By Leslie Lindsay
A searing exploration of stresses that keep GenX women up at night (literally and metaphorically), I raced through this book, which completely resonated.
So, so grateful to have received an early copy of WHY WE CAN’T SLEEP: Women’s New Midlife Crisis (Grove Atlantic, 2020) by memoirist/journalist Ada Calhoun. I was feeling especially down the day it arrived–you know, that existential angst–and was immediately gleeful after reading the book’s description: we are a group of women with outward markers of success and personal fulfillment, but still feel lousy.
Work and marriage, kids, houses, parents, all of that…we might look ‘successful’ and ‘happy,’ but underneath of that is well, a struggle. Money isn’t very flow-y, work isn’t as easy or satisfying. The marriage gets dull. The kids zap your energy. And what about all of that ‘aspirational labor?’ What then?
WHY WE CAN’T SLEEP mostly focuses on women in GenerationX (GenX), that is, those born roughly between 1967-1980, with a median birth year of 1976. I’m sitting right there. And I feel this, deeply. Calhoun delves into a soulful investigation of women in this cohort. She talked with many women from all walks of life–married, single, divorced, gay, straight, liberal, conservative, religious, atheist, childless, partnered, with children, wealthy, not-wealthy, black, Hispanic, white, Asian. It is WELL researched. Her sentences and paragraphs flow effortlessly and I read in awe. I found this entire book wholly consuming and was thinking, “I really should give a copy to my [Boomer] parents. Then they might ‘get’ me.'” And I thought of my book club (we’re all GenXers). And I thought of the woman who does my massages. My HS girlfriends I’m still in contact with.
“Ada Calhoun’s soulful investigation into the complex landscape women in midlife face today is downright stunning. Calhoun has captured the voices—some broken, some resilient, many barely staying afloat—of over 200 women from around the country and in doing so, shown us how much we share in divisive times. You will recognize yourself in these pages, breathe a sigh of relief, and think, I’m not alone.”
—Susannah Cahalan, author of the New York Times bestselling Brain on Fire
Calhoun investigates housing costs, workplace trends, credit card debt averages, divorce data. At every turn, there’s a familiar pattern: GenX women face unique concerns and challenges that other generations don’t. It’s about that analog to digital world, the way women/mothers were when we were growing up (working mothers/latchkey kids, at-home mothers, hands-on mothers, hands-off mothers), divorce (latchkey kids), and our Boomer parents chanting: “You can have it all.”
Why? And what can we do about it when we fall short? Or perceive we do? At times, I was a little panicked reading WHY WE CAN’T SLEEP. It was a bit of gloom and doom, but *insightful* gloom and doom. There is hope, but this title doesn’t exactly go into many details–other than–we can prevent the next generation from falling into the abyss. We can dig ourselves out. And it’s not about scheduling more ‘me time’ or creating a chore chart.
Such a unique and compelling read. I don’t typically re-read books, but this one, I think I will.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely Ada Calhoun to the author interview series.
Ada! Oh my gosh. I flew through this book nodding in complete agreement. Nearly everything you wrote resonated. Can you tell us, in your own words, what WHY WE CAN’T SLEEP IS ABOUT and why you were compelled to write it?
Hi, Leslie! That’s so lovely of you. I was asked by Oprah.com to look at what was up with Gen X women in midlife and the emails I got from women as a result of that article made it clear that I should expand on it. The book is primarily for middle-aged women who feel overwhelmed and possibly also confused by why they’re having a hard time. We’re so lucky! We’re so well-educated! We were told our whole lives that we could do anything! How is it possible that we could be broke or feeling depressed or disappointed? The book is an attempt to answer that question.
I fit the GenX demographic to a T. I was raised largely in the 1980s by Boomer parents who got divorced. I was a latch-key kid in my later years, and then acquired a working step-mother. I was torn by the idea of the ‘perfect’ at-home mother versus the working woman/mother and also heard, “You can be anything you want,” but also, what that equates to is: “You get to do it all.” Can you speak to that, please?
