Gen X has been dubbed “America’s neglected middle child,” stuck between Baby Boomers and Millennials. But it’s Gen X women who face particular pressures and burdens that are contributing to their own (often overlooked) midlife crisis. They’re caring for young children and aging parents – all while running the household and working full-time. Ada Calhoun, author of the New York Times best-seller, Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis, says all this has left Gen X women feeling stressed out, overwhelmed, and exhausted. She shares research from her book and what she learned from more than 200 middle-aged women. Ada explains why this generation of women were raised to believe in the fantasy that they could “have it all,” the consequences of unrealistic expectations, and ways Gen X women can find relief and, finally, get a good night’s sleep.
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For more information, visit www.adacalhoun.com.
Gen X women's midlife crisis
Intro: Welcome to the Equal Parts podcast, brought to you by Care@Work.
Emily Paisner: Being a working parent is hard, but is it harder for an entire generation of women? Ada Calhoun is the New York Times bestselling author of Why We Can't Sleep: Women's New Midlife Crisis. You know the thing, working moms can have it all. All we have to do is lean in, break a glass ceiling, raise a family and take care of our parents, all at the same time. Ada explains the distinct challenges and pressures the Gen X women face today that have left us feeling stressed out, overwhelmed and downright exhausted.
Ada shares how we can start to relieve some of that stress and finally get a good night's sleep. Have a listen. Ada, welcome to Equal Parts. As a proud member of Gen X, I just barely make the cut, I'm really looking forward to this conversation.
Ada Calhoun: Oh, thanks for having me on.
Emily Paisner: Ada, the Pew Research Center called Gen X, "America's neglected middle child." That really stuck with me, we're stuck in between baby boomers and millennials. Your book shines a light on really the unique pressures and burns that Gen X women, in particular, face. I know I feel these pressures all of the time, on the daily, but can you share some of those with us?
Ada Calhoun: Yes. We hear a ton about boomers and a ton about millennials and meanwhile, Generation X has quietly been taking care of everyone. The caregiving is really out of control. We're taking care of more people with less health than basically anyone in history, while working full-time. I think we were just raised with these expectations that we are going to, "Have it all effortlessly," and then, in reality, working, doing childcare, trying to look good, the number of things we put on our plate is just unfathomable and it's taking a real toll on a lot of women.
Emily Paisner: Why do you think so many of us bought into this ideal of you can have it all in the first place?
Ada Calhoun: I think that we have a lot more choices and a lot more opportunities than our mothers and grandmothers had. We grew up during Title IX, we were told you can be anything, even president, you can go for the corner office, there were all those movies like Working Girl and Baby Boom. We got this mantra, there was the famous Enjoli commercial, where, "You can bring home the bacon and fry it up in the pan." I just think it got down into us, this idea that we were going to be able to do all of these things and do them with elegance and flair.
The reality is that there are some women who do have all the things, and I have all the things, I have a family, I have a career, but it doesn't come easily. It takes a huge toll, it often affects sleep and anxiety. The book is an attempt to just talk about it and admit that this is a very difficult thing we're trying to do, and it's not all our fault if we don't pull it off.
Emily Paisner: You mentioned sleep, and the title of your book is Why We Can't Sleep and for this book, you've talked to 200 women around the country. What were some of the threads and stories and experiences that they shared with you and what did you learn from them, what surprised you?
Ada Calhoun: I should say it is not a how-to sleep guide as some people on Goodreads are disappointed to learn. Sleep is sort of a metaphor, it's--
Emily Paisner: That'll be the next book, right?
Ada Calhoun: Yes, 10 tips. It's something that I've heard from a lot of women, that they felt overwhelmed, that they couldn't sleep because they were anxious. That was a uniting factor, but the other thing that I kept hearing from women was that they felt like they failed, that there was this mantra of, "What did I do wrong, how did I screw this up? I saw before me all these opportunities and I tried to take advantage of all of them, I tried to work really hard, but why don't I have the family I thought I would have?
Why don't I have the career I thought I would have? Why don't I have both?" The book is an attempt to address maybe some of the cultural factors that affected how we turned out. It's not that we didn't work hard enough, maybe the dice were loaded.
Emily Paisner: Were there some stories that really stuck out to you?
Ada Calhoun: Oh gosh, I have to say, I was going through a full-blown midlife crisis going into doing this book and what really got me out of it was other women's stories, was hearing from them, what they were dealing with and how much pressure they were under. The stories that often touched me the most were women who felt like they had seen their lives going a certain direction, they'd seen themselves, for example, with a partner and children and then got into their early-mid 40s and didn't have that.
One thing that really touched me was something that a therapist told me, which is that ambiguous loss means loss that isn't quantifiable. If someone dies, you can mourn them and you can move on, but if you live in this state where you always thought you were going to have a family and you don't yet, and you're still dating and you're still trying to get pregnant maybe, but you don't know if you're going to meet somebody tomorrow, or if you never will, that there's this sense of uncertainty, that's extremely hard on human beings.
As I was struck by a lot of the stories I heard along those lines, and I've been haunted by that idea of ambiguous loss. I think in some ways, that's what we're going through now, with everything that's happening in the world is we don't know how it's going to turn out. Um, we don't know what life is going to be like in a year, and that can be harder almost than having a tragedy and moving on from it.
Emily Paisner: Not even what's going to happen in a year, but what's going to happen next week.
Ada Calhoun: Good point.
