Why We Can’t Sleep by Ada Calhoun

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.

30 comments

  1. Great review! I like that you think critically about Calhoun’s arguments, and reject them where they don’t make sense. Perhaps I’m judgmental too, but I’m inclined to feel the same way as you when people express dissatisfaction with life, but also have rigidly unreasonable expectations. It’s too bad that Calhoun chose to portray Gen X women in such an unflattering light – the characterization you describe doesn’t seem representative of the generation as a whole.

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    • Thanks, Hannah. Whenever I’m reading nonfiction that makes an argument, my brain goes into rhetorical analysis mode (which I taught to college students for 11 years). Her sources are rather weak (largely interviews with her friends and their friends), and even if she did capture the Gen X female experience, she surely didn’t convince me that the reason these women can’t sleep is worth my attention!

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  2. Maybe Calhoun can’t sleep because she’s so high-strung! (At least she sounds like it!) From the sounds of it, I would judge this book pretty harshly too. I can agree that having kids in your 40s would have definite downsides but it’s hard to be sympathetic to women who presumably chose to have kids in their 40s. The women I know who had kids in their 40s had a variety of reasons but are all super thankful now for the kids they chose to have. I also agree with you about post-secondary education. My parents didn’t pay for mine, I don’t plan on paying for my kids. (Helping them out, sure, paying for it all, nope.)

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    • When women have children is a very personal, and I like to be supportive, but it feels very…naive?…to ask for support for something you knew was coming. If I bought a new car and kept complaining to my friends that I have to put gas in it and pay the insurance, they would look at my like I was goofy.

      Actually, one conversation we had in the book club for which I read Why We Can’t Sleep was interesting — all the moms in the group were saying they never invite their childless friends anywhere because childless people aren’t interested in children at all. I emphatically denied that; heck yes I will go to your kid’s Chuck E. Cheese party and drink too much beer and play the games. You simply have to invite me. I think women with children cutting women without children out of their lives is what makes some of us more judgmental, saying things like, “Wow, kids really did CHANGE you.” Keep inviting, and we’ll say no if want and yes if we want.

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      • Yeah, that’s a good analogy. I don’t think asking for support is necessarily bad when it’s things like swapping childcare or arranging someone to pick-up your kid from school if necessary , when those things are reciprocal and you’re not taking advantage of someone. I just don’t understand people who have kids and then complain about spending time with those kids. Yes, some stages are harder and more involved than others and sometimes you need time for yourself but this is a human being you chose to bring into the world.

        I have been really grateful for my child-free friends. One of my best friends came to stay with us for a few days in December (she lives far away) and she was so engaged with my girls that they still talk about her. And I’m thankful to have friendships that bring out the non-Mom side of me too. I actually really love my girls having adult women around them who aren’t moms.

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        • I’m so glad to hear that you included your girlfriend in your and your daughters’ lives! That warms my heart. I actually really like children, but people assume that I don’t because I don’t have any. My love of other humans and my desires to care for one 24/7 (and all the anxiety and fear that come with that) don’t match.

          I absolutely believe in supporting women and mothers, but the issues comes from complaining all the time. As I was reading, I started thinking about how cruel Why We Can’t Sleep seemed toward children. I’m wondering how Gen X’s kids are going to turn out. Most Gen X folks with kids who I know now have children in their early to mid teen years. What will these students be like when they enter college? Or the work force? Will they be dependent or independent? Will they be negative like their parents, or pivot to an upbeat life?

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          • You know, it’s funny. She’s one of my best friends but because we live far away from each other we hadn’t hung out in person much since I’ve had kids and I was kind of nervous that she would be bored staying with us or not understand how much of my daily rhythm revolves around the kids. I imagine a lot of these divisions between women come from those sorts of assumptions without ever having honest discussions.

            That’s an interesting thought about Gen X’s kids. I wonder how it will affect them as they become parents. I wonder too if some of the bitterness (and I see this with my own peers as parents) comes from the fact that Gen X and subsequent generations have had to deal with brand new parenting issues that their parents never did. Not just internet and social media but it’s much harder to raise kids on a single income now like many of our parents did plus a university degree doesn’t necessarily guarantee a career the way it once did. (Not even touching on the added debt and pressure of paying for your kids post-secondary education, like you mentioned!)

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            • I took a college course on adolescent development when I was an undergrad, and one fact that stuck out to me is that in countries like the U.S., Canada, the U.K., etc, things change so quickly that we canNOT learn from previous generations how to care for children. The same idea does not hold true for undeveloped countries. That blew my mind. I thought parents were parents, but they’re not. Maybe that’s why it seems like the advice to parents changes all the time. Also why so many old people are hanging in the wings still encouraging parents to beat their children despite all the science that says the negative effects are drastic and long lasting.

