Ada Calhoun’s “Why We Can’t Sleep” is more than a cri de coeur for the very specific challenges facing middle-aged women today. Released in January, Calhoun’s book is an exhaustively researched and reported study of how Gen X women (born between 1965 and 1980) became gripped by high standards, low earnings, and family responsibility. Despite the bleak subject, it’s also a surprising source of uplift for those feeling overlooked or overstretched. We caught up with Calhoun by phone last week to ask how Gen X women are faring in the coronavirus crisis.
Q. Your book lays out the particularities of Gen X women at midlife. Can you summarize it for me?
A. A lot of Gen X women are working full-time while raising families and being barraged by social media and going through perimenopause all at once. And because of the way they were raised, they tend to feel like they can’t complain. A lot of women told me, “I’m so lucky.” Any problems they have they blame themselves for.
Q. It’s the last thing my book club read before our city shut down for coronavirus. I found it surprisingly hopeful. What feedback are you hearing?
A. Number 1 is that it made people feel less alone. And number 2, it made them realize they were being way too hard on themselves. Their expectations going into adulthood were unrealistic. A lot of them got mad at how they grew up. If you tell somebody, “Reach for the stars, you can do anything” — but you don’t give them any support? It’s kind of not fair.
Q. And now this generation is dealing with coronavirus.
A. There’s something very unique about Gen X’s role in this. A lot of us are dealing with baby boomer parents, with millennial and Gen Z kids. And so the parents are at the greatest risk for death. And the children have all been sent home for us to educate. And one of our biggest problems going into this was job instability, which has obviously gotten worse. A lot of women have said: Of course! It felt inevitable. It felt like the culmination of all these problems we’ve been dealing with for 20 years.
The other thing I’ve heard is that there’s kind of a positive aspect. Because we were latchkey kids, we are really resilient and equipped to hunker down inside and watch a lot of television and keep everybody safe. We were almost trained for this.
Q. I hadn’t thought of it that way. I was thinking the shutdown was like the straw that broke the camel’s back.
A. Indeed. I heard from women who felt near a breaking point going into this. Some of them told me they wish they could hit a reset button and rearrange everything in their lives. A couple of women said, “I wish I could just blow it all up and start over.” And in a way, that’s what’s happening right now. A lot of households had to reconfigure everything. Who’s making dinner? Who’s trying to make money? Who’s educating the children? And who’s taking groceries to the parents?
Q. What advice do you have for Gen X women during all this?
A. I try in the book and in general not to give advice as much as possible. Because one thing we get a lot of is advice. And I think there is this self-help industrial complex that leads us to believe that if we get the right diet or the right chore chart that everything will fall into place. It continues this idea that if we can’t fix our lives, it’s our fault. I think that’s something Gen X women in particular struggle with, because we are so competent in many ways. We think if we just work harder we’ll have money in the bank. We’ll have health insurance. We’ll have the family we want and the job we want. But there are forces at work. And right now there are a lot of forces that keep us from achieving, you know, anything.
Q. What else do you want to say to your readers right now?
A. A few people have posted on Instagram this one page from the book [with a citation of William Strauss and Neil Howe’s] “Generations” book, written maybe 30 years ago. And it had this prediction that in 2020 there would be a giant crisis — and you know who’s going to save us all? Generation X. Maybe it is true that in staying home, and taking care of people, we will make the world better and achieve our destiny as an important generation.
Interview was edited and condensed.