Interview: Ada Calhoun, Author Of 'Why We Can't Sleep' Ada Calhoun talked to a lot of Gen X women about the angst they feel as they approach midlife — the pressure to have it all and the feeling that they should have done better for themselves.
NPR logo

'Why We Can't Sleep' Documents The Unique Pressures On Gen X Women

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/794022766/794144089" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'Why We Can't Sleep' Documents The Unique Pressures On Gen X Women

'Why We Can't Sleep' Documents The Unique Pressures On Gen X Women

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/794022766/794144089" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The writer Ada Calhoun was having a midlife crisis. And she ended up talking to a lot of other Gen X women who were going through the exact same thing.

ADA CALHOUN: Being middle-aged in America right now as a middle-class, American woman is different than it was for our mothers and grandmothers. And for a lot of women - not for all of them, but for a lot of them - it's incredibly hard.

MARTIN: She's written a new book called "Why We Can't Sleep: Women's New Midlife Crisis." It's not about women who are rich or poor. Her exploration is limited to the middle class. And as the generation stuck in the middle in so many ways, she says Gen X women are getting squeezed from all sides.

CALHOUN: So what I tried to do is isolate women who grew up with, like, a reasonable expectation of success. They were raised thinking that they could have it all and do it all. The world was their oyster. And then they kind of got to middle age, and they found that it was actually quite difficult to have, you know, even some of it. Middle-class women, they often experience shame and disappointment at middle age, that - you know, they had all these opportunities, and they should have done better.

MARTIN: Which is, in itself, a form of privilege. But nonetheless, it's something so vexing to so many women in the Gen X cohort in particular, right?

CALHOUN: Yes.

MARTIN: So explain how this is not some universal midlife crisis. You argue that this is particular. There are unique pressures on women Gen Xers who are in their 40s and early 50s.

CALHOUN: Yeah. So I think we were raised with these expectations for ourselves that were different than women in the past. So I think I'm not the only one who heard, like, you can be anything, even president. And women I interviewed told me that, like, they would want to be a nurse. And their mothers would say, no, you should be a doctor.

MARTIN: Right.

CALHOUN: There was this real emphasis on achievement, but it wasn't really coupled with a lot of support.

MARTIN: It was interesting. You also point out in the book that the boomers who you interviewed, you know, just to kind of get some context, maintain that it was they who had this idea that you can have it all. But I think you rightly point out that it was our generation, right? Like, I'm a Gen Xer. We were the ones who heard it almost from, like, utero.

CALHOUN: I think, for our generation, it was a real mandate. So, you know, one boomer woman who'd been very successful who I talked to, she told me that she felt like our generation really invented stress. Like, when she got to the corner office and achieved all these things, everyone was surprised and proud of her. And she said her daughters are doing at least as well as she did, and they feel like, why haven't they done more?

MARTIN: So what is it beyond just having been inculcated with this idea? You say there are structural barriers that prevented us. What are they?

CALHOUN: Well, I think we were taught that the American dream was real and that that was something that, if we worked hard enough, we could achieve. And I think Generation X women in particular have been really good at working incredibly hard. And yet, the statistic that I heard from the Equality of Opportunity Project at Harvard said that only 1 in 4 Gen X women will out-earn her father. So there are all these numbers that I just kept coming across that really show that it's not just us. It's not just us not working hard enough, not doing enough, that actually there are these forces at work against us.

MARTIN: But isn't it also interesting and important to point out that you say only 1 in 4 women will out-earn her father, but how many are out-earning their mothers, who maybe weren't in the workforce at all?

CALHOUN: Well, that's - that is a good point. However, like, housing prices are going up. Health care costs are going up. The cost of being middle-class in America is much higher than it was. And our mothers and grandmothers could afford, often, to stay home. That's not an option for most of the middle-class Gen X women I know.

MARTIN: Can I have you tell me the anecdote about the mom and the iPad?

CALHOUN: (Laughter).

MARTIN: Because this is something a lot of people relate to. It's about how we process all the stress, right?

CALHOUN: Yeah. Yeah. And sometimes we do it better than other times. So one woman told me that she had gone through a divorce and was having a really rough time. She was working multiple jobs trying to make ends meet. And she decides, OK, I'm going to take the kids on a vacation. We're going to have just a couple days. We're going to go to the country. It's going to be great. So she gets home from her job. It's, like, 9 or 10 at night. She's packing up, and she tells her kid, you know, put down the iPad. I need your help packing. And he ignores her. And she says, you know, I'm going to break that iPad if you don't put it down. And then she's asked three times. He hasn't moved. She gets a hammer. She destroys the iPad in front of him. (Laughter) So, of course, I laughed when I heard the story...

MARTIN: Right...

CALHOUN: (Laughter).

MARTIN: ...Because all of us are like, yeah. You go girl.

CALHOUN: Well, I mean, how many of us have threatened similar things and never really done it? And she actually did it.

MARTIN: Right. (Laughter) She followed through.

CALHOUN: She said it didn't feel as good as you'd think it would feel. She really felt like she'd lost - she'd lost it. And she thought, like, just standing over the wreckage - she said, like, I need to get some therapy right now.

MARTIN: Right, which also made me wonder - I mean, we laugh about it, and say, oh, yeah. I wish I could do that. But there's a lot of judgment from other parents, from other women. Is there not?

CALHOUN: Yeah, there definitely is. I think that there's - I mean, the pressure on women now to not only be great at work and, you know, great at home and - but also just, like, to be really exceptionally thoughtful and patient parents - it does feel like it's really high right now.

MARTIN: So, I mean, it's hard just to write a book where you marinate in the sad, right?

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Like, even if we're - we come away from it thinking, oh, OK. It's not just me. You can infer from the book that you felt the need to give some kind of prescriptions - right? - how to kind of mitigate the stress at least or at least share your own personal experience. How have you been able to sort of compartmentalize those pressures?

CALHOUN: The main thing was reframing it, reframing, like, what I'd been through in my life and what it meant and what I had to look forward to. And I just found it really helpful to know that this is a set period of time, that these years - middle age - have been rough, especially for women, for many, many generations and that it's hard for us, but it's going to be over at some point. So that was part of it. And also just, the expectations that we had were not, maybe, reasonable. Maybe we should have different expectations for ourselves.

MARTIN: And reframing how you derive your own personal value, right?

CALHOUN: Yeah.

MARTIN: Like, it doesn't necessarily have to come from a certain level of professional ambition or even professional success. It could be just how you navigate your own life.

CALHOUN: It could. Or it could be professional. But I think one thing that a sociologist who studies the generations told me is that our generation tends to judge ourselves based on everything. So if, you know, in the past the question was, how nice is your home? Or how good are you at your job? Now it's like, it's all of the things. So it's - are you a good parent? Are you good at work? Are you - you know, is your house nice? Are you in shape? Are you recycling? Like, it's every single factor in life you have to excel at. And I think that level of pressure is unsustainable.

MARTIN: Ada Calhoun, her new book is called "Why We Can't Sleep: Women's New Midlife Crisis." Ada, it was so fun to talk with you. Thank you.

CALHOUN: Great to talk to you. Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAURA VEIRS'S "SONG MY FRIENDS TAUGHT ME (INSTRUMENTAL)")

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.