When Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique in 1963, she discovered a “problem that has no name” afflicting middle-aged, middle-class American housewives. Their lives felt claustrophobic, empty and purposeless. This discontent, of course, triggered a revolution. Now, decades later, the American journalist Ada Calhoun has probed the 2020 version of this, which instead sees fortysomething, middle-class women up in the middle of the night, overwhelmed by a deluge of pressures, from the 24/7 work world and persistent financial strain to harried marriages and high-demand parenting norms. Or else the challenges of navigating life without a partner or family life. In the New York Times bestselling Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis – which grew out of a viral Oprah.com article – Calhoun names the nameless. Here, she talks with Tara Henley about the backstory behind her blockbuster book.
Where were you in your life when you started working on this?
It was the summer of 2017. I was very sad, and scared and stressed out because I had all this work fall apart. I’d been a freelancer for 10 years. There had been lulls and high points. But then this was just months of bad news. I was up at four a.m. staring at the ceiling. I had $20,000 in credit card debt and no idea how I was going to pay it off. I could not find [a job] as an editor, because there aren’t any anymore. I was freaking out. I felt really old. … It was just a terrible time. Then I got a call from an editor at Oprah.com asking me to write about our generation.
The resulting piece, The New Midlife Crisis – Why (and How) It’s Hitting Gen X Women went viral. Did the response surprise you?
Oh yeah, it was amazing. I couldn’t believe it. I got hundreds of messages from women. They had these big feelings, but they didn’t have a name for them. There was just something about seeing them listed, and named, with numbers attached, that was really validating.
As you were researching Why We Can’t Sleep, what were you hearing from Gen X women?
A lot of the same anxieties. Even people who were in much better situations than I was were still freaking out. They felt like they were going to lose their job any second, or they were going to be completely out of money. There was just so much fear. … Our generation had phenomenally bad luck in many different regards. A lot of them are financial. Many of us entered the job market in a recession. We hit every piece of bad luck at the wrong time: building our careers at the time of the dot-com bust or buying a house in the housing crisis. It was almost comical, when I was looking at it. Growing up with very little support, combined with these high expectations.
We were told we could do anything…
If you look at the numbers – if you look at the fact that only one in four women of this generation will out-earn her father – and you look at how much the cost of things like housing and healthcare and education have risen, in our lifetime, I think it becomes clear. We had really stiff headwinds against us, especially financial ones. I think it’s an illusion that just because we were told we could do anything, that that made it so.
Why have Gen X women minimized our troubles?
I think we were sold a bill of goods. We were told, “Your generation is so fortunate. Look at all the choices you have. Look at all the opportunities. Look at how we’ve stomped out sexism for you, so that you could flourish.” We’ve internalized that idea. We think, “We’re lucky. So, if I can’t do this – if somehow, I can’t be a partner at a law firm and have a family – then it’s on me. That I am not grateful enough, that I am not working hard enough.” I heard that over and over again in these interviews. Women were beating themselves up. Not really looking at the fact that it’s not easy. None of this is easy.
You touch on the high divorce rates Gen X grew up with. The era’s parenting style is often referred to as “benign neglect.” How do you think that affected the generation?
A lot of the women I talked to said that they were determined not to do that with their kids. That they were going to be hands on, they were going to be really present for their children. They were going to fight like hell not to get divorced. Those [things] are all more labour intensive now. They all add pressure and stress and hours to our already very busy weeks.
You have a chapter on single and childless women – this growing demographic is a new phenomenon. What’s causing it?
Shrinks have told me that because of the high divorce rate, some people are so careful. They don’t want to make a mistake and pick the wrong person and have to break up. So, they just wait, and wait, and wait to find the perfect person. And they also told me that the expectations now of marriage and partnership are so much higher than they were before. You want somebody who is going to be your soulmate, and your best friend, and, and, and. There’s this long list. It makes it much harder to find someone who fits all that criteria. Then, of course, there’s infinite choice now. You have Tinder. There’s this sense that you don’t have to pick because you have these available partners, stretching out to the moon and back.
The previous generation did not have smartphones. They did not have hustle culture, and the expectation that your job is your life. How do you think that figures in?
I think that’s a huge piece. It used to be that people who worked had 9-5 jobs. Then they would come home, and they would be home. I don’t know one person now who isn’t on their laptop at night or checking emails from their bosses first thing in the morning. There’s no sense of your own private time, or your own private space.
Where do you think Gen X women will find themselves as they get older?
I think that it is possible for us, as women, to get together and try to figure out how to individually help one another, and then collectively help one another. So millennial women don’t have all this. I have so many friends who are millennials, and my stepson is a millennial. They work so hard already. You’re like, “Man, if you are this tired, and you are twenty-five or thirty … What’s it going to be like when you’re forty if you burn out now? Once you have little kids and your parents are sick?” I hope things are going to get better. I wish I had more solutions.
You wrote here about the fallacy of “self-care.” Why?
It started to make me so mad. I’m going through all this stuff with caregiving right now, and my dad is sick, and my parents’ apartment burned up [in a fire]. And someone is like, “You need to take time for you. You need to go get a manicure.” I’m like, “Okay, let me list the things I’m dealing with right now. And you let me know if you think a manicure is going to [help].” … I think what [self-help] does is very damaging. Because it tells women that if they can just get the right book, or the right serum or supplement, or cleanse, that it’s going to be fixed. There’s this constant illusion – it’s right out of reach. That keeps you in this state of list-making and striving. And that is part of the problem. It’s destructive. It’s expensive. How many beauty products do I have on my shelf? How many retreats have my friends gone on? What we need is an acknowledgement that there are forces beyond our control.
Why is list-making and striving so destructive?
Our whole lives we’ve been working so hard. We’ve been convincing ourselves that if only we were better, our lives would be better. There’s all these things we are trying to ace all the time. If only we did more, we would have more. I just think that that is not true for our generation. There’s only so much you can do in a day. If you have all these economic forces, social forces, you might not get the corner office. And it might not be 100 per cent your fault.
You note in the book that writing Why We Can’t Sleep lowered your expectations. How so?
I still wake up at three or four in the morning often. But I don’t really worry about it as much as I used to. I used to think, “What’s wrong with me?” I don’t have those questions anymore. I know what is happening, and why, and so I am able to go back to sleep much sooner.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Tara Henley is the author of Lean Out: A Meditation on the Madness of Modern Life
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