- In “Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis,” Ada Calhoun interviewed some 200 women who were born between 1965 and 1980.
- She describes peers saddled with debt, underwater on their houses and sidelined by a labor market that can be ageist and sexist.
- I interviewed Calhoun in late January.
The summer of 2017 was a difficult one for Ada Calhoun. The 41-year old freelance writer watched a bunch of her projects fall through. She racked up $20,000 in credit card debt, and had next to no savings behind her. Childcare expenses for her 10-year-old son, Oliver, kept rising.
She didn’t feel the sense of security she thought she’d have by her age. Mostly, she was scared.
“Sometimes, I think I’m falling apart,” she began an article on Oprah.com called “The New Midlife Crisis.” The story, which soon went viral, described the “hallucinatory panic about money” experienced by women in their 40s and 50s today.
This year, Calhoun has published a book expanding on that article, titled, “Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis. She interviewed some 200 women who were born between 1965 and 1980. Turns out, they aren’t imagining things: Calhoun describes peers saddled with debt, underwater on their houses and sidelined by a labor market that can be ageist and sexist. “I thought maybe it was mostly in our heads until I started writing about this topic,” she said. “The fear is real.”
I interviewed Calhoun in late January. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Annie Nova: In the book’s dedication you write, “For the middle-aged women of America. You’re not imagining it, and it’s not just you.” Why do you think so many women who’ve come to this age feel so alone in their struggles?
Ada Calhoun: I think when we were growing up, our baby boomer parents were distracted. Forty percent of us were children of divorce. We were used to being on our own. And I think that’s continued.
AN: In your interviews with women, what were some of the financial concerns that kept coming up?
AC: Women felt like they’d grown up with these really high expectations for what they’d be able to achieve. And then, even if they’d done a lot in their lives, they felt like it wasn’t enough. One woman after another told me things like, “I only have a family. What did I do wrong?,'”or, “I only have a career? What did I do wrong?,” or, “I only have a family and a career, but I haven’t written a novel.” There’s always something missing.
AN: Where is all this pressure coming from?
AC: The way we grew up. We were told over and over again, “You can be anything.” Somewhere along the line, women took that as not just, “You can be anything,” but, “You have to be everything.” A lot of women felt if they weren’t taking advantage of all the opportunities they had, they were letting down womanhood, or their mothers, or themselves.
It can feel like too much. They were doing all the childcare, and in many cases the bread-winning, all the while caring for their aging parents and grocery shopping. They were so tired, but with how we grew up, they felt they had no right to be tired because they had so much opportunity.
AN: Are middle-aged women today really worse off financially than say, millennials?
AC: I don’t think it’s all in our heads. A lot of us graduated into recession. Then the dot-com bust. The housing crisis hit Gen X [those born between 1965 and 1980] more than any other generation because that was right when we were buying our first or second homes. When we were finally able to get the American dream, a lot of this generation wound up underwater on their homes. Gen X had higher credit card debt than boomers or millennials. We have nowhere near enough saved.