Why are gen X women such a mess? An au­thor ex­am­ines the angst

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Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Cri­sis Ada Cal­houn

Grove At­lantic


In her early 40s, Ada Cal­houn found her­self racked with doubt about past and fu­ture de­ci­sions. De­spite a long mar­riage and pro­fes­sional suc­cess as a jour­nal­ist and au­thor of the book Wed­ding Toasts I’ll Never Give, she lay awake at night wor­ry­ing about credit-card debt and evap­o­rat­ing job op­por­tu­ni­ties. She had heavy pe­ri­ods and cry­ing jags. There was a sketchy mam­mo­gram and she was gain­ing weight. Her re­sponse to her im­age on her smart­phone, even af­ter putting on makeup and chang­ing fil­ters: “Still house of hor­rors.”

“I knew I felt lousy, but I didn’t yet fully un­der­stand why,” she writes in the in­tro­duc­tion to her new book Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Cri­sis. As the ti­tle sug­gests, the book is her at­tempt to an­swer that ques­tion.

Ac­tu­ally, it’s pretty clear from the in­tro­duc­tion why Cal­houn was feel­ing lousy. The real mys­tery: Were other gen X women — those born be­tween 1965 and 1980 — brood­ing over this same con­stel­la­tion of prob­lems? And what cul­tural, eco­nomic and bi­o­log­i­cal fac­tors might un­der­gird the malaise?

Cal­houn in­ter­viewed hun­dreds of mid­dle-class Amer­i­can women and plumbed the lit­er­a­ture of midlife, from Gail Sheehy’s clas­sic Pas­sages to Darcey Steinke’s 2019 Flash Count Di­ary.

She spoke to gy­ne­col­o­gists, econ­o­mists, so­ci­ol­o­gists and a “small army of ther­a­pists” to con­tex­tu­al­ize what she learned. The re­sult­ing book is a sprint through ev­ery­thing — and I mean ev­ery­thing — that is both­er­ing gen­er­a­tion X women, from ir­ri­ta­tion with slacker hus­bands and end­less nag­ging email threads about school bake sales to fears of end­ing up in a card­board box on the street. It’s a re­mark­ably slen­der and breezy book, given the sheer quan­tity and va­ri­ety of ex­is­ten­tial dread Cal­houn has man­aged to fun­nel into its pages. If you aren’t hav­ing trou­ble sleep­ing al­ready, you may start to af­ter you’ve read a few chap­ters.

(Prozac Na­tion au­thor El­iz­a­beth Wurtzel was right all along.)

The anec­do­tal ev­i­dence Cal­houn mar­shals for wide­spread gen X un­hap­pi­ness is abun­dant and de­press­ing, if not sci­en­tific. Us­ing only their first names and some­times no names at all, Cal­houn in­tro­duces us to a blur of ag­i­tated women in their 40s, most of whom we meet for a para­graph or two. There’s a wo­man who reg­u­larly pays a babysit­ter so that she can go to a movie theatre and cry. A fed-up sin­gle mother smashes her son’s iPad with a ham­mer. A Sil­i­con Val­ley ex­ec­u­tive wor­ries she’ll lose her edge if peo­ple see her and think “Oh look, here comes the dowdy mid­dle-aged wo­man.” An un­mar­ried aer­o­bics in­struc­tor muses, as she loads her boom box and gear into the car ev­ery week, “Will I never have a man to help me?”

Ev­ery­one in this book won­ders whether she’d be hap­pier if she’d cho­sen a dif­fer­ent path. Ev­ery­one feels slightly — some­time des­per­ately — dis­ap­pointed in her­self and in her life, no mat­ter how it might look to an out­sider.

Why is this? Cal­houn of­fers a plethora of ex­pla­na­tions. To start with, there was the di­vorce and in­sta­bil­ity of many 1970s and 1980s child­hoods, which made gen-Xers fearful of both mar­riage and end­ing a mar­riage, even a bad one. Cal­houn calls up in­vid­i­ous role mod­els of the era that many of us “still keep in our psychic fil­ing cab­i­net” like the foxy brief­case-car­ry­ing, ba­con-fry­ing blond wo­man in the 1980 En­joli per­fume ad who sug­gested women could, with no ap­par­ent ef­fort, do it all. A lot of gen-Xers en­tered the work­force when the job mar­ket was soft, and now they find them­selves sand­wiched be­tween two more pop­u­lous de­mo­graphic co­horts — the boomers, who haven’t re­tired, and cute, en­er­getic millennial­s, who some­times seem to have an edge with em­ploy­ers.

Gen-Xers (along with a few older millennial­s) are also the last group who re­mem­ber the world be­fore it went on­line and, Cal­houn ar­gues, we “have no nat­u­ral im­mu­nity to the in­ter­net.” GenXers spend more time on so­cial me­dia than boomers or millennial­s and are vul­ner­a­ble to its toxic ef­fects. As Cal­houn writes: “In our moth­ers’ and grand­moth­ers’ eras, phones and mir­rors sen­si­bly sat on ta­bles or hung on walls. But gen­er­a­tion X women no­ticed their first wrin­kles in a zoomable smart­phone cam­era.”

Throw in some hor­monal may­hem, and it’s no won­der the women in the book feel blue.

The trou­ble is, there are far too many of them. Read­ing Why We Can’t Sleep is like at­tend­ing a party where the host­ess didn’t want to leave any­one off the list: It’s noisy, crowded and ev­ery­one re­mains a stranger. And they’re all com­plain­ing. There are guests whose com­plaints we would ben­e­fit from hear­ing more about and oth­ers who shouldn’t be here at all.

In the book’s last chap­ters, Cal­houn un­veils her per­sonal reme­dies for at least some midlife woes: She be­gan hang­ing out with fe­male friends, treat­ing her per­i­menopausal symp­toms with hor­mone ther­apy, and spend­ing less time on so­cial me­dia. She stopped be­ing so hard on her­self. She touts the value of laugh­ter. The ad­vice is com­mon­sen­si­cal, a lit­tle corny and hardly a panacea for the mul­ti­tude of prob­lems she’s spent the pre­vi­ous 200 pages de­scrib­ing.

But the fi­nal chap­ter is the most ac­ces­si­ble and en­gag­ing in the book. Cal­houn’s am­bi­tious wide-an­gle shot of gen X midlife malaise is blurry and over­whelm­ing. Para­dox­i­cally, when she zeros in on a spe­cific wo­man with a first and last name, a strong voice, and a tex­tured back­story — her­self — that larger pic­ture starts to come into fo­cus. Washington Post

Ev­ery gen-X wo­man in Ada Cal­houn’s book Why We Can’t Sleep feels dis­ap­pointed in her­self and in her life. GETTY IMAGES/IS­TOCK PHOTO

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