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The Gen-X Midlife Crisis: Why It’s Unique — and Sleepless | Understanding the Experience
Midlife Crisis of Gen-X Women: Why it’s Different and Sleepless
If you belong to the female Gen-X group, born between 1965 and 1980, you might find yourself awake at odd hours, unable to sleep because of various worries that weigh heavily on your mind. From financial concerns, home repairs, childcare, parent care, career anxieties, perimenopause to personal relationships, there are too many things to juggle. The feeling of falling short of expectations, coupled with the current state of the world, contributes to the zombie-like existence of many women in their forties and fifties.
Ada Calhoun’s bestselling book, Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis, is a result of her 2017 article in Oprah magazine, which gained immense popularity. Calhoun posits that middle-class women in their forties and fifties are tired, depressed, and feel like they have failed. But, unlike previous generations, their midlife crisis isn’t solely about aging.
Calhoun argues that the problem lies in the way Gen-X women were brought up, with the influence of Helen Gurley Brown’s 1982 manifesto, Having It All: Love, Success, Sex, Money- Even if You’re Starting With Nothing. This book created the belief among the ’70s and ’80s babies that they could have everything they desired.
While the message was meant to empower young women and give them a sense of their potential, Calhoun explains that life is far more complicated than that. As Gen-X women have grown older, they have realized that fulfilling their dreams is not as easy as the feminist movement made it sound.
Recently, Everyday Health sat down with Calhoun to discuss feminism, self-esteem, social media, and how she’s sleeping.
Everyday Health: I know your book focused on Gen X, but I know so many people of all ages, both male and female, who have a hard time sleeping. Why do you think it’s specific to Gen-X women?
Ada Calhoun: Women who grew up in the ’70s and ’80s were raised with a particular kind of expectation. We were told the American dream was still in effect, and that made us believe it was going to happen for us. But it did not happen for women now in their forties and fifties. The stuff we were inculcated to believe was just not true. It was a bill of goods.
EH: Like what?
AC: All the Helen Gurley Brown stuff: You can get the corner office and have the husband and make dinner every night. And that famous 1979 Enjoli perfume ad, “I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never never never let you forget you’re a man.” All of these cultural messages told us this was going to happen for us. I just think we get to this age and we don’t have all the things we thought we would. If we do have them, we don’t have an effortless life, for sure. Very few things go swimmingly without a huge amount of effort. There’s a lot of frustration and unhappiness and shame.
EH: But is that a personality thing? Or something felt by women of a certain class who feel entitled?
AC: I didn’t just interview women in cities or women who had corporate jobs. I heard the same thing from women who weren’t that classic striver. One of my best friends is not a type-A person, and midlife hit her really hard. Women used to judge themselves on how nice their house was or how they looked or how good they were doing at their office job. Now everyone judges themselves on twenty different things. How you look, how your career is, your kids. Is your marriage sexy enough? If you’re judging yourself on so many things you’ll always be screwing something up and coming up short in one area.
EH: I blame social media. It has a huge impact on how I feel about myself, especially when I compare myself with all those people online who seem to be having such a ball.
AC: It’s a big part of it. It feeds into our fear that we’re not doing well enough. It reinforces that shame and sense of failure. So many women — no matter what they’ve done — feel like there’s a piece missing. Even if they didn’t want kids, maybe they wanted a partner or they thought their career would be 10 percent bigger. The women I interviewed kept talking about the things that weren’t there. Our mothers and grandmothers weren’t raised with the same expectations. If they did succeed, they felt good about it.
EH: Do you think the media — and our mothers — were deliberately trying to deceive us into believing the myth of having it all?
AC: No. Especially in the case of our mothers, it was definitely best intentions. Our mothers looked at us and thought we could do what they weren’t able to because of the roadblocks.
EH: You interviewed hundreds of middle-class Gen-X women across the country. Did they feel like they had let their moms down?
AC: A lot of women I talked to said they were trying to live their mother’s dreams. When it was hard or impossible, they felt that they had not only let themselves down but also their mothers or womenkind, because we were supposed to do these things that past generations couldn’t do.
EH: Do you still feel like something’s missing in your life?
