Mary Catherine Bateson is a woman who defies simple professional categorization. She’s a writer, cultural anthropologist, professor, researcher — having worked at institutions such as Harvard, Northeastern, Amherst College, Spelman College, George Mason University and Boston College; written many books, including Composing a Life; and served as president of The Institute for Intercultural Studies for thirty years in New York City.
Yet as we watched Mary Catherine speak at the TEDxWomen conference last December, we saw clearly what unites all of her work — a curiosity and fascination with people.
Mary Catherine’s most recent book, Composing A Further Life: The Age of Active Wisdom looks to “the contributions and improvisations of engaged older adults, written to raise consciousness of the changing life cycle and to encourage older adults to claim a voice for the future.”
We’re delighted to have Mary Catherine continuing the conversation with us!
Last December, you spoke powerfully to women in Second Adulthood who are “pioneering a part of life that did not ever exist before.” You explained this is not extra old age getting tacked on at the end of life, but rather an insertion of “a new period of the life cycle before old age. Think of it as exploring a new continent, where there’s an extraordinary opportunity to build, to get things right, finally.” As you’ve explored this new continent, what’s most surprised you about yourself?
It’s been a surprise to me to discover my increasing desire — need, even — to contribute, to give to others and make a difference while I still have the health and energy to do so, and I find this in others as well. As we grow older we will inevitably become more dependent on others, and I believe that instead of fighting for independence we need to find paths of interdependence, receiving gratefully the help that others give us and finding ways — even very small ways — to contribute. There are those who say, “you’ve done your bit, relax, play, spend some of the money you have saved, you’ve done your job.” I think this is a fallacy — that the desire to make a contribution to the well being of others is basic to the ongoing search for meaning in life.
1984 brought us one of your most well-known works, With A Daughter’s Eye: A Memoir of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. Almost three decades later, how do you view your younger self who sat down to write that book? Has getting older changed your view of your parents — or how you view the experience of writing such a personal story?
The way I regard my parents and their work (both how they behaved and what they taught) has certainly developed over time as age and experience have given me the perspective to understand them better, but the writing of that book allowed me to clarify my own feelings so that I could work, as I have in recent decades, on making their ideas available in society. Since my parents’ deaths I have managed their literary estates and also directed the non-profit created by my mother (see www.interculturalstudies.org), which has now been dissolved. My memoir was a personal gift to them.
Now I am more concerned with what needs to be passed on to the larger society as we struggle with issues of intercultural conflict and environmental disruption, about which they both had important insights. Interestingly however, writing that book inspired a lot of thinking about the nature of learning from experience, so it has affected my thinking about education and about the life cycle.
You mentioned that while “menopause is a problem, you do get feistier.” Any advice for younger women on how to access that feisty spirit earlier on in life?
Carol Gilligan has described the way in which girls become less feisty at puberty, so we can now ask about the traits that precede and follow the rise of estrogen in the system. I think it is useful to understand that a new degree of outspokenness or exasperation is not only a reasonable response to much of what goes on in the world, but a response that might have been inhibited before menopause, and is not something of which we should say, “That’s not me.” Many women have struggled with the notion that anger is unfeminine and have worked to reclaim anger as an appropriate response to injustice. We need to claim our anger, to use it intelligently, and to manage it thoughtfully instead of having to deal with it as an aberration.
During your TEDxWomen talk, you observed: “Around the world, even societies that really limit the activities of women, very often open up to them as they get older. Our society with its ageism is very unusual.” Any personal favorites — societies that Americans could look to to see a different model in action?
What feminists call patriarchy (perhaps more accurately called andarchy, overall preference for and rule by males without reference to age) has no true mirror image in traditional societies. Ironically however, in societies where women spend most of their time with other women, women develop skills that are inhibited in coed settings. Thus, it has been observed that young women in our own society are more likely to excel in math and science after studying in single sex schools, and more likely to develop leadership skills. In the same way, Western women who meet Muslim women often find them outspoken and assertive.
