Review: Why We Can’t Sleep by Ada Calhoun

As Ada Calhoun enters her forties, she suddenly finds herself staring at her son’s pet turtle, wondering if it wants something more from life. It sounds silly, but she realizes almost all of her female peers can relate. In Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis, Calhoun investigates why middle class Generation X American women (defined as those born between 1965 and 1980) are on the verge of “blowing it all up” in a different way from previous generations, haunted by what they did wrong and the versions of themselves that could have been. She writes, “How could women who wanted the challenging job and the financial independence, plus the full home life, still relate to Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique?” or in other words, with all they have now, what is still missing?

Through a combination of research and interviews, Calhoun provides readers with a complicated answer. Middle class Gen X women, she argues, are in a unique situation: the strange latch-key nature of their upbringing and the number of possibilities first open to them—including the expectation that they make a reality of all such possibilities—uncomfortably juxtaposes with Gen X being the first generation that will see less economic prosperity than their parents. “Internalizing the idea that it’s within your power to climb the mountain if only you believe in yourself enough and do the work has led us to the logical conclusion: if you haven’t made it to the mountaintop, what’s wrong with you?” Calhoun writes. She points out that well into their forties, women are “often still scrambling like we did at twenty-five.”

Additionally, as women have taken on a larger role in the workforce, they have also continued to be strapped to “the caregiving rack,” tugged on by children and aging parents. “How free are we to reach for the stars if we have someone else depending on us?” Calhoun asks. Instead of reaching mid-life feeling satisfied by the amount of freedom they have been given to choose career paths, build families, and theoretically define themselves, Gen X women instead feel bombarded by how much is on their plates. Who they are outside of work and family has gotten lost in the background.

Whether or not you believe that the new midlife crisis is specific to Gen X, you should certainly believe there is something about it that is uniquely female. “In order to have a family life and a career,” Calhoun writes, “women must move twice as fast to arrive at the same place… For decades, women have had to argue that they could still work and function through those messy period-, pregnancy-, and menopause-related symptoms, and as a result we’ve minimized them, both to others and to ourselves.” The struggle of losing a sense of self and not knowing how to retrieve it is at the heart of the crisis. Fading into the background of their lives has made many midlife women feel the urge to change things, largely by quitting careers and ending relationships. Some do make drastic moves, but for many, this kind of upheaval remains a dream. They know the consequences for those around them would be major. 

Much of Why We Can’t Sleep’s strength comes from Calhoun being ingrained in the group she writes about. Just as she can poke fun at the SignUpGenius scheduling app her son’s school uses, Calhoun can make her subjects feel comfortable enough to open up about their desires to become cheesemongers, or preferring to look at mid-century modern end tables on Etsy over scrolling through men on dating apps after divorce, or renting a karaoke room to scream alone for two hours. “I can’t even count how many women have confessed to me that they’ve flung something against a wall,” she writes, “though it seems telling that in nearly every case, once the fit was over, the woman who threw it then cleaned it up.” Calhoun understands because she has been there, too. And it seems all women will be there eventually (perhaps in a more bleak way for those of a lower socioeconomic class).

So, is there a solution, beyond blowing things up? Calhoun says that writing this book cured her midlife crisis. But overall, the answer is less straightforward. The tactics used by many women Calhoun speaks to, such as seeking ease in the form of expensive skincare products and Uber rides, has not worked. Calhoun suggests having a strong community and a decent medical team, but her thought on the next generation is even more interesting: “I wonder if Millennials may benefit from witnessing our struggles and our snide remarks about the future. Could it lead them to lower their expectations for themselves? And could that make all the difference?”

Calhoun’s work effectively highlights one of the biggest issues facing middle-class women, a group who are typically looked at as problem-solvers rather than those having a problem. Hopefully, as a result of Calhoun’s research and insight, conversations will start about middle-aged women’s well-being beyond their insular friend groups, ideally in medical research circles. But to return to her speculation on future generations, I must say I have my doubts that things will get any better. As a Millennial, I fear our expectations are even higher than Gen X’s, and that may mean we have further to fall when our midlife crises come around. At least we will have the comfort of knowing we are not the first or the only ones to feel this way.

About the author

Rachel A.G. Gilman is the Editor-in-Chief of Columbia Journal, Issue 58; and Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Creature.

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