Why We Can’t Sleep by Ada Calhoun is a slim nonfiction book about why Gen X women are struggling so hard, and thus can’t sleep. I read this book because it was the pick for a new digital book club hosted by the library I patronize (not the one at which I work!). Every other day we would meet on a Google video chat and talk about two chapters at a time.
The first thing I noticed was that the author’s writing style felt downright chaotic. The paragraphs jumped between different ideas with little or no connection. Calhoun appeared to be racing through a chapter only to leave me at the end wondering what I was supposed to take from it. I kept thinking, “I wish this chapter would sit down for a moment and be calm.”
For example, the chapter about the inability to make decisions didn’t tie together. Calhoun started with a married friend admitting she accidentally got pregnant by her husband in her forties. Then, Calhoun jumped to that woman being angry that people thought her baby was her grandbaby. We then leap to the culture of Gen X teens, who just didn’t care. How does an unexpected pregnancy tie to teen apathy, and what does it have to do with indecisiveness?
Admittedly, Why We Can’t Sleep demonstrated how judgmental I can be. I was confused about why Gen X women complained that they’re worn out and regret being married to a nice spouse with good kids (that’s not my feelings; they said they had nice spouses and good children). Earlier, we’re told that in recent studies working Gen X mothers only spend about 90 minutes per day with their kids. There’s some kind of disconnect: what’s the point of having children if Gen X women don’t see their offspring any more than they would the household pet? I felt Gen X women were cruel in this section, hating their families, including children they’re too busy to see anyway. Therefore, Calhoun’s argument that Gen X women can’t sleep because they’re anxious seemed irrelevant.
And many Gen X women in Why We Can’t Sleep noted choosing to have babies in their forties and being very tired — a mix that occurs when babies and aging Boomer parents collide in their need for care. This could be part of what Calhoun was trying to get at: Gen X girls were raised to think they can do it all, but partner help did not increase, too. Thus, Gen X women are working, housekeeping, and caregiving, all at the same time — something we know about most women. A more enlightening conversation might have been why women are waiting to have children and then regretting family life so quickly.
Calhoun does a load of research on her topic (and all sources are listed clearly in the back), but the sources are left there to speak for themselves instead of support claims that I had to fish for because they weren’t clearly asserted. My eleven years as a composition professor overtook my ability to just “let it go” and read various voices describing how hard it is to be a Gen X woman. No claims, no analysis, just evidence with statements akin to “tell me about it, sister!” thrown in by the author.
Other times Why We Can’t Sleep just seemed like a collection of self-created problems. Calhoun is upset that her family traveled to the Grand Canyon by spending money she hadn’t yet earned from two freelance gigs she had set up that fell through. It’s basic money management to not spend beyond your means unless you’re taking out a loan that has a reasonable payment plan. Going without a vacation won’t destroy a family. Calhoun believes she should have two vacations per year.
Then there’s also this weird pressure Gen X women decide to self-impose: put themselves and their children through college. Why? Putting kids through college isn’t a parental responsibility; it’s a gift. I’m definitely being judgmental, but I was surprised that the women in my book club agreed with me. Calhoun notes, “Gen X graduated with plenty of debt, and it’s getting worse. I know people who have paid off their own student loans just in time to start paying for their children’s education.” No wonder Gen X women can’t sleep: they’re trying to live two lives, theirs and their children’s.
In fact, she mostly made Gen X women sound horrible, especially in the chapters on dating and divorce. One lady is mad that she hasn’t gotten married and had kids yet, but her “check boxes” for a partner include: he must be educated AND go to the same church she does AND have handyman skills. Call a plumber. Or learn handyman skills yourself. Would she not marry someone of a different faith? One lady was complaining (legitimately) that she didn’t have a husband to load all of her gear into her car for her before she goes to work. It’s hard to understand how divorce uniquely affects Gen X women, their spouses, and children when they sound so unreasonable.
The women in their forties and fifties who I know are taking charge, complaining in safe spaces with their girlfriends and then tackling the world day to day, content with their choices. That is something we talked a lot about in my book club: reasonable expectations and contentment not being an evil. As a result, Calhoun didn’t convince me of much of anything in Why We Can’t Sleep.