An exploration of how high-performing women balance work, family, and marriage.
Debut author Geary, a nurse and consultant, interviewed 36 professionals over age 55 who’d had at least one 20-year marriage and at least one biological or adopted child. The process of distilling their stories, she says, exposed three “disabling myths”: that one must experience a linear rise in power and influence, begun early in life; that one can be completely “self-made”; and that one can be successfully and completely committed to wifely, motherly, and professional activities. Most interviewees here were pioneers in their particular professions, with high levels of education—one of them, for instance, is a dean at an Ivy League school—but most readers will find the stories of their life experiences to be applicable and useful. Geary’s interview subjects include women of color, immigrants, and survivors of poverty and discrimination. Most important, they say, is egalitarian partnership, and the ability to be flexible, to innovate, and to take risks. Improvisation—and taking on unfamiliar roles without worrying about qualifications—proves to be more essential to success than early planning or career mapping. She organizes the various stories using a metaphor of changing seasons, rather than a ladder of success, and although she says that she was initially reluctant to use cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson’s metaphor of quilting (as it is, in her view “too traditionally female”), it also recurs. In addition, Geary cites works by such authors as Anne-Marie Slaughter, Malcolm Gladwell, and Sheryl Sandberg to offer encouragement, provide “useable ideas,” and spark new conversations.
As a sociological examination, this book is nuanced and intelligent, and Geary’s conversational tone makes it an engrossing read. Her discoveries never feel surprising, as she synthesizes her interviewees’ experiences to yield truths that will feel intuitively right to many readers. Women and men will appreciate Geary’s expansive, nonprescriptive advice regarding work-life balance, which sometimes yields poetic lines, such as “Motherhood is about the art of the possible done with love.” However, readers may get lost in the tangle of interviewee’s names (“Anna, an artist,” “Beth, a psychiatrist,” and so on), especially as several women changed careers. There are at least 38 pseudonyms here, and only if one doesn’t count three variants: Madeline/Madelyn, Sylvia/Silvia, and Karin/Karen. The author refers often to a few particular women (Maria, Anna, and Carolyn) but others appear hardly at all, with no explanation of the reasons why. Indeed, four women—Meryl, Kathy, Jill, and Dina—get only a cursory mention until very late in the book. Geary writes that she uses her family members’ real names, but it is never made clear whether she uses pseudonyms for her friends. An index of the various names or a short biographical section might have cleared some of these issues up, and a brief discussion of the author’s analysis methodology might have been useful. Aside from these issue, however, this is a valuable, often brilliant work.
A study that effectively yields hope and insights, despite some flaws.