Motherwell talks to best-selling author Ada Calhoun

book cover why we can't sleep ada calhoun

An instant New York Times best-seller, Ada Calhoun’s Why We Can’t Sleep offers an honest and straightforward exploration into the stresses that keep Generation X women up at night. Through extensive research and hundreds of interviews, Calhoun gives a voice to middle age struggles—divorce, debt, perimenopause, exhaustion, job instability—and empowers a generation of women who were raised to “have it all.”

Motherwell had the opportunity to talk to Ada recently about the success of her book, including why middle age is so different for Gen-X women, what impact that could have on raising daughters, and how the current pandemic crisis will affect this sub-group of women.

Randi Olin: Generation X women—those born between 1965 and 1980—are some of the best-educated women in history, and have been raised to “have it all.” Yet they weren’t given the support they needed along the way. What accounts for this breakdown?

Ada Calhoun: Forty percent of us are children of divorce. That often meant a serious financial hit to the kids, so far less chance of getting college paid for or a down payment for a first home. Meanwhile, costs for housing, education, and healthcare have risen dramatically. Jobs are less stable, there’s less of a social network… For Gen X it’s been a perfect storm of “you’re on your own.”

RO: Even for women who think they have it all—a full time job, a relatively happy marriage, strong friendships—there still seems to be this lingering feeling of shame, a sense that they haven’t achieved enough. You interviewed hundreds of women for your book. Did these women give any kind of indication about what would be enough?

AC: Sometimes I asked that and it was rare that someone could give me a concrete answer. The goalposts seemed to move a lot. It was as if stability always felt just out of reach. 

RO: You mention in your book that 40% of Gen X women are the product of divorce. How, if it all, has this affected their approach to life?

AC: Yes, and it was a lot more Kramer vs. Kramer than conscious uncoupling in those days. One psychologist I interviewed told me that this made our generation wary and anxious, always waiting for the other shoe to drop.   

RO: You spoke to hundreds of women in their 40s and 50s when writing this book, from all across the country. Did you notice any trends, in terms of overall contentment and fulfillment, between the women who live in cities vs those who reside in suburbs?

AC: Some women told me they’d moved to the suburbs or to smaller, cheaper cities thinking they’d lower their overhead and get some breathing room but then found other problems—such as housing shortages or trouble finding high-paying work. It’s rough all over. 

RO: We were raised thinking we could do anything but somewhere along the way we’ve taken this to mean we have to do everything. Where did this notion come from, and how can we right this cycle of struggle and confusion for our daughters?

AC: Millennials and Gen Zers seem more realistic than we were about what’s possible as long as there are just 24 hours in a day. I think we were brainwashed to believe that having a family and being a breadwinner and staying in shape, etc, etc, was all possible simultaneously. Many women now are pulling all that off, but many are doing it by losing a lot of sleep and feeling pretty stressed out. 

RO: What is the relationship between happiness and parenthood for women in their 40s and 50s? Are empty nest moms any more or less tired, anxious, and unfulfilled than mothers with children who are still living at home? Does it matter whether women had kids at a younger or older age in terms of feeling miserable? 

AC: So many women in this generation waited to have kids, which was a sensible thing to do given their career goals and the economy. But then the result is they have little kids while working full time and taking care of aging parents and going through perimenopause. That’s a very different experience of middle age than our mothers and grandmothers had. 

RO: How, if at all, has social media played a role in the midlife crisis of the “having it all generation”? 

AC: Many of the women I interviewed told me that intellectually they knew the things they saw on social media were not totally real—that other people only showed the good days and the good angles—and yet looking at it all day still could convince them that everyone else had it figured out, that they were the only ones flailing. 

RO: Women are facing so many changes in the 40s and 50s, including hormonal ones associated with perimenopause and menopause. How do we even begin to unravel what’s causing what in terms of the increasingly prevalent strains on our mental health?

AC: A good gynecologist is really important, because a lot of emotional problems come from physical ones, and there are things that can work to make us feel better, whether hormone replacement therapy or something else. 

RO: If you could write a follow up chapter to Why We Can’t Sleep, what would that look like?

AC: I might tell some of the stories I’ve heard on my book tour. A lot of the women who’ve come to events have been really eloquent and really funny.

RO: What books are on your nightstand right now? What are your favorite recent memoir reads?

AC: On my nightstand right now are some guidebooks to Paris, where I was going to go for a conference, but won’t now because of the pandemic. Some of my favorite recent memoir reads are David Carr’s The Night of the Gun, Dolly Parton’s My Life and Other Unfinished Business, my friend Sarah Frey’s forthcoming The Growing Season, and Michelle Obama’s Becoming

RO: In what ways is the current COVID-19 pandemic particularly stressful for the subset of Gen X women, (e.g. are we more likely to bear the brunt of the emotional labor it will generate)? Are there any ways in which we are especially prepared for current conditions, (e.g. we were often left home alone for extended periods of time)?

AC: Once again, we’re caught in the middle. The Gen X women of this country are doing a huge percentage of the caregiving right now for kids home from school and/or aging parents, who are caught in the crosshairs of this virus, many while working from home. This is where our generation’s high rates of debt and rampant job instability will likely add even more stress. But it is true that as a generation we are used to quietly taking care of ourselves and others, finding humor and grace in crises, and watching a lot of TV. We have a lot of experience with isolation and uncertainty and resilience!

Ada Calhoun is the author of the memoir Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give, named an Amazon Book of the Month and one of the top ten memoirs of 2017 by W magazine; and the history St. Marks Is Dead, one of the best books of 2015, according to Kirkus and the Boston Globe. She has collaborated on several New York Times bestsellers, and written for the New York Times, New York, and The New Republic.

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