The shocking reason why Gen X women can’t sleep
‘What I see in my Gen X patients is total exhaustion. They feel guilty for complaining, because it’s wonderful to have had choices our mothers didn’t have’
It’s January — or, in media-speak, “New Year, New You” season. This is when diet books publish, morning shows air segments on closets and women across America seek new ways to improve their homes, their careers, and (always) their bodies. If you look in these women’s eyes, you might notice that behind the glimmer of hope and determination they are very, very tired.
That’s because middle age, never an easy time, is exhausting in new ways for middle-class 40- and 50-something women today. Women my age (I’m 43) grew up hearing that the world was their oyster, that girls could be anything, “even president.” And while the heart of that message — that girls were just as bright and full of potential as boys — was surely true and welcome, as we’ve grown up, we’ve learned that life is just a lot more complicated than that feminist mantra made it sound.
For my new book, “Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis,” I interviewed hundreds of Gen X women who felt that they had not lived up to what they were told was their promise. Racked with guilt, convinced that they should have done more with their lives given how much opportunity they had, they — we — were teed up for a new kind of midlife crisis, something beyond the healing power of affairs, plastic surgery or flashy sports cars.
One woman in New Jersey told me that in childhood her theme song was, “You can bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan.” She hummed the notorious 1980 commercial for Enjoli perfume, set to the 1962 hit “I’m a Woman.” In the ad, a blond woman sings that she can supply the bacon without ever letting you “forget you’re a man.” In the course of one day — during which her perfume, we are assured, never fades — she wears a business suit in which to make money, a collared shirt and pants in which to cook and a cocktail dress and sultry pout in which to seduce. Tagline: “The eight-hour perfume for your 24-hour woman.”
When that New Jersey woman told me she had “only” raised three children, including one with a traumatic brain injury, she sounded embarrassed. So did a woman I interviewed in Texas who’d “only” had a lucrative and meaningful career. Both looked me in the eye and asked, “What did I do wrong?” Even women I spoke with who supposedly “had it all” — the career, the family, the exercise regimen, the friends — told me that for one reason or another it didn’t count, because they weren’t good enough at one or more of these endeavors.
In 1982, Helen Gurley Brown popularized the now-cliché phrase in her bestseller “Having It All: Love, Success, Sex, Money — Even If You’re Starting With Nothing.”
Women growing up in the ’70s and ’80s internalized that goal, vowing not only to have it all, but to do it all.
‘When they told us we could have it all, they were selling us a bill of goods. We’re doing enough just getting through the day’
We entered college in record numbers, achieved one victory after another. According to the Pew Research Center, 68 percent of Gen X women had at least some college, compared with 45 percent of their grandmothers’ generation. Gen X has founded more than half of today’s startups. We can claim Sarah Jessica Parker, Molly Ringwald, Queen Latifah, Reese Witherspoon and Winona Ryder as our own. And yet, many women flocking to the self- help section of bookstores this month are focused on whatever still isn’t there.
“What I see in my Gen X patients is total exhaustion,” Dr. Deborah Luepnitz, a psychotherapist practicing in Philadelphia, told me. “They feel guilty for complaining, because it’s wonderful to have had choices that our mothers didn’t have, but choices don’t make life easier. Possibilities create pressure.”
Caroline Miller, the baby boomer editor in chief who hired me at New York magazine in 2002, told me in an e-mail, “It seems unfair that the wave I got to ride through my 40s, not just the economic boom but the exhilaration of finding our way as ‘liberated’ women, isn’t there anymore. Exceeding expectations was so much easier when there basically were no expectations. Whatever you managed to do was more of a win. It’s as if the idea of stress hadn’t been invented yet when I was your age.”
It used to be that each generation could expect to do better than their parents. We almost certainly won’t. According to research by the Equality of Opportunity Project at Harvard, 41 percent of men our age will out-earn their fathers, but only one in four women will.
Maybe if the Equal Rights Amendment had passed, if the economy allowed for just one member of a household to work or if men did housework in the same proportion that women now work outside the home, we could pull off this great doing-it-all experiment.
But as it is, a typical 40-something woman today is working full-time, raising young children, tending to elderly parents — all while going through the often emotionally and physically fraught years of perimenopause. Unlike her mother or grandmother in their 40s, she’s likely to have high-stress responsibilities coupled with major debt, no job security and a rising cost of living. Gen Xers carry more personal debt than other generations — $36,000 on average. The average family caregiver is a 49-year-old woman working full-time, while more than a third of these women also have children at home.
She is getting nowhere near the nine hours of sleep a night her grandmother averaged. In her pocket, she has a phone overflowing with calendar reminders, breaking news alerts and all-hours work e-mails.
Now, here comes the New Year’s resolution brigade bearing more items for her to-do list — almost all of them involving some form of deprivation and adding fuel to middle-aged women’s bonfires of self-criticism. What if, instead of trying more cleanses, budgets or vision boards, we acknowledge that the real problem might not be something we can address at the gym?
Let’s resist the siren song of the self-help industrial complex. Instead, we should look with clear eyes at our generational predicament and surround ourselves with other women willing to take the same inventory. When they told us we could effortlessly have it all and do it all, they were selling us a bill of goods. We might be doing more than enough just getting through the day.
In any era, feeling inadequate is a challenge for women, says Bryn Chafin, a psychotherapist with Brookwood Center in Atlanta, but it may be endemic to our generation.
Chafin said her midlife clients are “worried all the time.” It might be about work, relationships, kids, fitness, the state of the world, the cost of living, but it’s always something, and it invariably coincides with judgment, guilt and shame. One of the goals she encourages women to pursue is what’s known as “radical acceptance” — finding a way to take life as it is, not as you thought it would be. “It’s one of the hardest things,” Chafin says, “to radically accept what’s in front of you.”
There was once a culture of socializing around shared interests. In Robert Putnam’s famous book “Bowling Alone,” published in the year 2000, he noted that we’ve moved away from that. Fifteen years later, when he revisited the question in “Our Kids,” Putnam reported that “both kin and nonkin networks have shrunk in the past two decades,” with nonfamily connections decreasing even more rapidly. “Americans’ social networks are collapsing inward and now consist of fewer, denser, more homogeneous, more familial (and less nonkin) ties.”
Finding something, anything, to do on a regular basis with other middle-aged women provides support in many forms — companionship, networking, a support system, a reality check and partners with whom to strategize this phase of life. Most of what gets suggested in the new year is about “me time.” That’s the opposite of what we need.
Ada Calhoun is the author of “Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis” (Grove Press), out Tuesday.
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