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'Why We Can't Sleep'

by Star Tribune (Minneapolis) | January 11, 2020 at 9:17 p.m. | Updated January 11, 2020 at 9:24 p.m.
"Why We Can't Sleep" by Ada Calhoun; Grove (267 pages, $26). (Grove Atlantic/TNS)

I remember seeing it on Facebook, shared by seemingly every woman my age in fall 2017 - hundreds of thousands of times in a few days. A viral essay, in which writer Ada Calhoun described the "new" midlife crisis hitting Generation X. She wrote about women who were exhausted, overwhelmed, pounded by a unique combination of family and financial stress and widely overlooked by a country obsessed with baby boomers and millennials.

Now Calhoun, the author of a memoir, "The Wedding Toasts I'll Never Give," and an urban history, "St. Marks Is Dead," explores the issue in depth in her latest book, "Why We Can't Sleep: Women's New Midlife Crisis."

Calhoun dedicates her book to "the middle-aged women of America. You're not imagining it, and it's not just you."

She isn't writing about the stereotypical male midlife crisis of sports cars and marital affairs, but a quieter, more frazzled one, involving sleepless nights and sudden rages behind closed doors. One woman hires a babysitter so she can go watch a movie alone and cry, while another describes destroying her son's iPad with a hammer after getting no response when repeatedly asking him to help out.

Throughout, she weaves the personal stories of hundreds of Gen X women with history and statistics that show the particular predicament of women born between 1965 and 1980, marrying and having families later and facing the first flares of perimenopause while chasing after little kids and stressing over caring for their parents. Or awake at night, single, 40-something and broke, scrolling through social media and overthinking everything.

"Gen X has arrived in middle age to almost no notice, largely unaware, itself, of being a uniquely star-crossed cohort," she writes, arguing that we grew up the first generation of women believing we should be able to "have it all" but instead faced historic obstacles and are the first likely to be downwardly mobile compared with our parents.

"We were born into a bleak economy and grew up during a boom in crime, abuse and divorce. We were raised 'pre-specialness,' which meant not only no participation trophies but also that we were shielded far less than children today from the uglier sides of life," she writes, adding that the recessions of the early 1990s, 2001 and 2008 were timed to hit Gen X at particularly difficult life moments.

The book makes a powerful argument to Gen X women to stop saying to ourselves, like Calhoun once did, that we are "lucky and have no right to complain." Instead, we should accept that "This is a bumpy stretch in life. We should not expect to feel fine," she writes.

Calhoun speaks directly to her own generation, peppering the book with so many specific cultural touchstones, from the Challenger explosion to Koosh balls to the slime-filled TV show "Double Dare," that I found reading "Why We Can't Sleep" to be a singular experience - driving home her point that Gen X is so often overlooked.

She even ends the book with a list of song titles for a "Midlife Crisis Mixtape." Cue up Sophie Tucker's "Life Begins at Forty."


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