Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Composing a Life

Composing a Life

I was sitting at one end of the kitchen table reading Composing a Life by Mary Catherine Bateson, which investigates how women trace threads of meaning through their frequently interrupted lives. In one of those weird art-meets-life moments, I was halfway through the chapter which looks at how a woman is always mummy when the kids are sick, no matter her employment, and must drop what she is doing to attend, when my two year old, sitting at the other end of the table, announced that she had inserted a bead up her nose.

You can tell this is my third child, because instead of screaming and calling emergency services, I calmly inserted a bookmark, put my book down, and sent for my fabulous neighbour, a retired nurse. We then spent 45 minutes on my kitchen floor with a torch, a rolled up towel to prop my kid's head back, white pepper to induce sneezing, a lubricated straw to create suction, and – don't try this at home – a 100 year old crochet hook to flick the bead out the last millimetre. Then my lovely neighbour went back across the road, cheerful as ever; I threw together dinner; and life went on. So much for reading.

But after the kids were in bed, I went back to the book (in fact, I retrieved it from the shelf above the bin where my husband had placed it in superstitious horror when I had recounted to him the synchronicity of the book and the bead); and I finished it.

Composing a Life should be most thought-provoking. It addresses how women find meaning in the midst of lives constantly interrupted and redirected by the demands of relationship change, career shifts and children. Bateson's premise is that, for all the apparent discontinuities – a move for a spouse's employment, long term leave to raise children, a time of rediscovery and retraining – there are threads of continuity that can be traced through all the elements of one's life, and it is in these threads that we find meaning.

She argues, too, that this way of understanding our lives, which has historically been a woman's skill as it is women who usually adapt or put things on hold when family circumstances change, is helpful for men, too, now that the single career trajectory is all but extinct.

The premise is good, but the rest of the book is a disappointment. Bateson has crafted her book around the stories of five women; herself, and four friends. They are all professionals, and the book has an incredible aura of privilege. Bateson is not writing about ordinary people's lives here. These extraordinary women profiled are all upper middle class with enviable careers, yet Bateson writes as if their levels of achievement are unremarkable. One is a college president; one is a high-achieving medico; one is a brilliant engineer and technofreak with business nous; one is a writer and pioneering academic; and one is a working artist.

The author explicitly protests (too much?) that they are not superwomen, but if they are not, then I don't know who is. None of them has just a job. Instead, each of them has a profession which is their consuming passion; Bateson herself apparently thinks nothing of working a ten or twelve hour day even with a young child at home. These women are also all wealthy, whether by birth or by professional remuneration; if nothing else, most of them maintain, or have maintained, two residences. For example, when Bateson needs to write she moves to a separate apartment for several months, away from the distractions of husband and daughter. It is very hard to relate this existence to my world!

Of these lives, Bateson writes that they (we) can't have it all. Yet these women maintain significant relationships, successful careers, solid incomes, incredible social freedoms and all but one have children. It may not be French champagne and caviar every evening, but it is certainly far more than most people in this world. This seeming unawareness of their quality of life grates, especially in a book which spends a great deal of time investigating one woman's work with the homeless.

We may not be able to have it all (hah!); but we can, according to Bateson, have more. She argues that just as more sex rarely exhausts one's sexual drive, but instead leads to even more sex, so too more work which is creative and satisfying leads not to exhaustion, but to even more productivity. That, apparently, is how her subjects have all done so much. Sex and hard work.

At some level, this has been my experience, too. I had sex; I got pregnant; and I am certainly far more productive now that I have three children than I was before: I get through mountains of housework, and also find myself pouring energy into volunteer work, writing and all sorts of other activities.

But that's not what Bateson means, of course. She's writing out of a position of far more than full time work. For her sake, I'm glad she and her friends feel so spritely after 70, 80 and 90 hour weeks on top of family commitments; but the people I know who work such hours in their beloved and chosen professions aren't like this at all. They're just plain tired. For that matter, I grew up with a mother who worked like Bateson, and she was so exhausted that life was a train wreck. Bateson does acknowledge that there is a cost to all this endeavour, but she never really details what this might be. One of Bateson's subjects left her three sons, the youngest still at high school, in one city so she could pursue a professional opportunity in another. I don't judge the decision, but I do wonder what the cost was, exactly, for that family. For myself, the cost of having a driven mother seemed to be that we screamed at each other for about a decade. Then she died. She had multiple sclerosis, which is one of those weird diseases not uncommon among highly stressed professionals. Was this the price she, and we, had to pay for her professional endeavours? I really don't know.

There are other problems with the book, not least that the author uses it to let off steam about a difficult workplace situation which is so clearly about personalities that it is largely irrelevant. However, it is enough to say that all of these problems with the book are a great pity, because what Bateson says should be thought-provoking. We do need models of meaning-making that are far more encompassing of life in its richness and variety than a career trajectory. Yet Composing a Life fails to live up to its promise. Bateson ultimately identifies each person with their professional skills rather than their personal qualities, in the end tracing only how 'a writer' or 'a dancer' continues to be so when the writing or dancing are put on the back burner by life's other demands.

It would have been a far more interesting book had Bateson widened her scope so that, on the one hand, she investigated a range of individuals across the social spectrum; and on the other, she separated meaning making from the professional calling which is the hallmark of the upper middle class.

As for my own meaning making, well, the bead episode was a reminder that most of the time I am a mother; sometimes, I write. And for now, that is enough for me.


  1. I love how you started off with the 'life meets art' moment. I agree with you - the book sounds very irritating... does it mention these women have nannies, fabulous childcare arrangements, helpful partners or keenly involved grandparents?

  2. I rather think nannies are the go for these women! Can't imagine how they do it without full time help. Just imagine!