Composing a Life


Composing a Life (1989)

Mary Catherine Bateson

What happens when children choose a career path noone in their family might have gone down before? A path – like the new passages opening in the Antarctic with melting ice- which may not even have existed during the lifetime of their parents? A Turkish saying captures this well : “You can build a throne for your child, but you cannot build her destiny”. Parents work long years so their children can get a better education than they did, earn more money than they ever could, and in turn, live more comfortably than they did. If they succeed, their children start life one step ahead with many options to compose a life, which their parents never had.

How do you begin thinking about composing your life, when you have so many options, it’s like being dropped on a tiny island in an archipelago, and it is within your power to build a bridge to another island in some other direction? Mary Catherine Bateson explores the lives of five women (six, including herself) who built a bridge to one island, and then to another, and then many others, not necessarily knowing what the final destination is, and perhaps not caring. Along the way they juggled their loves and lovers, children and relatives, science commitments and household duties, and hit the glass ceiling. Written in 1989, and sadly crushed under the hype of books like Lean-In, Composing A Life is a skillfully written book that opens us a window into the lives of six very special women.

“…Today, the materials and skills from which a life is composed a no longer clear. It is no longer possible to follow paths of previous generations. This is true for both men and women, but it is especially true for women whose whole lives no longer need be dominated by the rhythms of procreation and the dependencies that these created, but who still must live with the discontinuities of the female biology and still must balance conflicting demands. Our lives not only take new directions; they are subject to repeated redirection, partly because of the extension of our years of health and productivity. Just as the design of a building or of a vase must be rethought when the scale has changed, so must the design of lives. Many of the most basic concepts we use to construct a sense of self or the design of a life have changed their meanings: Work. Home. Love. Commitment.”


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