weak and helpless.
Ultimately Composing a Life has a hopeful tone – women can create wonderful lives of purpose and creativity and meaning from the patchwork of roles and callings, that “social expectations can be changed and that difference can be a source of strength rather than of weakness.”
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