Originally published February 6, 2020
Sometimes, you just need to hear “No, you’re not imagining it. Yes, this really is stressful.”
Thank you, Ada Calhoun.
I honestly don’t even know where to start when it comes to talking about “Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis,” which makes complete sense when you read the book and realize that being scatterbrained on top of bumfuzzled is pretty much the standard for some people when you are in the throes of mid-life.
I’m there — I’m 51, and have been bitching about perimenopause for several years now. So when I spotted Calhoun’s book, I couldn’t download it fast enough. I had tried “The Silent Passage” and just could not relate. And in a lot of ways, the emotional cycle me and so many friends my age seem to be caught in felt as if it had to be tied to more than just our hormones.
Calhoun’s book is geared specifically at Generation X, of which I proudly belong. (Don’t come at me about 80s music, Star Wars, Benetton, Swatch or John Hughes movies because I will shut.you.down.) Thanks to that focus, I nearly sprained my neck nodding “Yes!” every few paragraphs.
Starting in the first chapter, you begin to sense relief when, explaining why our mid-life is so particularly stressy, Calhoun describes some of her conversations with women. Consider the backdrop we were born into and raised — the advent of Title IX and the bonafide opportunity to do more. More, more, more. With Enjoli perfume ads, Murphy Brown and Geraldine Ferraro, 70s and 80s girls were bombarded with the “Yes you can do it ALL!” message.
“We kept hearing again and again that we could be anything we wanted to be. We had supportive mothers insisting we could accomplish more than they had. Title IX made sure our after-school classes were as good as the boys’. We saw women on television who had family and fun careers. So, if we happened to fail, why was that? The only thing we had to blame was ourselves.”
Quoting Atlanta-based therapist Bryn Chafin, Calhoun nails what so many women my age and of my generation seems to feel — that we can’t keep all the balls in the air, that it’s never enough. “‘Middle child’ is an extremely poignant metaphor,” Chafin said of Gen X. “You can get lost and don’t have a lot of support.”
Maybe we struggle with support, but Calhoun comes to the rescue with anecdotes that will leave you feeling less alone. From mothers that run away to the grocery store to those battling a sense of “Is this it? Really?” …. we’ve all been there. We’ve all forgotten to play the Tooth Fairy. We’ve all got the husband that had.one.job. The emotional rollercoaster that is perimenopause. (I swear Calhoun must have been observing me through the window at some point, with an anecdote describing her mood as more rage than anxiety. I’ve been known to snap photos of snack wrappers on tables, open cabinets and empty glasses left everywhere and rage-texting them to my young adult sons still living at home.)
On top of all this, there are the messages we women of a certain age receive now — that we can still look 20 if we work hard enough. We can control our BMI. We can banish wrinkles. We can keep the house de-cluttered and still claim a C-Suite.
“The barrage of advice we receive about how to avoid suffering reinforces an idea that Gen X women don’t need emphasized: that we have to do more, work harder, try ever more classes and cleanses and programs.”
Oh my God, yes. YES! Please stop. As one of Calhoun’s friends said, “Do we ever get permission to look forty rather than twenty, to just be old? And not even old, but ‘Yeah, I popped a couple (of kids) out, give me a break.’ I don’t want to have to go to Pilates. I don’t remember all our moms looking that good at forty.”
This book is fantastic not just for the sense of community it provides, but the advice it suggests. I’d go into all of it, but I’d rather you support Calhoun and buy the book. I will say this though — clearly, based on the way Calhoun does her research and the stories she tells, one of the most important things you can do is lean into your friendships. Connect with women. And if you lack those connections, it is not too late to make them. It may be more challenging, but most definitely not too late.
And with that, I am immensely grateful for my friends, near and far. Let’s not put off Girls’ Night any longer.