Mary Catherine Bateson: The Meaning of Home

Cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, author of the new book Composing a Further Life: The Age of Active Wisdom (Knopf, 2010), says that your house is a reflection of your life.

January 1, 2011

You and your husband have owned a home in the New Hampshire woods for 50 years now. How has that home become a part of you?

BATESON: We bought the home as graduate students with a loan from my mother [the late anthropologist Margaret Mead]. I remember noticing when I returned from working overseas that the trees had become substantially taller, and I thought about how their growth reflected the way we had grown. Walking the land with our daughter at different ages taught us to see it differently. Now I walk it with my grandsons, who will care about preserving it.

Can you tell us about some of the favorite changes you’ve made to the home?

BATESON: The changes we make always reflect our history as a family—our changing interests and tempos. Most of the artwork is by people we know or has been passed down through family, and we have household furniture that we found in the barn when we came here or retrieved triumphantly from the town dump. I remember as a child my mother explaining that we had a few Christmas tree ornaments from every era of her life—the same is true of the things in our home.

You told The New York Times that homemaking has less to do with perfectly arranged rooms and more to do with living in a way that supports and challenges the people who live there.

BATESON: Yes, I sometimes think that the oddities of a house are the things that give people permission to be creative, stimulating a habit of adaptation that’s an important life skill. I look at magnificent kitchens and wonder whether their owners really use them. I learned to enjoy cooking and entertaining with limited, inconvenient kitchens. Who wants to live in a space that orders you around by telling you where to sit or being so designed that it always has to be neat?

If you were a real estate practitioner, how would you put your experiences as an anthropologist to work to help buyers?

BATESON: I would offer clients the opportunity to show or tell me about their present dwelling—what they like about it and what they would like to see different. Do they entertain? How formally or informally? Do they work at home? I would ask where they’ve lived that made them happiest? As an anthropologist, I’m always trying to see the world through other people’s eyes and according to their values.

In your new book, you discuss the second stage of adulthood, which precedes old age. How can we make the best of it?

BATESON: Some people go on doing the same thing until 75, just slowing down slightly, and then start something different. I feel that I’m still in Adulthood II at 70, but I’m now completing a major task—writing the book—so I’m thinking about what to do next. Making the best of Adulthood II depends on maintaining a habit of curiosity, lifelong learning, and commitment to love and work. By this point, we’ve faced sadness and experienced failures as well as successes. Search out the learning in previous experiences. It’s important to acknowledge sadness and not expect to recover in a matter of weeks from a loss that may take a year. It’s helpful after intensive mourning to dwell on happy memories that preceded the loss.

Any great role models for handling Adulthood II well?

BATESON: We are just beginning to have models, because this is a new period in the life cycle. Those who are in Adulthood II should think of themselves as pioneers. Most people still expect to be old when they retire and are surprised by the health and energy they have if they are fortunate. It’s not unlike graduating from school or college without a plan for what to do next. This is why raising consciousness and comparing notes with contemporaries is important. Start a discussion group; improvise. Parenthetically, I think we are all better off not fixating on single role models, but considering multiple possibilities. I chose the people I interviewed in my book not because they are ideals or easy to emulate, but because they mark out a range of possibilities they had to figure out for themselves.

Do women or men fare better when going through Adulthood II?

BATESON: Women have two advantages. First, many women have had dual careers, sometimes described as working a double shift, and when they leave paid work they continue in various ways to be homemakers and caregivers, while men are deprived of the identities provided by their work. Second, women approaching Adulthood II at this time have the advantage of having seen women’s roles change during the women’s movement when they were young, so the idea of reimagining the shape of life comes more easily. When families are uprooted due to natural or other disasters, it is often the woman who works out a viable new adaptation. On the other hand, men may have a larger repertoire of skills and experience for going on to encore careers.

In Composing a Life (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1989), you wrote that the materials and skills for composing a life are no longer clear. Why not?

BATESON: The skills used to be learned from parents. Because the world has changed, we cannot imitate our parents’ lives directly, but instead have to improvise, using what they pass on but adapting it to a new era. It’s not surprising that we have a great number of self-help books, including books about homemaking. But I would not want to get up in the morning and look around at an environment that came off the pages of a magazine or out of a book. I am reminded of a book by Stewart Brand, How Buildings Learn: What Happens after They’re Built (Viking, 1994). I think there is an interaction. As I modify the space in which I live, I continue the process of discovering the kind of person I want to be and the kind of contemplative solitude my spirit needs to grow into.

Learn More

For more on Mary Catherine Bateson’s new book, visit

Barbara Ballinger

Barbara Ballinger is a freelance writer and the author of several books on real estate, architecture, and remodeling, including The Kitchen Bible: Designing the Perfect Culinary Space (Images Publishing, 2014). Barbara’s most recent book is The Garden Bible: Designing Your Perfect Outdoor Space, co-authored with Michael Glassman (Images, 2015).