We all have our eureka moments. Mine came secondhand.
Which brings me to the subject New York journalist Ada Calhoun’s new book, “Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis.” (Disclosure: Calhoun edited a piece of mine more than a decade ago.) Calhoun’s subject is exhaustion and anxiety, experienced by all too many women who were brought up in the 1970s and 1980s to believe we could somehow “have it all” — domestic harmony and perfection, children and fulfilling, lucrative work that mattered.
It turns out that promise was a fairy tale for the early years of feminism’s second wave. But, as Calhoun recounts, the myth was accompanied by a simultaneous ratcheting up of expectations placed on women, even as government and societal support crumbled. Parenting turned into a vocation, with the result that, even as the number of mothers with jobs has swelled over the decades, mothers of today spend more time with their children than the mothers of 50 years ago. The millions of Gen X women who have given birth in their 30s and 40s have found themselves confronted by the double whammy of needing to care for those children — as the cost of child care has surged — while also caring for older parents. (Let me note here that men, on the other hand, rarely fall for the tripe that they can do it all. Gen Xer Beto O’Rourke claimed his wife, Amy, raised their children “sometimes with my help,” while Andrew Yang, of the same generation, routinely references his wife, Evelyn, “who’s at home with our two boys.”)
And in entering the workforce, women encounter a stubbornly persistent glass ceiling and gender wage gap. The economy cratered — most notably during the financial crisis, but also during the early 1990s, just as the oldest members of the group entered the workforce. Salaries, for the most part, stagnated. As a result, Calhoun notes, “Whereas our parents together had a 90 percent chance of out-earning their parents, we have, with our partners, just a 50 percent chance of doing the same.” And the threats continue: Age discrimination affects women at an earlier age than men — according to one expert, it begins at 40, which means almost every Gen X woman is now in the zone.
But thanks to social media, it can seem as though everyone else’s life is working out just fine. There must be something wrong with us, individually. We just need to lean in and manage our work and personal lives more efficiently! No wonder the women of my generation are so exhausted that Calhoun can get an entire book out of the issue. (Did I mention I slept barely five hours the night before I wrote this?)
This sort of stuff shouldn’t just make us feel tired and panicked. It should also enrage us. But raised in the era of Free to Be … You and Me and the Reagan ethos of self-responsibility, all too many members of Gen X internalized expectations of effortless self-driven success. In middle age, that leads to endless self-blame and recriminations.
One reviewer suggested Calhoun’s book is “a little whiny,” but, if you ask me, the women of midlife circa 2020 have earned the right to complain. There’s lots to be angry about. American life is exhausting, not to mention often mean. Why are we the only First World country to not offer new mothers paid leave? Why do we put up with hours on the phone with health insurers, and parsing in-network and out-of-network charges, a barbarity? Why do we so passively accept the (false) notion that Social Security won’t be there for us?
But with all due respect to Calhoun, the women of Generation X don’t need to be read that inner peace will come from “letting go of expectations” and to consider coming to view “our newfound midlife invisibility as a source of power.” We need to be told that yes, we expect too much of ourselves, but we deserve better from the world around us. Forget invisibility. We need to be seen and heard.
We need to learn to channel our anger not at ourselves, not just at the Trump administration, but to make societal change that will make our own lives better. Besides, our children will thank us for it one day; their economic prospects are even worse than our own. We need help, damn it. This is no way to live.