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              • That’s so interesting! I had never thought of it like that but it actually makes a lot of sense. Like, no I’m not going to rub vanilla extract on my teething baby’s gums or use a dab of glue to keep a bow in her hair so strangers don’t think she’s a boy! (Real advice, I’ve been given!) Our culture really does change so quickly, I take it for granted that the issues my kids will face as teenagers aren’t necessarily the ones current teens are dealing with.

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  3. Hmmm unfortunate. And I appreciate you stating that you’re being judgmental, but you SHOULD be judgmental, this is the whole point of book reviewing! haha

    This whole vacation entitlement thing is something i can’t relate to, maybe because I like staying home? And women just wanting to marry someone handy? Give me a break! I’m with you and your reading group on this one.

    How as the ‘reading group’ experience? Did you find meeting every other day too much, or helpful?

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    • I miss everyone now that we’re not meeting so frequently (there is a second book club and we meet once per week). Other members said they missed meeting more often, too.

      The reason I acknowledged being judgment is because I could tell I was judging people and not just the book, although you could say I was judging the author’s sources? Calhoun visited the book club and noted that the women she interviewed were her friends and her friends’ friends, meaning they were all pretty similar.

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  4. Ah, I just asked in another comment if you were reviewing this one soon! I’m glad I found the post, although this one sounded much better in concept than it does in execution. My parents are Gen X but nothing you mention from this book sounds like it applies to them. Actually, they maybe do have trouble sleeping, but I think that’s where the comparison ends! (They don’t seem to believe in vacations at all, which is maybe part of the problem. Two every year seems excessive to me but taking a proper break from work now and then is necessary for one’s sanity!)
    The big ideas of this book, the topics that you mention for different sections, do sound well-intended and possibly interesting if they had been written well, though the sloppy reasoning seems to ruin its potential. Perhaps if Calhoun had been able to get better sleep…

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    • I feel like everything I know about Gen X actually makes them pretty complicated: they’re apathetic, but work really hard; they’re cool and interested, but also entitled. It’s a weird combo of fighting elements of what makes up a person. Honestly, I just didn’t find Calhoun to be a writer of any skill, which makes me wonder HOW SHE BECAME A FREELANCE WRITER.

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      • The traits you’re ascribing to Gen X feel much more spot-on with my own observations as well than anything you mentioned being included in this book!

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  5. It seems really difficult to generalize about such a large group of people. Did Calhoun’s research include conversations with people from different socioeconomic classes and races? Generations are hard to define, and I find it strange that people born so many years apart can be lumped together like that.

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    • Calhoun told us that she interviewed her friends and those friends’ friends. The result is everyone sounds like a middle-class white lady who wishes she were “cool” again. I was blown away by the lack of diversity in experiences. Then again, if the experiences are too different, it would hurt one’s argument that generations are made up of people who all share something.

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  6. Well, it sounds like Calhoun wrote this on no sleep, given how chaotic her writing is. I appreciate how you call her out for not making claims but rather just citing the sources – though this is the opposite of some books I’ve read, where outrageous claims are made with very little evidence to support it. Re the self-created problems part, I recalled ‘Fleishman Is in Trouble’, where you pointed out that it sounds like the female character is characteristic of a Gen X woman. Most of her problems were because she was so keen on keeping up with the lavish lifestyles of her peers, instead of scaling down to live within their means. It made it very difficult to empathize with their problems, which also seems like the case here.

    I find it interesting that you mention this: ‘Putting kids through college isn’t a parental responsibility; it’s a gift.’ Here in the Philippines, it’s considered a responsibility for middle-and upper-class parents to put their children through college (and even med school and law school). My brother and I were fortunate enough to receive financial aid for our college education, but otherwise children are hardly ever expected to support themselves through college. It’s baffling to me how students are expected to support themselves there, especially given the astronomical fees. (But then again, maybe that’s why women – and parents, really – here are so stressed!)

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    • In Gen X we see both yuppies and hippies, and yet both lifestyles require a lot of money, not matter how lavish they look from the outside. Hippies buy organic and hand-crafted, and yuppies buy the most fashionable. Both require lots of money and leave out everyone eating Kraft Mac ‘n’ Cheese with food stamps. It almost felt like Calhoun was writing from a different country, because she certainly didn’t capture the American spirit.

      That’s interesting to know about higher education in the Philippines. Do people feel obligated to put their children through college, or is it required? In the U.S. you can get financial aid from the government, but it’s all based on your parents’ income because the people with the money assume parents are helping out financially. And many do. However, they’re not required to, so to get a loan without one’s parents is like pulling teeth because you have to prove you are “separated” from them. At 18, someone taking out tens of thousands of dollars on loan is a huge risk to the lender.

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      • That’s true, both lifestyles are really high-maintenance. It’s ironic that even organic and hand-crafted goods are actually more expensive now than manufactured goods.

