By Debbie Koenig
Generation X—made up of people born between 1965 and 1980—was dubbed “America’s neglected middle child” by the Pew Research Center. Smaller than the Boomer generation before it or the Millennial one that follows, the group gets left out of generational analyses and makes headlines as the forgotten ones. The women of Gen X, of which I am one, may have it particularly hard, coming of age as the first group of girls told we can be anything while still facing legal societal sexism. (For instance, until 1974 women could be denied credit cards and loans based on their marital status.) In her new book, Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis, journalist (and fellow Gen X’er) Ada Calhoun digs deep into the unique circumstances that keep so many of us up at night.
WebMD spoke with Calhoun about the disappointments Gen X women live with, the caregiving challenges we face, and why she still has hope. Our interview has been edited for clarity and length.
WebMD: What do you hope Generation X women will get from this book?
Calhoun: What I’ve been hearing the most, and what I’m really happy about, is women saying it makes them feel less alone. It gives them some context for where they are at this stage. A lot of us started working very young, and we worked hard. If we haven’t gotten to where we expected, we blame ourselves, we try to figure out what we did wrong. A lot of women say it’s liberating and validating to see there are other forces in their lives beyond their own.
WebMD: Let’s talk about women and midlife crisis. It seems as if most of us don’t feel like we’re entitled to have one. Why is that?
Calhoun: The stereotypical male midlife crisis is dramatic. It involves flashy expenditures, sexy affairs, bad behavior. All these women I interviewed, the experts I talked to who deal with women at this stage, told me they were much quieter about what they’re going through. They’re still waking up with the baby, taking food to their father, working 80-hourweeks. Whatever crisis they experienced, they snuck it in around the edges to make sure they didn’t inconvenience anyone else. That makes it easy for others to say it’s not real, not significant. If you listen to the stories of women in the book or talk to a woman in real life, you realize the weight on them, the pressure. It’s a marvel that any of us are walking around being good citizens.
WebMD: We’re the last analog generation, having grown up without computers and smartphones. How does that set us apart?
Calhoun: I learned to type on an IBM Selectric typewriter. I played Oregon Trail. All those experiences make it so that Boomers and Millennials don’t often know where we’re coming from when it comes to technology. One thing I heard from a lot of women is that their expertise in tech is dismissed because Millennials are seen as native speakers and we had to learn the language. But there’s a real strength to having both, to know what it’s like to walk around without a phone and then also be able to code.
WebMD: We grew up in a tough era, the first generation of latchkey kids, with little supervision. How is our childhood trauma affecting us now?
Calhoun: I did this neuroscience seminar at USC for a fellowship in health journalism and it was all about brain science and what stress does to the brain. I found it fascinating and I see it everywhere now. There hasn’t been a lot of research done on this so it’s hard to point to anything definitively, but I did talk to somebody who said Generation X is the least parented generation, and we dealt with a lot of stressful situations very early. The crime rate was extremely high, and 40% of us were children of divorce. We were left to do so much on our own. I think it makes sense that stress from childhood would carry on to today in how we feel. According to those experts the stress in childhood changes your brain chemistry and can affect a lot of things in life, including your health and your anxiety level.
WebMD: In the book you say, “We must reconcile the two primary messages of our childhood: One: ‘Reach for the stars.’ Two: ‘You’re on your own.’” How is that different from the messages Boomers and Millennials have received? Why does it matter now?
Calhoun: The lack of parenting and the high divorce rate meant that a lot of people of our generation were being told to go for the corner office, to become doctors, to have all these things, without having college paid for or having anyone around to help with homework. Boomers and Millennials both had far more involvement and support from their families, while they weren’t trying to do quite as many things. Now you see a lot of Gen X women feeling very disappointed in themselves for not achieving what they were told they should try to achieve. I think it’s important to look at context. Because of downward mobility only one in four women now will out-earn their father, but that’s not because they didn’t work hard enough necessarily.
WebMD: Let’s talk about caregiving. Because so many of us had children relatively late, we’re still raising little kids while our parents are becoming needy. What effect is that having on the women of Generation X?
Calhoun: It’s a perfect storm. Boomers are living longer than people have before, often with complicated, chronic conditions, and we’re a small generation born during a baby bust. There are fewer of us available to care for aging parents. And we’re not empty nesters yet when we’re facing these caregiving responsibilities—we have teens or younger children at home. I know from personal experience, and with a lot of friends, too, it can be stressful and exhausting trying to care for three generations simultaneously.
WebMD: You talk about decision fatigue. What do you mean?
Calhoun: We’re faced with so many decisions, so many options, so many opportunities, it creates pressure to pick the right one.
We were told so many times as children we were lucky to have so many opportunities. For me it never sank in that it doesn’t mean you’ll always have all those opportunities. I heard from women over and over that the stakes seem so high for all the choices they made. And they have to make so many choices, constantly. No choices were made for us, and we were told that was a gift, to have everything on the table. Do you have a baby at 20 or 40, do you go into this field or that field, do you marry or live with someone, do you stay single? It is a great gift to have that level of freedom, but it means we’re making big choices all the time and they feel very, very urgent.
WebMD: A therapist you interviewed describes what some single Gen X women experience as “ambiguous loss.” Tell me about that.
Calhoun: I find it relevant to a lot of things, but they basically said humans don’t do uncertainty well. If we know something will never happen it’s easier to make peace with loss. If someone dies, it’s devastating, but it’s easier to process than living in a state of not knowing. I’ve found that to be true in many areas. For single people, you can’t know—you might meet the person of your dreams on the way home tonight or you may never, and you may die in 50 years never having met someone you can love. It’s hard to live in that state of wondering. As humans it’s one of the things that makes us most upset and frustrated, the state of not knowing.
WebMD: Let’s talk about perimenopause and menopause. I avoided hormone replacement therapy because I remembered hearing about the cancer connection, but now that I’ve read your book I’m kicking myself. Why are so many of us missing out on this remedy?
Calhoun: That was shocking to me, and it made me mad. I talk in the book about what happened in 2002 with all the misinformation around the shortening of the WHI study, how that led to a lot of doctors and researchers to just throw hormones out the window and a lot of women to associate it with cancer. We refused to even consider hormone therapy as an option, and committed to doing menopause naturally. It’s really taken a toll.
The truth is hormone therapy is the only medical intervention I came up with in research that really works for some of the most severe symptoms of menopause, like excessive hot flashes and dramatic mood swings. Some women shouldn’t take it, but I was persuaded by the experts I spoke with that the fear is overblown and it should be on the table at least. Now women are prescribed antidepressants or told to take supplements, but we should have all the options available.
WebMD: What advice do you have for Gen X women who can’t sleep?
Calhoun: One, get a good gynecologist, because a lot of it is hormonal and there are things you can do. And then, I’ve had people tell me the book helped them sleep because once you educate yourself about the circumstances around your situation, there’s something very liberating in that. I used to lie awake at night and wonder why we had so much credit card debt and wonder why I was so frustrated. In doing this research I got clarity about my life and I was able to let go a lot of the shame. That was a big part of what was keeping me up.
I started talking to other women not only for research but in my own life. I started a club, I started sharing things I’d been too embarrassed to share before. That lightens the load and helps me not be so anxious and sleep better. I keep hearing from women who are using the book as a tool to have conversations with their friends or their mothers or their husbands. That’s really exciting to me, this idea that the book is being used as a conversation starter.