What a midlife crisis looks like for Gen X women today

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The cover of “Why We Can’t Sleep.” Credit: Grove Press.

The new book, “Why We Can’t Sleep: Women's New Midlife Crisis,” looks at why Generation X women are struggling.  

“A lot of women are really crushed by a combination of working full-time stressful jobs, taking care of aging parents, taking care of little kids, while having their phones blowing up with breaking news alerts and demands from their bosses 24 hours a day, and going through perimenopause all at the same time,” author Ada Calhoun tells Press Play. 

She adds, “And that pile-on is new. In our mothers’ and grandmothers’ generations, women were probably empty nesters by now because the age you had a kid was in your early 20s. If you worked a job, it is probably nine to five. And most women were not trying to do both at the same moment in time as nearly all Gen Xers are.”

Economic stresses 

Calhoun interviewed hundreds of women, and she saw a contrast between expectations and realities when it came to financial success. 

“We were told you can be anything -- even president -- and the American dream is real, and every generation does better than the one before. And that has just not been true for us. Women only have like a one in four chance of outearning our boomer fathers, for example,” she says. “The reality of trying to do all the things all at once has really hit us hard, especially given that the economy has not cooperated.”

Judged for everything 

Women also judge themselves differently now, Calhoun points out. 

“One woman I talked to, who studies generations, she said, ‘This is a generation that judges itself on everything. It used to be you could judge yourself just on your job, or just on your house or something like that. Now it's like women are very critical of themselves in their work, in their home and their looks, and everything. And that's just wearing a lot of people out,” she says. 

How to make things better? 

Calhoun says women are turning to self-care. 

“That was something I heard over and over again -- that they were using some self-help book. They were doing the Keto Diet. They're doing yoga. They were taking Xanax. … There's this patchwork of solutions here and there,” she says. 

Calhoun’s argument in the book, however, is that these challenges are systemic. 

“These are forces beyond our control in a lot of ways. And the first thing we can do … is look at it as beyond just our failure to get the right job, or take the right supplement, or whatever it is that we think is going to solve this,” she says. “This is a time of life that's hard for women. Pretty much always. But then for us trying to do so much with such high expectations, it can be debilitating.” 

What about the fun/romance part of women’s lives? 

Calhoun says Gen X has always lacked a certain amount of pleasure. 

“When we became sexually active was right around the time of AIDS. ... So we never had this illusion that free love was really something available to us. Drug epidemics were right around the time we were theoretically going to be experimenting with drugs. … We did not have the same kind of joyful, liberated teen dream that our parents did,” she says. 


Ada Calhoun. Credit: Gilbert King.

 Read an excerpt: 

1
Possibilities Create Pressure
“If you said you wanted to be a nurse, everyone would say, ‘Why not a doctor?’” 

       When Kelly was a little girl growing up in the 1970s, she believed that girls could do anything. The daughter of blue- collar parents in the northern New Jersey suburbs, Kelly was the first in her immediate family to finish college.
       Kelly and her friends played a game called Mary Tyler Moore, inspired by the 1970s TV show. They would play-act being spunky, independent women living in the city on their own. Rather than pretending to be a cowgirl or a princess, Kelly would be “this young, working single woman who was out to conquer everything.” She loved the theme song: “You’re going to make it after alllll!” And she loved the cap toss. And she loved the way that Mary found her tribe at work.
       Kelly went through school in the first flush of Title IX, the federal law passed in 1972 that said boys and girls must be treated equally when it came to federally funded educational programs and activities. No longer could schools legally discriminate when it came to financial assistance, recruitment, admissions, or athletics. The playing field would be more level, and girls, everyone predicted, would flourish.
       The thwarted ambitions of Kelly’s own mother raised the stakes: “She was living through my life. There was always the fear: what if she was disappointed?”
       This was happening all over the country. First-wave feminists had fought for the right to vote at the turn of the nineteenth century. Second-wave feminists who’d been fighting for women’s rights starting in the early 1960s were now raising their daughters to receive the torch and to reach new levels of success: becoming doctors, not nurses; professors, not grade school teachers; CEOs, not secretaries. If our grandparents worked the land and our parents toiled in middle management, we would get the corner office—and, of course, have a family, a nice house, and a social life. Echoing in our ears was the second-wave mother’s mantra: “Girls can grow up to be anything—even president!”
       One midwestern woman I know wanted to go to school locally, but her own mother, who hadn’t been allowed to go away to school herself, insisted her daughter leave her home state for college. The family got a second mortgage to pay the out-of-state tuition. “I spent all spring and then thirteen hours in a car driving there trying to figure out how to say I didn’t want to go,” the woman, now in her late forties, recalled. “My poor mother. The minute we started unpacking—which she was so excited about—I burst into tears.”
       “A lot of the media at that time,” Kelly told me, “said, ‘You can bring home the bacon, and fry it up . . .’” Kelly hummed the notorious commercial for Enjoli perfume that many of us still keep in our psychic filing cabinet along with “Mikey likes it!”
       In the 1980 Enjoli ad, set to the 1962 hit “I’m a Woman,” a blonde woman sings that she can bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan—and never let you forget you’re a man. In the course of one day—during which her perfume, we are assured, never fades—she wears a business suit in which to make money, a collared shirt and pants in which to cook, and a cocktail dress and sultry pout in which to seduce. Tagline: “The eight-hour perfume for your twenty-four-hour woman.” So successful is the woman in the ad that while she is read- ing a book to off-camera children, an off-camera man’s voice says, “Tonight I’m gonna cook for the kids.” She responds with a coy, pleasantly surprised smile. I guess on this one special day she gets to be a twenty-three-hour woman.
       Kelly, like many young girls watching that ad, saw the actress going from office to kitchen to bedroom not as an absurd, regressive fantasy directed at men to make them buy their wives Enjoli perfume but as a blueprint for a full life. Looks doable, thought many young women. I’ll go to work and come home and make dinner and be sexy the whole time, just the way I doubled up on AP classes while serving as captain of the volleyball team and editor of the yearbook and teasing my bangs with just the right amount of hair spray.
       When Geraldine Ferraro ran for vice president in 1984, Kelly was enthusiastic but not surprised—because of course women were smashing glass ceilings. It was only a matter of time, she thought, before women ran companies and eventually the country, too.
       The opening montage of 1987’s Baby Boom showed shoulder-padded women proudly marching into corporate offices. In the film Working Girl (1988), Melanie Griffith’s character says to Harrison Ford’s: “I’ve got a head for business and a bod’ for sin. Is there anything wrong with that?”4 (Flustered, he says no.)
       Kelly and her friends dreamed big, and they went on to higher education. Supplied with both heads and bods, they assumed that in addition to conquering the business world they would one day acquire their own Harrison Fords.
       Post–Mary Tyler Moore Show, the TV show Murphy Brown, starring a sardonic Candice Bergen, became Kelly’s lodestar. When Brown became a single mother in the 1992 season 4 finale, while holding down a powerful newsroom job, Kelly again got the message. Women could have a life rich in both love and achievement. All you needed to make it all work was a good work ethic, supportive friends, and maybe a wacky house painter-turned-nanny named Eldin to watch your baby while you worked.
       This was the plan. But once Kelly became an adult, reality intervened. While at college in Washington, DC, she started noticing that the promised land was not quite as easy to reach as she’d been told it would be. One of the main problems in making dreams come true? They cost money.

--Written by Amy Ta, produced by Rebecca Mooney and Sarah Sweeney