Yes, as I say in the book, we heard two really powerful messages as Gen X women: “Reach for the stars!” and “You’re on your own.” We were told to do everything—go for the corner office, have kids at the same time, do all the work stuff and all the family stuff and stay in shape, too, and have social lives on top of it. And yet nothing changed significantly in ways that would make any of that easier. The result is that, with very little support, we are doing a ton of work and a ton of caretaking (whether kids or aging parents or community-related) while being deluged with emails all day long and hitting perimenopause. It’s no wonder a lot of the women I interviewed talked about feeling sleepless or sad or full of rage.
I graduated college during the beginning of the recession, but I had a nursing degree, and there was a nursing shortage, so I was safe. We bought a house, had a family…then housing market crashed. We bought high, sold low. It was demoralizing. I had two babies. One had a speech disorder requiring frequent speech therapy. And now what? I think this is a phenomenon not so unique after reading WHY WE CAN’T SLEEP. I ended up staying home with my kids, dropping the nursing career, and trying to ‘start over.’ You mention this endless cycle in the book. What more can you say?
Oof, I’m sorry. Yes, a lot of experts told me that Gen X is cyclical in this way and I heard these kinds of stories over and over from women. There’s no institutional support, no job stability, minimal social support, and so you have to keep starting over again and again. One thing I noticed in the course of doing interviews was that so many women not only felt like they were starting again from the bottom all the time but also shame that they weren’t further along. This book won’t fix the starting-over issue, but I think it might help with the shame. I think hearing other women’s real stories can counteract that low feeling social media often provokes–that everyone else has it all figured out.
Sometimes, as I was reading WHY WE CAN’T SLEEP, I felt panicked. Everything rang true, but I thought, “Oh gosh—what can we do?” Chore charts and “me time” don’t work. Because, guess what—we get to *create* those chore charts and schedule that “me time,” plan what to do. And that’s just more work. What piece of hope can you give us?
Ha, I know, sorry about that. For a while I felt that way writing it, too! I think the good news comes out of facing up to all the bad stuff, though. Like, Wow, we’ve dealt with all these headwinds and we’re still alive and mostly functional! Gen X women are phenomenally resilient. And I do think that armed with this knowledge we are better able to advocate for ourselves, get support from other people, and cut ourselves some slack.
It’s obvious this book—and the research that went into it—completely captivated you. What has your attention now? It doesn’t have to be literary.
Well, writing the book helped me in so many ways and I felt like a fun new age was dawning. Then this fall I’ve dealt with one family crisis after another. As a result these days I’m consumed with caregiving. But the good news is that I was better prepared to handle it all because of steps I took as a result of writing this book. Oh, and a happier obsession is my new cat, Claude, who we got at a shelter a couple of months ago. He is joy incarnate.
What’s on your reading list this year? Oh, can you believe it’s a new decade?!
Ha, I am ready for 2019 to be over so YES, please bring on the new decade. I got an early copy of Emma Straub’s great Spring 2020 book ALL ADULTS HERE and devoured it in a day so I will be buying copies of that for many friends. I’m psyched that Jenny Offill has a new book because I loved DEPT. OF SPECULATION. I am looking forward to having more bandwidth for reading once everything calms down because these days I do a lot of staring blankly at local news on NY1.
Ada, this has been so illuminating and thought-provoking. What question might I have forgotten to ask, but should have?
I can’t think of a thing! But I will say I am so grateful to all the women who have talked to me so honestly. I really believe that talking with one another about these issues is what will get us through this stage of life. I hope the book gets used as a conversation starter for book clubs and wherever women gather!
Artistic photo of book cover designed and photographed by L.Lindsay. Please follow me @leslielindsay on Instagram
For more information, to connect with Ada Calhoun via social media, or to purchase a copy of WHY WE CAN’T SLEEP, please visit:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: New York City-based journalist Ada Calhoun is the author of three nonfiction books: the New York City history St. Marks Is Dead, named a best book of the year by the Boston Globe and Kirkus Reviews; the collection of marriage essays Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give, named one of the top ten memoirs of the year by W; and the Generation X-defining Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis, out January 7th.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
- Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Instagram: @LeslieLindsay1
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[Cover and author image courtesy of Grove Atlantic/Dewey Decimal Media and used with permission. Artistic photo of book cover designed and photographed by L.Lindsay. Please follow me @leslielindsay on Instagram for more like this]