Emily Paisner: It feels like we're just going day to day here. Let's talk about caregiving for a second, because I think that this is a really, really important piece of the puzzle. Gen X women have been called being part of this sandwich generation. Some other people call it the panini generation, because we're just getting squeezed so much. We do, we take on a lot of the caregiving responsibilities for both our young children and aging parents, while working full time. What is the price we're paying for taking all this on and how do we manage it?
Ada Calhoun: I think that we thought we knew what this was going to be, because our mothers had to deal with their parents dying while they had children, so did our grandparents, so did everybody throughout history, how to deal with being in between these two generations, but there are certain factors for Gen X that are just different and then make it a little more challenging. A lot of us waited to have families until we were in our 30s, maybe even 40s.
That means often we have small children at the same time that we're dealing with parents who are aging and need a lot of help. That's a new phenomenon. Also, we were born during the baby bust. Many of us have no siblings or only like one sibling or two. As a result, there are a lot less people available to care for all these people who need care. We also are working full time and usually more than full time as women, while trying to do all these other things, which is also new. When our mothers or grandmothers say, "Oh, I dealt with that too." Not like this, this is different.
Emily Paisner: Something that's been pretty devastating to me, as we're all in quarantines and lockdowns with schools and daycares closed, but the impact that this is having on women in the workforce- and some have called it the silent victim, if you will, since women tend to take on more of the childcare and household responsibilities, what's your take on how you think all of the progress we've made with women in the workplace may regress due to the pandemic?
Ada Calhoun: I've heard good news and I've heard bad news. Bad news first is if you look at- a friend of mine, just, I was just on the phone with her and she was talking about these scientific studies. Men's production of studies has continued a pace and women's has completely fallen off a cliff. It's apparently because women are doing all the childcare and house stuff at home now that there's no school and no childcare.
That's bad news. Good news. I've heard from several women that there has been this normalization of working from home and working on a flexible schedule and of kids popping through in the background of meetings because men are dealing with this too now. There's an acceptance that maybe will continue into post pandemic life, where this is going to become acceptable, that we can admit that we have families, that we can maybe work from home a couple of days a week. Things like that that really might make a difference to women who are trying to do everything all at once.
Emily Paisner: Maybe that's one good thing that will come of all this change, for employers to start really fully understanding the demands that are being placed on working parents, whether they're a Gen Xer or a millennial or whatever they may be, or whether they're women or men. I think that it's time that employers step it up and better support their employees who are working parents.
Ada Calhoun: Anecdotally, it does seem like that's happening. One woman told me that her boss was this very old-school boomer guy. He thought that there's no way we're going to get as much done if we're all at home. Then he's seen that actually everyone has been very productive in quarantine and he's really had his eyes opened.
Emily Paisner: We've talked about the pressures that are put upon Gen X women in particular. Can you share some of the solutions around what we can do, how we can start to find some relief and recover from all of this?
Ada Calhoun: I feel like the book is it's not self-help, but I think it should help relieve a lot of the shame that I heard in so many of the women that I interviewed, because so many of the women I talked to said they felt like it should be easier and they felt like they should be doing better. The book plays out a case that that's not true, that actually we're doing better than we have any right to expect in a lot of ways because of how we grew up, because of how many hurdles we've had to jump over as a generation.
That's the first thing, is just changing our expectations for ourselves and for our generation. We've been through a lot and we're probably doing quite well, considering. That's one thing. Another is just this is a really hard period of time for women in their lives. That always has been because of perimenopause, which nobody talks about, and which is very devastating to about 80% of women who go through it.
I would say get a good gynecologist is one thing, admit that this is physically a very, very tough time, and then get more support. That can come in a lot of different forms. For me, it was finding better doctors and a good accountant and making my husband and son do more around the house and every woman is going to find a different scenario that's going to make a difference. It's about assembling a Ocean's 11 team for yourself to help you get through this phase of life.
Emily Paisner: Based on your personal experience, you mentioned that you were having a midlife crisis and you're a mom and a caregiver. What has this taught you?
Ada Calhoun: I'm really glad I did the book when I did it because everything kind of blew up right after I finished the book. My dad got diagnosed with stage four cancer. My parents' apartment, my childhood home burned up in a freak fire. There's been like one thing after another, my father in law died, and I think I was better prepared going into all that tragedy because I knew that that's what this period of life is about.
I was not blindsided by it as much as I might've been otherwise. It's hard. This is a hard time of life. To be trying to do so much work-wise and caregiving wise, while going through perimenopause, it's- and with everything else that's happening in the world, we just need to be a lot kinder to ourselves. That's been very helpful to keep in mind for me.
Emily Paisner: Is there any final advice or words of wisdom that you might want to leave our listeners with today?
Ada Calhoun: Things changed and that was something that I heard from so many women I talked to who were out of this generation, who were older, who were in their 50s and 60s on the other side of menopause, on the other side of raising children, on the other side of dealing with dying parents. They said it gets better, it gets easier. It changes. It gets different. That's something that can be hard to keep in mind. I find it hard sometimes, but I think just knowing this is a phase of life that will end.
Emily Paisner: Ada, thank you so much for joining us today, and thank you so much for writing your book. It really spoke to me, as being a woman in the Gen X generation. It was really a pleasure to talk to you.
Ada Calhoun: It was great talking to you. Thank you so much.
Outro: Thanks for listening to this episode of Equal Parts. See you next time.
Emily Paisner: Wait, before you go, I just want to tell you a little bit about Care@Work by care.com. They work with some of the world's largest companies to offer family care benefits to their employees. If you're one of the lucky ones who already has care benefits at work, use them. If you don't, ask for them. It's a real lifesaver. To learn more, visit care.com/careatwork. Again, that's care.com/careatwork.