nonfiction

Book Review: Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis by Ada Calhoun

I’m right on the line between Gen X (mid 60s to early 80s) and Millennials (early 80s to early 00s), in what’s sometimes called The Oregon Trail generation. A lot from both generational descriptors applies to me, but I don’t fit in well with either group, so it’s kind of frustrating. But enough fits that I tend to pay attention when either generation is mentioned, especially the massive problems both face. That’s why I paid attention when my friend Sharon mentioned Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis by Ada Calhoun (Grove Press, 2020). Onto my TBR it went, while I ruminated over the fact that I’m old enough to be having a midlife crisis. Hmph.

Gen X has had it hard, with a mountain of debt, sandwiched in between child care and elder care, grappling with the idea that because we as women can finally do everything (or, uh, most things *stares in President*), we should- until it turned out that we just had to do everything and do it all with no help or support. (Check out that email list for your kid’s class fundraisers or field trips- how many dads are in there? Yeah…) They come from a background of what my friend Alexis refers to as benign neglect- latchkey kids who were left on their own to figure things out, from how to make themselves a snack to how to deal with the emotional fallout from things like watching the Challenger explode, or their parents’ divorce. Some of this, explains Calhoun, may be the reason helicopter parenting has become so popular.

While Boomers broke down the barriers, they left Gen X women with all the options but with little support. Being able to have a career is amazing, and no one is complaining about having that choice, but childcare, housework, elder care, all the emotional labor, it’s all still left to the women to do, with fewer resources than men, who aren’t societally tasked with this kind of work. Women are still penalized for being parents in terms of salary and career projectory in a way that men are not. All of this has left Gen X women disillusioned, exhausted, and feeling like no matter how much they’ve done, they haven’t done enough.

This is a bit of a downer of a read, but if you’re a Gen X’er, you’ll feel seen. I was able to identify with some of it- the career stuff obviously doesn’t apply to me as a lifelong housewife, but the benign neglect that perhaps led to that being my only real option? Possibly. The focus on the middle to upper middle class led to the book feeling just a bit limited in scope. I would have appreciated hearing some of the struggles of women without college degrees, who are working several low-paid jobs and struggling to keep the lights on alongside the professionals who are worrying that the million dollars they have socked away for retirement won’t be enough (which is an absolutely valid worry, because this country doesn’t care well for its seniors and all signs point to this not getting better anytime soon). I also felt that she was a little dismissive of Millennials, who will likely have it even worse as they continue to age. Their attitude of, “Yeah, we’re screwed and we know it, thanks, guys!” is probably better, but that doesn’t change the realities of their situation. It’s cool, though, if it means Jeff Bezos is megasuperrich and can afford to pay to send himself to space. Totally cool. *eyeroll*

I did enjoy this. Ms. Calhoun has a sympathetic voice and immediately dives into the heart of the matter: feminism has been great to women, but society hasn’t made the necessary adjustments in order to fully admit them without some serious stress (and, once again, all signs point to nothing changing about this, other than certain people moaning about the low birth rate but then refusing to do anything to support families). Without support for the extra responsibilities that women carry along with their careers- children, taking care of elderly parents, that nasty second shift, the incidentals like the school bake sale and remembering to pick up coffee creamer and shoelaces- we’re doomed to feel like we can’t keep up, and that everything we’re doing is not and will never be enough. Lot of harsh reality in this book.

Visit Ada Calhoun’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

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