How to be fine with not being fine
Ada Calhoun’s important new book takes a hard look at Generation X women grappling with midlife crises
Are you a 40-something woman who lies awake at night wondering how to juggle your children, ageing parents, stressful job, declining health, and massive debt? Do you find yourself yelling , “Nobody appreciates me!" If so, American writer Ada Calhoun’s Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis is the book for you.
Indian readers may worry whether a book written for American women applies to them but the problems Calhoun deals with are universal. She argues that Generation X has a different set of challenges because they are the sandwich generation, taking care of both those older and younger than them. “Because as a generation we waited to have kids, many women now have small children in their 40s. Boomers are living longer than past generations, so we are also likely to be taking care of ageing parents. And, in part, because of the higher cost of living, we are likely to work full-time while doing all this," says Calhoun in an email interview.
If you are confused about whether you fit into Gen X, anyone born between 1965-80 is part of this generation. Boomers are those born before 1965, millennials are those born after 1980, and Generation Z those born after 1995. “Generation X is America’s neglected middle child, a low slung straight line bridge between two noisy behemoths," argues Calhoun. Her book suggests that Gen X-ers, especially women, have long been ignored in favour of boomers and millennials.
Who: Calhoun is a New York-based non-fiction writer and this is her third book. The book grew out of an article she wrote for O, The Oprah Magazine, headlined “The New Midlife Crisis".
Initially, Calhoun was doubtful about her subject, wondering if it was too much of a first-world problem. But the article went viral, and Calhoun realized she had struck a nerve. For the book, Calhoun interviewed more than 200 women across America—white, black, Latina, Asian—about their experiences as the generation expected to “have it all". Some were married, some single, some parents, some child-free, some straight, some gay. All were struggling, and most felt they had failed in some way. She is clear that the book applies to middle-class women only. “Very poor women in this country bear burdens that are beyond the scope of a book this size." But it is precisely the middle-class women who feel that they can’t complain, because they are still better off than their mothers.
“These were women who were doing so much in the world—taking care of multiple generations of families, working stressful full-time jobs with demanding bosses, feeling the pressure of breadwinning and the stress of caregiving, all while telling themselves they were lucky," says Calhoun. As she approached 43, her own life was proof of that. As she wrote this book, her parents’ apartment burnt down and her father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Her young son and stepson needed her, even as she shouldered the responsibility of being the main breadwinner. Still, she felt unable to complain.
What: Calhoun leavens her serious subject with black humour and some sparkling anecdotes. As she points out, there have been countless books and movies on the male midlife crisis. “Treatment: regular application of younger women and brightly coloured motor vehicles. Some men are even played by actors who are not Michael Douglas," she adds wickedly. Meanwhile women are quietly soldiering on, unnoticed.
This is a very readable book, and does not get bogged down in data. It is also never depressing, despite dealing with not the cheeriest of subjects. Calhoun has an eye for a great story, and the book is jam-packed with many. In one anecdote, a single mother juggling three jobs smashes her teen son’s iPad when he refuses to pack on time for a trip. Her first thought as she stands over the glass: “I have to find a good therapist right now…"
The least convincing part of the book is when Calhoun argues that Generation X-ers were forever changed when the space shuttle Challenger blew up in 1986, killing the whole crew. That wasn’t the only trauma; she also blames latchkey parenting, Cold War tensions and increasing divorce rates as the reason for Generation X’s insecurity. It is hard to buy these points, given the precarious gig economy, right-wing nationalism and terrifying spectre of climate change looming over current generations.
Calhoun responds that the aim of the book is not to pit one generation against the other. “The Challenger wasn’t worse than the traumas experienced by other generations. I just argue that the attitude towards children at the time resulted in a lot of TVs around the country being switched off after the explosion, with very minimal processing. And I suggest that this is indicative of many ways in which the emotional life of Gen X was ignored then and is ignored now." Nevertheless, it is hard to escape the feeling that she is reaching slightly.
Calhoun is on much firmer ground when she highlights ageism in the workplace, and how 50-something women are slowly being edged out of the workforce. A chapter on menopausal rage and anxiety—the subject no one talks about—is a revelation. “Peri-menopause and menopause are as dramatic as puberty, but far less discussed, to the point of being taboo," writes Calhoun (one extremely relatable anecdote has a woman renting a private karaoke room with a three-person minimum simply to scream at the top of her lungs for 2 hours).
Why: Read this book if you are a 40-plus woman who feels totally misunderstood by everyone around you. Calhoun understands you and, as she writes, “Short term perks, like spa days or facials, are like putting a Band-Aid on a broken bone." She is refreshingly scathing about the quick fix “wellness" movement peddled by actor Gwyneth Paltrow and others, which can’t make a dent in deep structural injustice.
Calhoun found, for instance, that having more options has not made Generation X happier. She hastens to add this is not proof that women would be happier if they stayed at home or that feminism is foolish. Instead, she argues convincingly, we should have listened to what the first-wave feminists asked for. “The truth is that we have never really tried what those feminists proposed. Women went into the workforce, but without any significant change to gender roles at home, paid-leave laws, to anything that would make the shift feasible," she writes, voicing a feeling that nearly all Indian working women will identify with. “We bear financial responsibilities that men had in the old days, while still saddled with traditional caregiving duties."
There are, she surmises, no quick fixes to midlife crises. But lowering our expectations and not trying to do it all—career, children, caring—is a good start. “So many women have written to me to say that the book cured them of shame they had because of what they thought they should have achieved by now. I think getting rid of that shame is the first step," she says.
In conclusion, Calhoun offers oddly bracing advice: “The first step to peace in middle age has been learning that the game is rigged. This is a bumpy stretch in life. We should not expect to feel fine." Amen to that.
Kavitha Rao is a Bengaluru-based journalist and author.
Twitter - @KavithaRao
FIRST PUBLISHED06.03.2020 | 05:12 PM IST