In the United States a certain stereotype seems to reign supreme — that a man is distinguished, possessing more sexual appeal, as he ages; whereas a woman in later years is past her prime, over the hill and so on. Over the years you’ve lived and worked in many, many countries — is that stereotype something you commonly observe, or is that a peculiarity to this country?
Let’s not confuse sex appeal with other forms of respect. The sexual interest that men have in younger women is a pretty common pattern and matches reproductive capacity, but does not correlate with other characteristics. Just as some would argue that the attractiveness of young women correlates with fertility, they may argue that power is sexually attractive because women like to breed with men who can defend them and their infants. But the assumption that someone who is “over the hill” as a breeding partner is to be defined as over the hill in general doesn’t carry over to other capacities. Post menopausal women are not only feistier — they often experience increased energy and freedom, taking on new tasks with flexibility and resilience. This is an essential component of the active wisdom women bring to society. It’s important to encourage women to move into public roles as they get older — and equally important not to assume that a gray beard guarantees wisdom!
As we get older, learning can sometimes be hard. Sometimes change, new ideas, can seem like a threat. And yet, to fully embrace the possibilities of the Second Adulthood, curiosity and a willingness to reevaluate oneself, and one’s world, seem like prerequisites. For people who are wanting to make the change but don’t know how, any recommendations?
Certainly it is true that certain kinds of learning are easier at some ages than at others — it is clearly harder to learn a new language, for instance, in one’s sixties than in one’s teens, and the same is true of many physical skills — I wouldn’t recommend taking up skiing at seventy. The case is different for curiosity and self-knowledge: both can be inhibited and undermined by bad teaching, and both have the potential to develop over a life time. One of the major consequences of recognizing Adulthood II is recognizing the importance of maintaining and strengthening these traits. We need educational institutions that support joy in learning. And we need to encourage people to observe their own learning styles and processes.
You pointed out that as feminism began, women had “to rethink who am I, what do I want, what am I going to do with my life. Had to liberate themselves from stereotypes. We have to liberate ourselves from stereotypes of aging.” Why do you think stereotypes about aging have such strong sticking power?
Stereotypes develop because they contain a measure of truth and therefore offer a certain economy, but they are potentially self-reinforcing as a result. I am pretty safe in assuming that a Tahitian doesn’t know how to snow-ski — and so I may be unlikely to propose a skiing trip on which he/she might learn to love the snow. The effect is exclusion.
These questions of self — who am I, what do I want, what am I going to do with my life — have you found that these are always running through your head, or are there certain points in the life cycle when they hit with a particular force?
I think they come to the fore in times of transition, but for me I don’t think they ever completely disappear. The hazard at reaching “retirement age” is that we are still all too willing to accept the stereotypes and make them into self-fulfilling prophecies.
You spoke to the importance of identifying what you care passionately about, what you can contribute to and who your allies are — and that kids (college, high school, elementary school) are the most important allies. We loved hearing that, as lately it seems trendy to write off younger people as being only Facebook and Twitter-obsessed and nothing more. How do you go about forging relationships with younger allies?
I think the importance of emphasizing youth lies in just this tendency to write them off, which may mirror a tendency on their part to write us off. I believe that the key to intergenerational collaboration lies in two-way communication. We tend as elders to assume the roles of teaching and giving advice — but the best way to connect with those many years younger is to ask them to teach us and ask for their advice — and listen and take it seriously. Model listening. Model learning. Two things that the stereotype says older people don’t do. The same may be true of identifying what you care passionately about. Older people are not beyond passion. Indeed, they may be able for the first time in their lives to put aside distraction and focus on what matters most.
This past year there’s been much discussion over whether or not we are seeing a War on Women in American society. Do you see that as an apt term?
War is almost always a bad metaphor. There is no war on women; for one thing, as with poverty, I doubt that a war on women could be won — I don’t know what that would mean. There is however a continuing backlash against women wanting the same freedoms and opportunities that men claim for themselves and wanting control over our own bodies — i.e. wanting to take from men exclusive control of some advantages that they believe they have by right.