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'Why We Can't Sleep' explores what a midlife crisis looks like for Gen X women

Author Ada Calhoun dishes on writing the book that seeks to redefine the midlife crisis — and the things that keep Gen X women up at night.
Woman lying in bed
Job instability, the pay gap and hormonal changes are all challenges that Gen X women must navigate.Image Source / Getty Images

Last week, we were deluged by a flood of articles and posts about a recent study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research claiming peak midlife angst occurs at 47.2 years old — often teamed with the image of a balding man with a confused look on his face. Tropes abound of the male midlife crisis but history — and research — have long neglected what this angst means for women. That's why Ada Calhoun's thoughtful, warm and carefully researched narrative, "Why We Can't Sleep: Women's New Midlife Crisis," seeks to define what it means to be a Gen X female by letting you in on the conversations she's had with her friends.

Calhoun says this (much needed) deep-dive was initially sparked by some midlife professional challenges she was facing.

"I was having a really horrible summer," Calhoun says. "All this freelance work fell apart — three different projects fell apart for totally different reasons — it was my whole income for the next 6 months. I was the breadwinner, I had a stepson going to college and a son going into middle school, and I just felt old, awful and tired. I got a call from an editor saying that she'd been trying to get someone to do a story about Generation X women, and what was going on with us. I really was feeling it so much in that moment so I wrote that story for, and then it went viral. I started getting these messages from women who also really did feel it. That made me feel wonderful. Then, I got asked to do it as a book."

What really keeps Gen X women up at night?

"Why We Can't Sleep" struck me as the perfect title because insomnia plagues nearly every Gen X woman I know, including me. "I thought it was a good metaphor for a lot of things that women talked about when I interviewed them, this thing where the more you chase satisfaction, the kind of further away it seems to recede," Calhoun explains. "I had a postcard over my bed when I was like a teenager — I don't even know where I got it — but it was it was 3D and had all these horrible things on it like a mushroom cloud and war, then over on the top it read, 'Why We Can't Sleep.' Almost everyone I talked to was lying awake at night because of the issues we're facing, but also how hormones tend to affect sleep. A doctor told me the more stressed you are, the less you sleep, and the less sleep you get, the more stressed you are, and it winds up in this loop."

Hormonal changes

Perimenopause and menopause can have a huge impact on a woman's health — and we're not at all prepared for it. "It's such a gradual process and that those 10 years leading up to menopause are so intense," Calhoun says. "All the doctors I spoke with said that perimenopause is much harder than the actual menopause moment. Nobody has ever told me that! I go to my annual appointments every single year without fail, I read books and women's magazines. How was it that I was totally blindsided at age 41 by the whole idea of perimenopause? It seems like this great taboo right there in front of us that we don't talk about."

Bias towards middle aged women in the workforce

Another reason Gen X women lose so much sleep is money worry. In the "Job Instability" chapter, Calhoun outs how corporate culture systematically discriminates against middle-aged women, providing an accurate depiction of what happens when they step out of the formal workforce to either freelance or raise children, only to return and learn they've aged out of jobs they didn't get a chance to age into. I ask her if, after all of her research, she feels there's hope that this culture could change.

"I would hope that the culture would change," she said. "I was heartened by a couple of people I spoke to who were Gen X women who were employers, who really worked hard to employ middle-aged women themselves. So, I think maybe it's a question of more Gen X women in power resulting in more Gen X women with jobs. I don't know. I found those numbers about how hard it is to get back in the workforce if you take time off and how much discrimination there is against middle-aged women really shocking."

The pay gap

Calhoun also unearthed this disappointing little tidbit of research: Only one in 4 women born in the 1980s would out-earn their fathers, due to what she calls the "comically bad timing." "The distinction I see [between Gen Xers and millennials] is that [millennials] weren't set up thinking they were going to succeed financially. The whole division between people who have money and people who didn't have money has been stark since they were a little, whereas I think when we were kids, we were told every generation does better than their parents. Women, especially, were sold this bill of goods — if you work hard enough, you're going to get the corner office and everything's going to work out for you. With Gen X, there was this sense of betrayal and disappointment. I don't know that it's going to be better for millennials in a lot of ways. The cost of education and housing and healthcare and all this stuff is going to hit them at least as hard as it hit us. But maybe they're a little better prepared for it because they've seen it as they've grown up."

All work and no play

With respect to our 'slacker' attitude, Calhoun very accurately writes, "for Gen X, there was no consequence-free indulgence" and as a result, explains how the Gen Xers she spoke with were quite the opposite of slackers. She says: "Growing up in the seventies during all the economic troubles and crime boom — nothing was fun for us. Boomers were so lucky in the sense that they got to discover free love and they got to discover recreational drug use and all that and meanwhile, we come of age and nothing can be fun — sex can't be fun, drugs can't be fun, drinking can't be fun. It's all responsibility. I know a lot of women started working like I did, at 13, 14. Once we got to middle age, we've been working for like 30 years, tirelessly, without a lot of pleasure, often. I think it comes to a crux in midlife where we wonder, 'Why am I doing this? Where is the joy?' That feels generational to me."

How do we find peace in middle age?

In the book, Calhoun says "the first step to peace in middle age has been learning the game is rigged" and she told me the very exercise of writing the book helped her find her own sense of peace. "I got to this place where I saw I saw myself as part of this generation, aligned with all these other women," she says. "I did some things in response to what I learned; I got a better doctor, I got an accountant, and I started a club with other women." These proactive steps have helped her to cope with some of her own midlife challenges, like the recent loss of her father-in-law and her grandmother. "I have all these women in my corner who I talk to every day, I have this good doctor so my hormones are reasonable at the moment, and my money's in better shape because I really worked on it. Going into all this horrible stuff, I was better reinforced because I'd really taken all I learned to heart. Even though things are objectively worse, I feel better about everything."

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