The Current

Gen X women are facing a mid-life crisis. This author says we're not taking it seriously

A few years ago, worries about her career and the future kept Ada Calhoun awake at night, and she wondered if other women were sleepless too. Her new book looks at the mid-life crisis facing Gen X women, and asks why it isn’t taken seriously.

Ada Calhoun's new book started as sleepless nights, worried about her life

Ada Calhoun says the women of her generation were encouraged to reach for the stars as children, but weren't given the tools to achieve that success. (Gilbert King/Grove Publishers)

Read Story Transcript

Originally published on January 6, 2020

There's a mid-life crisis facing Gen X women, and we're not giving it the attention it deserves, according to journalist and author Ada Calhoun. 

"This is something that's affecting an awful lot of women, and it's something we really maybe should start talking to one another about," said Calhoun, author of Why We Can't Sleep: Women's New Midlife Crisis, published this week.

Calhoun's book grew out of her own sleepless nights, worrying about money, her career and her future, while her partner and son slept soundly nearby.

"I felt like, how did I get here? I thought I'd been working so hard since I was 14 years old. What did I do wrong," she told The Current's Matt Galloway.

Calhoun is part of Generation X, born between the mid-1960s and 1980, and now middle-aged and often sandwiched between young children and aging parents.

[Women will just] stare at the ceiling at 4 o'clock in the morning, or they'll sneak in any kind of suffering around the edges- Ada Calhoun

She says the Gen X woman's plight is not widely recognized, in part, because when men experience a mid-life crisis, it's often dramatic: "It's the girlfriend, it's the car, it's quitting their job."

"Women will just stare out the window of their car, or they'll stare at the ceiling at 4 o'clock in the morning, or they'll sneak in any kind of suffering around the edges."

She said those women will keep the household running, and continue to hold down their jobs, "and yet they have this feeling like it's not enough or it's too much."

Ada Calhoun's book Why We Can't Sleep looks at the mid-life crisis facing women of her generation. (Grove Publishers)

While some studies have suggested the mid-life crisis doesn't exist, Calhoun argued that doesn't explain why the hundreds of women she interviewed repeated feelings of anxiety and insecurity.

"I think it's very easy to say that it's not real," she said.

"Let's just call it an exceptionally rough time for a certain group of people, if that makes you feel better."

'We had these expectations that were not realistic'

Calhoun said part of what's driving the mid-life crisis among Gen X women is that "we were told we could be anything we wanted, even president ... but we were given no support." 

She pointed to the rise in divorce in the 1960s and 70s, when her generation was growing up, as something that weakened their sense of security as adults.

"We grew up latchkey kids, we were at school looking at missing kids on milk cartons, we watched obscene amounts of television," she told Galloway. 

She spoke to one woman who as a little girl wanted to become a nurse — but her mother told her to reach higher, and to become a doctor.

Calhoun thinks her generation internalized that encouragement not as opportunity, but as a mandate.

"So if maybe we get to middle age and we only have a family, or we only have a job, or we only have both those things, but not this third thing that we think we should have — there's so much shame attached to it," she said.

"I think it really comes back to that idea that we had these expectations that were not realistic, given the context we were going up in."

Calhoun's idea for the book came from not being able to sleep at night because of her anxiety about her life and future. (Shutterstock)

Support looks different for every woman

Calhoun said the first step to improving things for women of her generation is to recognize the problem exists, and stop minimizing their concerns.

"You can get thousands of pages about a man feeling wistful," she said.

"But the second that a woman starts to say: 'Wait a minute, this is a little much,' everyone's like, 'Oh, you're lucky. Stop talking.'"

She said support will take a different form for every woman in terms of "what is actually going to make her feel secure and taken care of enough, to where she is able to not feel that sort of fear and shame and anxiety."

While she said her book is not a political policy book, "having some kind of health care, and child care and maternity leave is definitely not going to hurt."

Calhoun said she's been getting more help at home from her family. (Shutterstock/Andrey_Popov)

In her personal life, Calhoun has fought her sleepless nights by getting her partner and son more involved in household work, and developing a network of women experiencing the same thing.

"I just started really nurturing friendships to the point where now I have this group of women. I don't know what I did before them, they're amazing." 

Even though she's faced recent challenges — including her father's deteriorating health, and a fire in her childhood home — she says making those changes has made a difference.

"This fall has been pretty apocalyptic, and yet I feel like I'm fortified."

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Karin Marley.