‘Why We Can’t Sleep’ Can’t Convince

Ada Calhoun’s Mostly Disappointing Treatise About the Problems Of Gen-X Women

Though they’re closing the wage gap, facing less sexism than their mothers, and living with men who actually contribute around the house, the women of Gen X somehow still find themselves mired in misery. Ada Calhoun’s new book, EWhy We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis, sets out to chronicle every teensy pebble on this particular generational pathway of discontent. Instead of writing the ultimate Riot Grrl friendly treatise for the XX sector of her generation, she’s produced a mostly disappointing book that reads almost exactly like its source material, a viral Oprah.com article first published in 2017.

The children of Generation X, born between 1965-1980, grew up en masse in households with working moms, divorcing parents, and constant TV. Sesame Street was so grim, DVDs of early episodes now contain parental warnings. The news warned us of an impending Ice Age. Very special sitcom episodes exposed the nefarious dangers lurking everywhere. With so much doom and gloom media to choose from, Calhoun selects the annoyingly catchy “bring home the bacon” jingle for Enjoli, the 8-hour perfume for the 24-hour woman, as the formative pop culture of the era. To her, this earworm is the key to the Gen-X lady’s psyche and her overzealous need to do it all. That’s some mighty powerful advertising.


And the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion? Calhoun frames it as a traumatic touchstone that forever warped the X-ers. Based on my own foggy childhood memories, she’s correct to assume the spectacle left kids with a load of questions and absolutely no answers. That day shook us as a group. The concept of processing and thoughtful discussion permeating today’s culture simply didn’t exist for the children of Gen X; we grew up witnessing too much while those around us explained too little. Data about the dire mental health and unique stressors of our generation reveals the ramifications of this collective trauma. And Calhoun loves sharing data.

Marching Through the Middle Years

While an endless sea of facts contextualizes our situation, it fails to explain the miasma of those currently marching through their middle years. Why Can’t We Sleep purports to be a survival manual for the once starry-eyed ‘80s girls, who are now, according to Calhoun, exhausted, isolated, and struggling women. She’s personally disappointed because she, along with the members of her sardonic X-er sisterhood, set out to have everything, but instead of conquering the world, we ended up lugging around a sad sack full of burdens. She speculates the members of the most judgmental generation don’t feel that life failed us, but instead, that we failed at life.

Though single women get a periodic shout out, lesbians are mostly invisible here, and there’s largely a presumption of heteronormative relationships, with nary a reflection upon the way our haphazard childhoods influenced the roles we perform within them. Also, noticeably lacking is respect for the men we’ve built our lives with and around, or consideration for the influence of our shifting gender roles on their lives.

Instead, Calhoun observes that while moms often work full-time, they still manage to wrangle endless school emails, which seemingly bombard mothers and eschew fathers. She talks about a friend who discovered her husband’s interest in polyamory from an Amazon order notification, and another friend who scrambled to save money via discounted canned foods while her husband proudly declared his choice to eat out to help her around the house by saving cooking and clean up time. She wants to demonstrate that a lack of time, money, and support is part of the package of being a Gen-X lady.

While these intentionally vague stories ring true, I’m not sure how random examples of men being dumdums builds a case for the midlife woman’s imminent martyrdom. We may be overexerting ourselves while scads of manchildren have no idea what to do, but these observations never truly explain Why We Can’t Sleep while the men around us apparently can.

Straight Talk About Perimenopause

Finally, after all the data-dumping and abundant complaining, the book pivots towards terrain directly pertaining to women of a certain age, mainly, straight talk about perimenopause and menopause. Calhoun theorizes that perimenopause particularly beleaguers the ladies of Gen-X because nobody talks about it, stress makes it worse, and we erroneously shun effective hormone replacement therapy because of its shady past links to breast cancer. Somehow, only one in four gynecologists receives proper training about this stage of the lifecycle, so when our hormones rage, we blame ourselves instead of understanding our moods. Perimenopause also lasts about a decade, and can cyclically rage then rest throughout that entire time. Though the book is wildly flawed, it’s possible those who push through it will find this a useful starting point for conversation and education about Their Changing Bodies.

After heaps of portentous doom, Why We Can’t Sleep unexpectedly closes with an almost Elizabeth Gilbert-ish call to action, encouraging readers to be kind to themselves, reframe experiences, and seek a release valve for the needless pressures we ceaselessly pile on ourselves. Calhoun encourages women to drop the guilt and build a tribe. She concedes that though we don’t have it all, we can choose to enjoy what we do have, right now, despite  our obstacles, and there’s no shame in that.

Overall, Why We Can’t Sleep seems like a disparate series of long-form articles mushed into one book rather than the cohesive, empowering tome it was clearly meant to be, perhaps symbolically embodying the generation it explains. Maybe some will read this book shouting “Yes! Yes! Yes!” like Meg Ryan in a deli. Admittedly, sometimes stats, stories, and suggestions go a long way towards easing our suspicious Gen-X minds. If we understand why we feel a particular way, and recognize we’re not alone, maybe we can find relief, relax a little, and sometimes even fall into a quite restful slumber.

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Paula Shaffer

Paula Shaffer has worked on shows for a variety of networks including ABC, Hulu, A&E, HGTV, and WeTV. Her family zom-com script, Chompers, was a selected work of the Stowe Story Labs Feature Campus in 2021, and a 2022 semi-finalist in the Emerging Screenwriters contest, which led to placement on the Coverfly Red List.

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