Illustration by Violet Reed for HuffPost
This article is the first in a series called “How To Human,” interviews with memoirists that explore how we tackle life’s alarms, marvels and bombshells.
In 2017, Ada Calhoun got a call from an editor at Oprah’s magazine. She had an assignment in mind, an article exploring why women in their 40s and 50s were so unhappy. At first Calhoun was resistant. “I was like, ‘Oh yeah, four people in Brooklyn are sad. Quick, someone write a trend story,’” she said.
At the same time, Calhoun admitted she felt similarly. Her freelance writing gigs appeared to be drying up, leaving her and her family under enormous financial strain. She found herself waking up at 4 a.m. every night, plagued by self-doubt, compulsively making a list of life’s regrets.
She knew the editor was onto something. Calhoun made a few calls. And then a few more. She spoke to a wide swath of women around the country — white, Latina, Black and Asian, conservative and liberal, single and partnered, motherless and childless, gay and straight, religious and not religious — and each woman seemed to be suffering.
It turns out, Calhoun discovered, Gen X women are some of the best-educated women in history, but have more debt than any other age group. Gen X women are downwardly mobile, with most of the generation having less wealth than their parents. They are raising children later, and at the same time caring for their parents, all while going through perimenopause.
It’s no wonder Gen X women are sad, anxious ― and not sleeping.
The article in O, The Oprah Magazine went viral. After it published, Calhoun heard from hundreds of women with similar stories. That’s when she knew she had a book on her hands. The resulting memoir, “Why We Can’t Sleep,” publishes on Tuesday and is a superb mix of personal stories and deep research about a generation of women who are facing unprecedented pressure as they enter middle age. It’s at once realistic, but positive, asking women to face up to reality, let go of expectations, find a support system and accept this stage isn’t forever.
Calhoun, author of “St. Marks Is Dead” and the essay collection “Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give,” talked to HuffPost in December about the response to the article, midlife crises for Gen X women and how writing this book helped her deal with a tough year.
This interview was condensed and edited.
So … how much sleep did you get last night?
I actually got a solid seven hours last night.
That’s quite good!
I was very proud of myself this morning. And I would have slept longer but I had to wake up at 6:15 to take my son to school.
Your book is a lovely combination of memoir and research. Did you read other memoirs or nonfiction for inspiration?
I’ve ghostwritten 14 books in the last few years, so I think that let me see different ways of structuring things and let me get a little matrix-y. So I didn’t have clear models, but I liked thinking about structure and playing with structure.
Perhaps there’s one memoir that stood out for you?
It was funny, when “Wedding Toasts” came out, it was right around the same time as Claire Dederer’s memoir “Love and Trouble.” I read that. And I felt like it was a sister book. We actually got paired at various book events.
Dederer’s book is about a woman coming to terms with midlife, centered around a temptation to have an affair. In some ways, the affair is a way of acting out, a thing you can control when everything else doesn’t feel like it’s in your power. In your book, you described women with similar experiences, albeit not always romantic, but definitely under the category of “bad behavior.”
That’s right. I think that’s really astute. I did this panel with an expert on generations — I quote her in the book — and she said there’s no such thing as a midlife crisis. There’s no clear scientifically provable dip at this stage of life. She said the midlife crisis is actually an excuse for bad behavior.
I think about that all the time. Going back to what Claire writes about, bad according to who? It’s so judgmental, this idea that if you feel like the world is not giving you what you wanted, or if you feel like your dreams are not being realized, or if you feel like you’re taking care of everybody else all the time, if you have these feelings, what I think of as a crisis, why wouldn’t you get a little wild?
And is it bad just because it’s not convenient for everybody else? The thing that I thought was funny was the panelist was like, well, it is true that your generation is rather depressed and under a ton of stress. And I was like, so just call it that. Call it the phase of being stressed and under pressure and bad. But I think “midlife crisis” is a little more punchy.
When the original article for O, The Oprah Magazine published, the response was quite viral. Could you talk about that?
Hundreds of women wrote to me and said, me too! There was this looming sense that there was something wrong, and that they didn’t have a name for it. I was like, you’re all not crazy.
You didn’t imagine that housing costs are really high. You didn’t imagine that you’re facing a much tougher economy than your parents did when they were your age. One statistic that stood out was that we only have a one in four chance of out-earning our boomer fathers. One in four? With all this education and Title IX and our mothers being like, you go be a doctor, it still didn’t happen for us. It’s not happening. So it’s not like we just individually failed. It’s like, there were some forces at work.