        Most middle- and upper-class parents feel like it’s required—it’s almost unthinkable here to come from a relatively well-to-do family and not go to college. How do you prove you’ve “separated” from them, though? And is this the cause of the protests around student debt? I can’t wrap my mind around the idea of being 18 and already being so deep in debt. It’s a huge burden to carry.

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        • Some factors to prove you are independent include being born before 1997, being married, going to school for a master’s or PhD instead of undergrad, being active duty in the military or a veteran, having your own children, having spent time in foster care, filing for emancipation as a minor, or being a homeless youth. It’s pretty steep.

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  7. I wouldn’t marry someone of a different faith (or none), but other than that, when I hear the exhaustive and exhausting expectations that some of my acquaintances have for their hypothetical husbands, and then they whinge about being single, I do roll my eyes a bit. And my peers are mostly millenials, not Gen X, which makes me think that a lot of this is more the author going “my friends and I are unhappy” and then arguing outwards from that, rather than critically analysing the actual situation. Great review but this is one I will be skipping!

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    • Much of the book sounded like comfy white ladies complaining that they aren’t “cool” or “exciting” anymore. In the movie Trainspotting 2, the character Sick Boy accuses Mark Renton of being “a tourist in your own youth.” That quotes fits these women quite well, actually — from wanting to be sexy to the desire to feel single while being a married parent.

      Partnering with someone of the same faith is absolutely reasonable. Religion is the foundation of many homes and functions as a key component in the family. It’s the part where they lady kept adding more and more characteristics. I wanted to tell her she’s looking for love, not entering a Build-A-Bear.

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  8. Loved your comment stream now that I’ve finally made it here. My children are Gen X and – big announcement! – the youngest has just had her fourth child, 15years after the first. No sleep for her! Their lives are a little different from mine and their mother’s. The biggest difference being that university education was free (in Australia) when I was young, and getting a job was much easier. I must say that I would find it very difficult to have a partner whose beliefs were widely different from mine (socialist, atheist). My daughter’s new partner is a handyman, though I’m not sure that’s why she chose him. We have so many projects lined up for him that he may wish he weren’t.

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    • I love that people have an idea of the type of person they want to partner with, but I can’t imagine being dumpy about not finding someone who can basically be your lover, nanny, plumber, “go-fer,” which, to me, starts to dehumanize another person. It makes sense to me that a person will be attracted to another individual who has similar political and religious (or none) beliefs, but this lady seems to have wanted what amounts to someone with a master’s degree and thirty years experience and to pay him minimum wage. Metaphorically speaking.

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  9. After reading your review, I have trouble determining what Calhoun’s ultimate argument is. Gen X’ers can’t sleep, but it’s their fault? She kind of sounds like the judgmental one? Though I agree with you that parents aren’t required to pay for their children’s college. College is a choice their (adult) children make and, if they think it’s worth the investment, they can pay for it. Plus, from personal experience, I know that my friends who weren’t paying themselves were less likely to do homework or go to class. If you’re the one taking out loans, you have a greater motivation to make sure your investment actually pays off.

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    • I think understanding how those loans work is really important, too. I kind of signed on the dotted line, having no idea how it worked. I would get a check from the FAFSA people and not know what that was about. Really, senior year of high school everyone should be required to take a personal finance class on how to do any loan (auto, home, college), how to balance a check book, how to file taxes, etc. Instead, we’re solving for X. BUT Y!??! (I’m pretty pleased with that joke).

      It almost seemed like Calhoun’s argument was that Gen X women have a lot to complain about, despite their complaints stemming from positive situations of their own making that they’ve decided not to be happy with, and not being happy keeps them awake. I also think that Gen X is the first generation to want to continue being “cool” and “sexy” after they start a family. Moms were neither cool nor sexy when I was growing up, so I think this weird dichotomy of feeling like you’re 22 while being 42 can really make a person miserable.

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      • Yeah, I agree! My experience with colleges and loans is that they usually make students sit down for entrance and exit “counseling,” which means they sit in a computer lab together and click through the website under the direction of an instructor. I don’t think a lot of them fully understand what’s happening or that they have to pay the money back in some cases. My personal experience is that quite a few college students don’t know the difference between a loan and a grant, and that is a problem. You need to know if the money is a gift or has to be repaid!

        That’s an interesting point! Frankly, being cool and sexy one’s entire life sounds exhausting so I’m not sure why women feel compelled to chase that as an ideal.

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        • When I moved to Indiana and realized we’re down wind from all the ass gas from Chicago, I had to give up on both contact lenses and make-up (I never don’t have allergies). That was all I was doing to be cool and sexy. I’ve resigned myself to stretchy pants and mostly dead-in-the-water sweaters.

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