When Ada Calhoun found herself in the throes of a midlife crisis, she thought that she had no right to complain. She was married with children and a good career. So why did she feel miserable? And why did it seem that other Generation X women were miserable, too?
Calhoun decided to find some answers. She looked into housing costs, HR trends, credit card debt averages, and divorce data. At every turn, she saw a pattern: sandwiched between the Boomers and the Millennials, Gen X women were facing new problems as they entered middle age, problems that were being largely overlooked.
In her new book, award-winning journalist Ada Calhoun weaves the personal stories of hundreds of Gen X women with history and statistics that show the particular predicament of women born between 1965 and 1980, marrying and having families later and facing the first flares of perimenopause while chasing after little kids and stressing over caring for their parents. Or awake at night, single, 40-something and broke, scrolling through social media and overthinking everything.
The book makes a powerful argument to Gen X women to stop saying to ourselves, like Calhoun once did, that we are “lucky and have no right to complain.” Instead, we should accept that “This is a bumpy stretch in life. We should not expect to feel fine,” she writes.
Gen X has arrived in middle age to almost no notice, largely unaware, itself, of being a uniquely star-crossed cohort -, she writes- arguing that we grew up the first generation of women believing we should be able to ‘have it all’ but instead faced historic obstacles and are the first likely to be downwardly mobile compared with our parents. Being middle-aged in America right now as a middle-class American woman is different than it was for our mothers and grandmothers -, she says -and for a lot of women, not for all of them, but for a lot of them, it is incredibly hard.
Speaking with women across America about their experiences as the generation raised to “have it all,” Calhoun found that most were exhausted, terrified about money, under-employed, and overwhelmed. Instead of their issues being heard, they were told instead to lean in, take “me-time,” or make a chore chart to get their lives and homes in order.
What I tried to do is isolate women who grew up with a reasonable expectation of success -, she says-. They were raised thinking that they could have it all and do it all. The world was their oyster. And then they kind of got to middle age and they found that it was actually quite difficult to have, you know, even some of it. Middle-class women, they often experience shame and disappointment at middle age that, you know, they had all these opportunities and they should have done better.
So, how to deal with the pressures of middle age?
In ‘Why We Can’t Sleep’, Calhoun opens up the cultural and political contexts of Gen X’s predicament and offers solutions for how to pull oneself out of the abyss—and keep the next generation of women from falling in.
I just found it really helpful to know that this is a set period of time, that these years — middle age — have been rough, especially for women, for many, many generations. And that it’s hard for us, but it’s going to be over at some point. So that was part of it. And also, just the expectations that we had were not, maybe, reasonable. Maybe we should have different expectations for ourselves.
The result is reassuring, empowering, and essential reading for all middle-aged women, and anyone who hopes to understand them.