It’s funny, I wrote this question down before I got to the part in the book when you meet a woman who goes to Sweden and discovers midlife utopia. I feel like every article about Scandinavia is about how perfect it is for families and women in general. Do you ever feel like the systems in place there are replicable here? I feel like the Gen X experience is very specific to America.
I think so. I don’t know enough about other countries and how they work, but I do know it’s hard to pull off the things Gen X women are trying to pull off, and if they had any support at all from any corner, it would probably make things a little better. The friend who went to Sweden got there and found she didn’t have to worry about health care or child care. I think that wherever the support comes from, getting support is always good because the burden can be so big. It definitely doesn’t get rid of menopause, it doesn’t get rid of feeling like we are becoming more invisible or feeling things narrowing, but if you take a couple things off the plate, it gets a little more manageable.
Did you have a moment of that, where you were just like, I need more support?
I’m having that now. It’s like a constant struggle because the caregiving stuff has gotten so out of control. Just a quick rundown of my fall. My father-in-law had a stroke and died in August. A couple of weeks later, I had to take my dad to all these medical appointments and he was diagnosed with stage 4 terminal cancer, and then the next month my parents’ apartment, my childhood home, burned up in a freak fire that started on the floor below them and destroyed their place. It’s uninhabitable for at least a year. Various other things have happened too.
What a year.
It’s been a year, and it’s not even like four months.
I went back to therapy and it’s been really wonderful, and I did say at one point, maybe my father had it right, maybe that whole generation of men where they just shut themselves off and they locked the door and they were like, good luck everybody, I’ll be out for dinner. Sometimes I imagine if I had done that, if I did that now, how much more good writing would I be able to do? How much better would my writing be and how many more books would I write and my shrink, she was like, this is a limited period of time. This is not forever. And she was like, I would much rather read something by somebody who’s lived a really rich life with human relationships and responsibilities and then goes and locks themself in a room than to read something by somebody who’s only ever locked themselves in a room. And it felt like, that’s actually a nice way to think about it. This isn’t forever. Maybe one day. Maybe one day I’ll have my room that I can lock.
You have to have that faith that it exists. That there’s a time like that in the future.
I have a lot of women friends who are in their 50s and 60s and their kids are on their own and their parents have passed away and whatever happened happened with their career paths, and they are just in this much less hectic place than I am right now.
I feel like everyone in midlife is in a slow-motion crisis, that they’re not necessarily running out of a burning building, but there is still so much crisis happening.
Yeah. I think this is a generation-specific thing, but going through midlife with an iPhone, and the barrage of breaking news alerts and calls from my son’s school and work requests, there is never a break. I pick it up in the morning; it’s 6 and I look at it before I go to bed, and it’s like your whole day is dominated by other voices in your head.
What surprised you most about the Gen X midlife crisis?
A number of women told me horrible stories about their childhood, and it wasn’t just sexual assault, but it was just like this steady march of really hard things, a lot of them involving divorced parents and being kind of cut loose and winding up in these weird situations because they didn’t have any parental supervision.
I was thinking, wait a minute, there must be a connection to how that history of trauma is connected to current midlife. There aren’t generational statistics, but I talked to a few experts and they said Gen X was the least parented generation.
It feels that way.
They said that was true, and it rings true to me too, and that Gen X women also have a ton of autoimmune problems and other physical stuff that is often potentially connected to early trauma.
What was the most challenging fact to accept?
I’m not minimizing how horrible our mothers had it, what with trying to keep, often, a broken home together while working through rampant sexism. This isn’t a competition of who had it worse, but what’s new, I think, is the quantity of stuff that we’re trying to pull off without a lot of support. I think everything feeds into that idea like we were born in a baby bust. The number of caregivers available compared to all the people who need to be taken care of is so small. We didn’t have great role models for how you work full time while you have children of varying ages, so we have to figure that out at the same time.
And then also we made all these logical choices. Friends of mine who waited until their 40s to start a family, they did that because they had student loan debt, and they had no family support and their parents lived a million miles away and also weren’t super engaged, and then they get to that point and they’re trying to do it and it’s so difficult.
Anything you want to add?
I will say, if I hadn’t done this book, done all this research and talked to all these women and put these supports in place, I would be in a much darker place right now than I am. I really think that having done this, I felt much more fortified to deal with it all.