Not that Gen X women (those born between 1965 and 1980) ever really snoozed blissfully, at least not in midlife.
Calhoun lays out her argument in her book (and in an interview with Everyday Health published in February 2020): Middle-class women who are now in their forties and fifties are depressed, overwhelmed, and feel like losers. The problem is that many women in this generation were brought up thinking they could have it all — love, sex, success, power, money, or however they defined “it all.” And then they discovered that they’d been misled.
“Women used to judge themselves on how nice their house was or how they looked or how good they were doing at their office job. Now everyone judges themselves on 20 different things. How you look, how your career is, your kids. Is your marriage sexy enough?” Calhoun said. “If you’re judging yourself on so many things you’ll always be screwing something up and coming up short in one area.”COVID-19 and the events of the past year have only exacerbated the ongoing personal crisis affecting female Gen Xers, according to Calhoun.
Calhoun, 45, who lives in New York City with her husband and 14-year-old son, talks about how the pandemic has impacted women’s ability to sleep — or not sleep.
RELATED: A Brief History of COVID, 1 Year In
Everyday Health: In Why Women Can’t Sleep you talked about Gen X women who feel like they’re constantly coming up short. Pre-COVID-19, you called it a crisis. How has the global pandemic of the last year affected this crisis?
Ada Calhoun: It’s not good. Basically, everything was bad, but COVID-19 made it that much worse. Job instability, financial panic, and caretaking was already really stressing women out, and then the pandemic turned the dial to 11 on every single front. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show women are getting hit hardest economically (in terms of job losses) — and especially women who are not white, according to an August 2020 report from the University of New Hampshire Carsey School of Public Policy.
EH: How is this generation of women coping with the pandemic? What are some of the experiences unique to these women? What makes the Gen X woman’s COVID-19 experience different from that of people of other ages and genders?
AC: There’s so much high-stakes caregiving during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s not just that you’re trying to work, but you’re caring for people who are uniquely vulnerable. My parents are in their seventies and my dad has cancer. For Gen X women, boomer parents are the high-risk groups.
RELATED: How to Cope With Work-From-Home Burnout
Also, because Gen X women waited to have kids, their children are that much younger than if we were 40 years old in the 1960s. It’s a very different time. You’re homeschooling while trying to keep your parents from dying and also running a home.
We’re the Sandwich Generation, which I always found kind of obnoxious because it sounds so charming — like it’s served with peanut crackers and Tang. But it’s brutal! I prefer to call it the Caregiving Rack. It’s like a torture device where you get stretched out. It feels more like that sometimes, and it’s only gotten more intense.
EH: Has anything good come from COVID?
AC: When I was talking to women for my book pre-pandemic, so many of them were sick of the status quo. They were at the end of their rope. The pandemic was like hitting a huge reset button. As horrible as it has been, it’s provided an opportunity, too. Maybe we will “build back better.”
For a lot of us, the traditional American dream of upward mobility wasn’t happening. We’ve learned that going forward we need new and better dreams, ones that may involve restructuring our lives in a more humane and authentic way.
On a personal note, because we were holed up together, I’ve grown closer to my family. Rather than being on the road doing book events this year I was available to help my parents. My husband and son and I started hosting weekly movie nights for them. We’d cook a ton of food and show an old movie — Libeled Lady, Defending Your Life, and Best Years of Our Lives, to name a few — on a projection screen and eat popcorn and movie candy. Without the pandemic, I don’t know if we’d ever have had time to do that or even thought of it.
EH: Are there lessons we can learn from the pandemic, and the issues it has highlighted, that can help us address the crisis you write about — either for the current generation of Gen X women or the next generation of women, who at that age will deal with some of the same challenges?
AC: Yes! We need to learn to cut ourselves some slack. Certain things, like not having fear of missing-out (FOMO) and not racing around, have been really nice. I think back now on when my kid was little and I was working a full-time job and writing a book and trying to have friends and exercise and clean the house and, and, and … It was easy to feel like I was always in the wrong place. If I was at the office, I might miss my kid, and if I was with my kid, I might think about all the work I wasn’t doing.
For the past year, I’ve been in the same house with my family and my work. It was depressing, yes, but on some level it was also kind of wonderful. As much as I like going on book tour, the fact that my tour got cut short and I was forced to pop popcorn for my father and take long walks with my son and stepson and have cocktail hour with my husband was a gift. My schedule used to be so packed with meetings and events. On some level, it was a relief to be forced to slow down.
One friend was telling me that she sometimes went to parties because she felt like she should, even though she didn’t really enjoy them. Now that she had to stay home for a year for safety, she feels like going forward maybe it’s okay to stay home just because she wants to. For some of us, the pandemic has shown us that it’s okay to take it easy. It might even be enjoyable. Maybe what we take away is feeling good about saying no or “I don’t want to go.”
EH: Based on what you know from your work on the book, what advice do you have for women right now who are struggling with all these issues and can’t sleep?
AC: The one thing I heard when I was doing the book was that women were fed up with how things were going and a lot of people said, “I wish I could blow it all up and start over.” So, the pandemic blew up everybody’s lives, and there’s maybe this opportunity to reset everything. It’s a horrible way to get there, but maybe now we have an opportunity that will make it possible.
EH: There’s been a lot of talk about the burden of the pandemic on mothers and working parents. Childcare is an issue that we’re at least talking about now. Do you think conversations arising from the pandemic will help spotlight that no one woman (or mother or single parent) can do it all?
AC: I do! We were set up with such high expectations and standards for ourselves that it created a lot of misery. I know women who are saying they’re not doing enough because they haven’t written King Lear and baked bread. That’s not helpful.
What is helpful is an acknowledgment that just getting through the day is plenty. One friend of mine says we need to go “meal to meal.” Like, only think ahead to the next meal and no further. After lunch, you can plan dinner. After dinner, you can think about what the next morning will bring.
One upside of all this may be that working from home and flextime have been normalized. I’m not the only one who’s come to realize that for the past twenty-five years I’ve been putting on high heels and sitting in lobbies and sipping little bottles of water in conference-room meetings that could have been 15-minute Zoom calls from my couch.
It’s something that will benefit caregivers, whether it’s people taking care of aging parents or little kids or — as is the case for many Gen Xers — both.
RELATED: Self-Care Tips for Taking Care of You During the Coronavirus Pandemic
EH: How has your mood been this past year?
AC: Oof. I definitely have not baked any bread. I’m kind of depressed and sad a lot of the time. I think that’s appropriate. I’m trying not to think I should be happy and skipping through flowers at the moment. A lot of people are dying and broke and it’s a scary, sad time. It’s okay to be grieving and blue.
What’s been most helpful to me are conversations with friends. After trying Zoom cocktails and House Party and all that kind of thing, I found that the best thing is usually just old-fashioned talking on the phone. I have been talking on the phone so much lately — hours-long, rambling conversations like I haven’t had since I was in high school — those kinds of conversations where while you’re also sorting out your closet or cleaning or whatever, you solve everything.
RELATED: Self-Care During COVID-19: How It Started, How It’s Going