OUT JANUARY 7th! Thank you to Grove Press and NetGalley for providing me with an advance review copy in exchange for an honest review.
While I am very solidly in the Millennial generational bracket, I really enjoyed reading Why We Can’t Sleep, Ada Calhoun’s nonfiction examination of Gen X women’s experiences with aging and managing their middle-aged years. I appreciated the discussion as a way to prepare myself for midlife, which will be coming for me in about a decade. Calhoun hoped as much, that younger women would learn from the generation above them, but she also does a lot of work explaining why Gen X has been uniquely set up to experience the issues that they currently are doing battle with.
In Why We Can’t Sleep, Calhoun talks about how a lot of Gen X women have found themselves to be miserable in their 40s and 50s. Maybe their careers (or lack thereof) are nothing like they expected. Maybe they hate their children or their partner or their body. Maybe they desperately want children and are running out of time to have them. The list is long, as I’m sure we can all understand. No one is 100% satisfied all the time.
Calhoun looks at the reasons why Gen X women seem to be more miserable than the women of other generations. She looks at how they were raised, with elevated expectations after Title IX and with elevated levels of parental neglect. She looks at the geo-political climate over the course of the entire lives and what made the biggest impacts on Gen Xers. And she examines the roll advances in medicine, science, and technology have had on a Gen Xers lives and their choices, as well as the shifts in social/cultural/gender dynamics from their parents’ generation. With all of this, she concludes that Gen X just seems to be the generation in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were hit hardest by the Great Recession and continue to, as a generation, hold the most consumer debt. They have a deep distrust of authority, the biggest deficit between reality and expectations, and they have acted as a kind of oldest child to Millennials and Gen Zers…facing technologically induced problems first.
Why We Can’t Sleep is an incredibly addictive read. I found myself unable to put it down, perhaps because I craved a fuller (and more honest) understanding of real women’s experiences. Calhoun’s writing was engaging and entertaining, and she covers a good range of topics. That being said, I have a couple issues with Why We Can’t Sleep. The first is that at times it can come off as one giant complaining session and whoa is me-ing. There are legitimate reasons why Gen X has had a rough go, but some things in the book make me want to roll my eyes.
Part of that is wrapped up in the second issue…she refers to Millennials as kids multiple times. The youngest of us are out of undergrad and the oldest of us are nearly 40. We are adults with adult issues. We don’t have our heads buried in video games. We are fully engaged with what’s happening in the world, and (I hate to break this to everyone) some of us actually do remember a time without Internet in our homes OR AT ALL. We are battling with our own set of grown bullshit that is decidedly not childish in nature. She also uses some generalizations about Millennials and Boomers as ways to prove why Gen Xers have it the worst, and that just doesn’t fly with me. Stereotypes don’t prove points.
My third and probably biggest issue with Calhoun’s book is her seeming lack of diversity in voices. While there is at least one queer person’s story, we’re not really told the ethnicity or socioeconomic situation or childhood environment for a lot of the women in the book. I know Calhoun isn’t trying to conduct an exhaustive survey on the issue, but I think that the reason I felt like rolling my eyes at a lot of the stories in this book was because they felt like #FirstWorldProblems.
Loosing jobs is awful, being in debt is awful, facing fertility issues when you want children is incredibly painful, but what happens when you face these things as a Gen X woman who came from a very impoverished family or who can’t pay for groceries every week or who has been homeless or has suffered racial discrimination. I don’t think trans women were mentioned at all (and that would have been incredibly valuable). We don’t get much insight on those women’s experiences, or a look at how a Black Gen X woman or a trans Gen X woman experience the difficulties of middle age differently than a White Gen X woman. I am certain that there are notable differences that are worth discussion.
But those issues aside, this was a very readable book that does offer valuable insight into our middle aged years in the new world we live in. I found it helpful (as a white, middle class, cishet woman), and if you are a Gen X woman you will probably feel some great comfort in reading your peers’ experiences. I applaud Calhoun for sharing these details about female life. Middle aged women tend to get pushed aside and their problems not taken seriously, so this was a nice step to correcting that.
I’m at a point in my life where big decisions have to be made. These things affect the rest of our lives, and choices we make will sometimes come back to haunt us. I greatly appreciated hearing the stories and lessons of women 10-20 years my senior. Sharing that knowledge is very important, especially for women. And while I did feel comforted in some ways, I also learned that there is no right way to do anything in life. Women interviewed by Calhoun were miserable for the same reasons other women were happy. And some women were miserable because they couldn’t have the things other women had (like a family or high-powered career or both), but some of those same women who do have those things hate them and wished they’d never attained them.
So honestly, it feels to me like the best we can do is try to know and love ourselves as well as possible, make educated guesses as to how to proceed with life, try to live in the moment and appreciate what we have when we have it, temper our expectations in order to have an achievable goal of happiness, and not be afraid to change something that makes us unhappy if it is possible to change! Calhoun’s book does have plenty of positive stories to offset the sad ones, and she does leave us on a hopeful note. Many of the women she talks to who are going through a hard time end up in a better place when she follows up with them later on. Humans are adaptable and resilient, and while life is getting harder and things have changed drastically from the Baby Boomers’ experience, there is hope for happy and fulfilling lives as we age!