Why You Can’t Sleep: An Interview with Ada Calhoun

The author of the best-selling book Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis opens up about what’s really keeping us up at night.

By Katherine Lanpher


If you’re suffering through perimenopause, raising kids or stepkids, taking care of your elderly parents and struggling to keep your career steady — bonus points if you’re doing all four at once — then Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis is the book for you.

Calhoun isn’t writing about insomnia, per se: she’s writing about that dawn o’clock moment when you stare at the ceiling and wonder any number of myriad questions: why don’t I have any savings? Will I be able to keep my job? Why didn’t I have children? Did having children hurt my career? What happens if Mom falls again?

For the book, Calhoun interviewed hundreds of women and gathered the statistics, data and studies that spell out the unique squeeze that Gen X women are in and why it causes them sleepless nights.

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Plum: This book and your research focused on Gex X women, a generation born between 1965 and 1980. Who are they?

Calhoun: They’re women who were told growing up that they could be anything, even president, and then given no support in actually achieving that goal. I think it was the combination of this ‘reach for the stars’ message and mantra … combined with these economic forces and social forces that made it extremely hard to pull off even one thing. 


Plum: You talked to hundreds of women across the country. What did you hear?

Calhoun: A lot of the women I talked to, who are now in their 40s and 50s, did a lot of stuff. Many either had a family or built a career, built a business, or took care of aging parents or bought their own house. But so many of them just felt like it wasn’t enough though they couldn’t quite put their finger on what would be enough. 


Plum: What do you think is the most toxic message they received?

Calhoun: I think a lot of us got this message, especially if we had Second Wave feminist mothers, of ‘Look, we knocked down all these walls for you. You can charge ahead and go take that corner office because we fought that fight for you.’ And a lot of women I talked to felt they were letting their mothers down if they failed. It wasn’t just their dreams they weren’t fulfilling; it was their mother’s dreams too.


Plum: So what is success?

Calhoun: I think the goalposts move a lot. 


Plum: Tell me about the spectrum of women you talked to.

Calhoun: Class-wise, I kept it to middle class. I’ve written a lot of national news stories about women who were extremely poor … and rich women are documented extensively in luxury magazines and reality shows. But I feel like people don’t talk about this vast middle, where there was an expectation of success and they were told repeatedly the world was their oyster.


Plum: Is this just a phenomenon for white women? 

Calhoun: It’s not just white. In fact, I think a lot of things I am talking about are truer for women of color because they also described a sort of extra layer of pressure to achieve and prove this great promise of the American Dream. And then they, like all of us, felt this sense of shame if it didn’t happen. 


Plum: What sort of numbers back this up?

Calhoun: The truth is in the statistics. I loaded up the book with statistics because I wanted people to know that it’s not just whining. If you only have a one out of four chance of out-earning your father, that means the American Dream is not working the way we were told it was going to for three-quarters of Gen X women. I think women have internalized any failure to do stuff like that with ‘I did something wrong,’ when maybe we were just sold a bill of goods.


Plum: Tell me more about what you heard from the women you interviewed.

Calhoun: Once they got talking, they were mad. They would talk about things like the Enjoli perfume ads, which were really scorched into a lot of people’s memories. You know the Enjoli perfume ads? ‘I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a–


Plum: –pan!’

Calhoun: I mean, so many women sang the whole song to me! There was something about the woman [in the ad] and the way she talked. It was like this indoctrination campaign. The whole thing was about being a 24-hour woman.


Plum: So what are the men of this generation feeling?

Calhoun: I think they should write a book. So much attention gets paid to middle-aged men, or to men’s midlife crises … I was just so tired of that narrative because I feel like we don’t tend to look at what women are going through at the same time. I think it’s because it’s not as cinematic. I talked to a lot of shrinks and experts and they said women tend to fit their crises in around the edges of everything. Like, they might be having a lot of feelings and a lot of thoughts and fantasizing about escape, but they still take their mom to the doctor and they still get their work done in time.


Plum: So when they do act out….?

Calhoun: Smoking out the window is really common apparently. Like, they’re going to do something naughty and then that’s it. Whereas men maybe go have the affair…


We need better dreams because I think this traditional American Dream that we’re going to keep being upwardly mobile forever isn’t true for our generation.

Ada Calhoun

Plum: You know, I can hear Boomers whispering in my ear, ‘This isn’t that different than it was for us.’

Calhoun: I’m not saying Gen X invented any of these things. What is true for this generation is that because of the economics, it’s not like only one person in the family can work, right? Often the job that the average Gen X woman has, compared to the job average women in the ‘70s had, is a 24-hour-on-call stressful thing with no boundaries. Then there’s the fact that I think it was seven available caregivers for someone who needed help 10 years ago. And now it’s like four to one, and soon it’s going to be three to one.


Plum: When we say caregiving, we’re talking parents, right?

Calhoun: We were a baby bust. I’m an only child. A lot of my friends are only children who are my age. So it’s up to them to take care of their parents, and often their parents are divorced. Also, in this generation, women usually waited to get married and have children. So in their 40s, they have small children while taking care of aging parents. I mean I have a 13-year-old son, a 25-year-old stepson, a 102-year-old grandmother, and then two parents in their 70s that are all relying on me in various ways. I think that would have been an uncommon picture in 1975 or 1980.


Plum: It was still hard.

Calhoun: I’m not trying to compete. I’m not saying, ‘you had it so easy.’ I think women have always had to deal with so much in midlife, no matter their generation. I just think it has gone unheralded for too long.



Plum: If you want people to walk away with one thing, what would it be?

Calhoun: For our generation, the biggest thing that’s contributing to this panic is the contrast between the expectations and the reality. What I’ve heard from women who have read the book is that they let go of shame about where they were in life or about letting down their mothers down who had these big dreams for them. 


Plum: You actually end up on a hopeful note.

Calhoun: We need better dreams because I think this traditional American Dream that we’re going to keep being upwardly mobile forever isn’t true for our generation. We need a different metric. And I think maybe for us, the truth is we had a really hard and often very lonely path to adulthood, and yet we’re the most educated generation of women to date and we have made huge strides in many areas and we’re funny… maybe we’re doing OK.  

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