Full disclosure: I haven’t slept much in the last week since Ada Calhoun’s new book on women’s midlife crisis, Why We Can’t Sleep, dropped, and one of the most on-point voices of our generation, Prozac Nation author Elizabeth Wurtzel, went silent.
Truthfully, I haven’t slept all that much in the last couple of decades, but who has? The central premise of Calhoun’s book is that shuteye is near impossible for our generation because X marks the spot where having it all and doing it all became synonymous. It was served up to us as an actual attainable goal by countless cultural markers, like so many Enjoli commercials stuck in our craw telling us it’s realistic to bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never let a husband forget he’s a man.
In all fairness to Gen X men, you got a similar bill of contradictory goods sold to you. While Free to Be… You and Me made it alright for you to cry, you also grew up in the stalwart shadow of Mike Brady, successful architect, attentive dad, and Carol’s loving partner.
What keeps us awake
Stress, duh. But what makes our stress special?
Calhoun’s book, an outgrowth of a 2017 viral article she wrote for O, The Oprah Magazine, takes a deep dive into the causes of the angst that plagues today’s 40+ year-old-women. Her extensive research and vivid, honest personal stories (both hers and others) make for the kind of read you skip sleep for, even if you weren’t already sleep-deprived.
You’ll recognize the themes we regularly explore in Further:
- Sandwich generation woes; caring for kids and aging parents simultaneously
- Job instability, courtesy of corporate downsizing and the rise of the gig economy
- Financial pressures of the skyrocketing cost of living, especially on essentials like housing
- Marital pressure and divorce
- Decision fatigue
- The compare and despair culture created by social media
- Perimenopause and hormonal changes
Boil it all down, and as Calhoun observes, it’s as much about the pressure of possibilities as it is about the demands of reality:
So many Gen X women have told me that they were raised believing that if you don’t care about everything, you’re squandering opportunity. They felt pressure to take advantage of all the chances their mothers and grandmothers didn’t have. And they’ve worn themselves out in the process.
Calhoun is careful to point out this is not an anti-feminist statement:
I’m not knocking choices, just saying that having so many of them with so little support has led to a great deal of shame. Being a full and equal partner both at work and at home, having a rich social life, contributing to society, staying in shape – doing all that is exponentially harder than doing any one thing. We asked for more, and did we ever get it. I firmly believe it’s fairer. Easier? No.
Give it a rest
Not to heap more on our overflowing plates, but if we want to dial crisis-mode down to a more manageable place, like, say, a reckoning, then it’s on us to make it happen.
After doing her exhaustive research and taking her own overwhelm into account, Calhoun has several solid recommendations:
- Get help: A good therapist; an accountant who understands your needs and goals; an estate planner to help with your parents’ and your financials; hormonal support; the works.
- Ditch the unrealistic expectations, and stop being so hard on yourself. To the first point, about getting help, keep in mind that just because you’re a capable juggler, doesn’t mean you’re supposed to keep every single ball in the air. Reframe your narrative by focusing on what a great job you’ve done managing all that life’s thrown at you, and also how curveballs can take you in interesting directions.
- Accept that this phase of life gives us perspective, which tells us that if things feel tougher, it may be because we’re paying closer attention. As Calhoun notes, “This is a bumpy stretch of life. We should not expect to feel fine.”
- And like all ages and stages, this too shall pass. When our elders are gone and our children grown, the vicissitudes of life will shift again, carrying us hopefully to a less harried, more peaceful existence.
For now, when your head is filled with insomnia-inducing dread, remember why we ultimately do anything in this life: for love. The hard work, hard times, uncertainty, and stress are byproducts of constructing a meaningful existence that includes family, friends, and community. Even the famously difficult Wurtzel, battling complications of metastasized breast cancer and in the throes of divorce, titled her final essay, “I Believe in Love.”
When we can’t sleep, maybe we can at least rest easier knowing we’re not alone.