AC: Now I feel okay. I feel like writing the book helped me recognize that I had all the things I wanted. When I did the Oprah story, I felt old and tired and like I would never have financial security. I had so much credit card debt. I loved my husband, but he was also having a midlife crisis. I felt not only this fear and anxiety and frustration and sleeplessness, but this shame around having failed. I really had bought into the idea that there was nothing standing in the way of my success but myself. You know: “You need to work harder or do this cleanse and then you can fix whatever’s broken in your life.” I was not finding it to be true.
EH: Give me some specifics.
AC: Why didn’t I have more money after working for so long? I was trying to go back to corporate life — I applied to dozens of jobs and I didn’t get any of them. The whole media field has changed so much in the last 20 years. I used to be able to get an editor job really easily, but now there was nothing. They weren’t there anymore. I packed the book with statistics on how there are things that are keeping us from doing what we want to do.
EH: Such as?
AC: The American dream wasn’t real anymore. Housing costs and living costs are so much higher, and our debt is through the roof. So, it’s not just that I screwed up somewhere along the line, but there were forces against us. This was also true of friends of mine who went into the “right” fields. A typical fortysomething woman, unlike her mother or grandmother at the same age, is likely to have high-stress responsibilities coupled with major debt, no job security, and a rising cost of living. The average family caregiver is a 49-year-old woman working full-time, and more than a third of them also have children at home. Gen Xers also carry $36,000 more in personal debt than other generations.
EH: You said your husband was also having a midlife crisis. Did he grow up with the same expectations you did?
AC: Neither he nor my male friends seem to have been raised with the same pressure that women were raised with. It feels different from me.
EH: How did he react to the pressure you put on yourself?
AC: He was sympathetic. He grew up in east Texas quite poor and so I think he felt rich. I was like, “We have debt!” And he was like, “Look, we can afford to rent this apartment and cook good food!” It’s been a source of tension.
EH: That’s an important point. Doesn’t so much of this sense of failure come from how you grew up, and where you thought you’d be in later life?
AC: Yes, I think that’s true. And yet my friend who grew up an “at-risk” youth sends her kids to French immersion school. The stakes feel extra high to her because she wants her kids to have more support.
EH: What did you learn emotionally from writing and researching the book?
AC: Talking to one woman after another who had gone through what I’d gone through helped more than anything else. I felt seen and understood, and this sense of sisterhood, and it made a huge difference. It was this feeling of not being alone anymore.
EH: Has your life changed since you wrote that article?
AC: In some ways it’s not objectively better, but it feels so much better. Writing that article, and then the book, helped me reframe things and what my expectations were. I also started mentoring more people and paying attention to my friendships and investing in the relationships. That’s paid off hugely.
EH: So what do you focus on?
AC: I picked a couple of things. I look at my kids — are they thriving? Am I helping them do what they want to do? Am I doing anything I can to become a better writer? Those are the main ones. And to have a good marriage, which has been really important to me. Especially dealing with these things, I feel so lucky to have someone who’s helping.
EH: I’ve gotta ask: How are you sleeping these days? I recently discovered melatonin. Life-changing.
AC: I sleep better. I had a prescription for Xanax, and every once in a while I’ll take one, but it’s pretty rare. I feel a little more grounded.
EH: Do you think it gets better?
AC: Who knows? In the original Oprah story I said it’s not guaranteed, but people do tend to be happier in their fifties, sixties, and older. But we don’t know. Gen X will be weird in the same way they’ve been unusual in other ways. I’d like to hope that when all this stuff is done with our parents and our kids are in their own lives, that it will be calmer at least. But who knows.
EH: I often think about these celebrities who seem to have it all, specifically Julia Roberts, Amal Clooney, and Cate Blanchette. I know it’s absurd to compare yourself with rich and famous people, but those three especially seem to have great careers and wonderful partners and kids. Isn’t that having it all?
AC: You don’t know. They might be totally miserable! So many people I think of as so happy and accomplished it’s like, Ohhhh. I feel that every celebrity memoir I read there’s complaining in it. But some people are just happy. There are women having a wonderful time in midlife. My book is not for those people.