Gen-X women can’t ‘have it all’ after all
In 2013, Sheryl Sandberg (born in 1969, a member of Generation X) published the best seller Lean In, which encouraged working women to ask themselves: “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”
For many of Sandberg’s contemporaries, the answer, according to Ada Calhoun’s 2020 best seller, Why We Can’t Sleep, is apparently: Catch some much-needed z’s.
According to Calhoun (born in 1976, also a member of Generation X), middle-class American women in their 40s and 50s are so wracked with anxiety and guilt about the state of their lives that they cannot sleep, even though they are exhausted. They are frustrated with the lack of cooperation from their husbands and older children, overwhelmed with the responsibilities of caring for young children and aging parents at the same time, and guilt-ridden about their failure to achieve all that they dreamed of in the various aspects of their full lives.
Middle-class American women in their 40s and 50s are so wracked with anxiety and guilt that they cannot sleep.
Calhoun argues that the women of Generation X were set up for disappointment because of the assurances that they received in childhood that they could, in fact, “have it all.” She relates story after story of women who are working hard professionally, caring for others in their lives, worrying about money, stressing about health and asking themselves where they went wrong, since they believed that they were supposed to accomplish so much more than what feels like mere survival.
Why We Can’t Sleep ends with a rejection of the unrealistic yardstick invented by the second-wave feminism of the baby boomers by which Generation X’s women have appeared to fall short. Calhoun congratulates the middle-class women of Generation X: “We...came up relying on our own wits...we took control. We worked hard...without much help. We took responsibility....We should be proud of ourselves.”
They should indeed, but not simply because they worked hard and made the necessary compromises to meet their responsibilities. And not because they did so while contending with economic instability, changing roles for women and evolving technology. After all, that describes the experiences of the vast majority of women, in every place and time throughout history.
The same middle-class women of Generation X who see the most distance between the “all” they set out to have and the “some” they are working so hard to maintain should congratulate themselves because their very struggle indicates that they have managed something extraordinary: to embody adult responsibility in perhaps the only culture in history in which women and men are encouraged to pursue not just eternal youth but perpetual childhood. “I can have it all” is, after all, a sentence most commonly uttered by preschoolers in defiance of the necessary limitations imposed on them by grown-ups.
Lisa Damour, a psychologist, New York Times columnist and best-selling author, separates actual grown-ups (people who behave in a mature way) from mere adults (people over the age of 18) in three ways: Number one, they assess risk based on actual danger rather than on the likelihood of getting caught; number two, they acknowledge and accept the limitations of their own parents; and number three, they delay short-term gratification in pursuit of something bigger.
Using this framework, it is easy to see how Generation X’s middle-class women have been acting like adults on all three metrics, but feeling like children per number two. That is, they have implicitly acknowledged their parents’ limitations. They recognize that a delay of gratification (not just a structural overhaul harkening a utopia in which everyone can be gratified all the time) is essential to achieving what they value most. And thus, they have rejected in practice the notion of “having it all” bequeathed to them by the second-wave feminists of the baby boom generation.
Generation X came of age in a culture awash in dreams of women’s perpetual and idealized childhood being sold as feminist empowerment.
Yet Generation X came of age in a culture awash in dreams of women’s perpetual and idealized childhood (“I can have everything I want right now”) being sold as feminist empowerment. Because of this, it is hard for them to recognize that their problem (i.e., living lives full of hard work, tough choices and dreams deferred) isn’t about their failure to achieve, but about their predecessors’ failure to count. Having it all in one day doesn’t work if a day remains 24 hours and “it all” takes 36.
Take “Sex and the City,” the HBO show about Generation X women living and dating in New York in the late 1990s and early 2000s that was based on the New York Observer column turned best-selling book by Candace Bushnell (fittingly, a baby boomer). The show spent six cosmopolitan-drenched, stiletto-clacking seasons idealizing a moneyed, stylish alternative to early marriage (in which the baby boomers had still, for the most part, participated). Instead of Betty Friedan’s “problem with no name,” Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha had many problems with many names.
Their biggest and most enduring problem was their own poor decision-making. The ladies of “Sex and the City” spend the better part of the series making shortsighted romantic choices that had far more to do with immediate gratification than with any long-term game plan. For example, the central anti-heroine, Carrie Bradshaw, decides that she will not marry her attractive but slightly mawkish beau, Aiden. As a result, she isn’t relegated to eternal singlehood, nor to a semi-abusive marriage with the older Russian artist she starts dating a few years later, nor to partnership with another version of Aidan that she might meet and settle for in her early 40s. No, she is rescued—in Paris, no less—by her ostensible true love, “Big,” who has only treated her terribly and who is a highly problematic bet for marriage, given that he has been married twice before and cheated on both his wives (on one of them with Carrie herself).
Generation X women have been driven to insomnia by the cognitive dissonance of their lives.
So the takeaway message of “Sex and the City”is:Be as spacey and nihilistic as you want, and if you’re stylish enough you will still get your happily ever after. So, one might infer: “If I don’t get a simple, glamorous ending, then there must be something wrong with me.”
Thus, it seems that Generation X women have been driven to insomnia by the cognitive dissonance of their lives.
The boomers’ utopic vision of what life would be like for women after feminism became mainstream was so compelling a catalyst to achievement that to reject it emotionally seems impossible. Yet women of Generation X are rejecting it empirically, with every adult concession to the realities of time (there are only so many hours in the day), space (you can only be in one place at a time) and biology (for women, depending on what their “all” entails, age may matter).
Having it all in one day doesn’t work if a day remains 24 hours and “it all” takes 36.
Meanwhile, though they have in fact outperformed their predecessors in every particular (educational attainment, professional achievement and stable marriage), they are less happy than women were in 1970, before second-wave feminism spearheaded necessary reforms that made higher education for women more accessible, professional advancement for women more achievable, social inclusion for single women more common and domestic arrangements for married women more equitable.
It is easy for opponents of feminism to point to the decrease in women’s happiness and conclude that feminist reforms have been a failure, just as it is easy for feminists to point to the same decrease and argue that those reforms have not gone far enough. But in reality, this statistic about women’s decreasing happiness has its oldest data point in a moment (1970) when second-wave feminism was ascendant and women’s expectations were soaring beyond not just the limitations imposed on them by the patriarchy, but beyond the limitations imposed on any human being by nature itself. After all, we don’t have any data on women’s (or men’s) happiness in 1870.
The women of Generation X deserve to sleep well. But to rest easy, they have to resolve some cognitive dissonance. They had unrealistic expectations (crucially, not just of being a woman today but of being an adult in any place or time). Yet they weathered, mostly with tremendous resilience, the baby boomers’ near-destruction of many of the institutions that did, in a brief period of post-war prosperity, make adulthood appear comparatively easy and womanhood appear headed for utopic exemption from not just the social structures of patriarchy but the aforementioned realities of time and space.
Millennial women should be intentional about resisting a different version of the same trap.
Meanwhile, millennial women like me should be intentional about resisting a different version of the same trap.
Kristen Roupenian’s widely read New Yorker story “Cat Person” (12/11/17) is about a sexually experienced but romantically naïve college student named Margot who becomes infatuated with a 20-something man named Robert in a PG-rated way that finds its most exciting expression in texting. Margot sleeps with Robert despite her lack of either sexual desire or affection for him, then proceeds to display little self-awareness and no other-regard in ghosting him. In the end, he harasses her by text message, concluding with a single-word final text: “whore.”
Margot was widely touted as a realistic depiction of millennial women, many of whom (per Lena Dunham’s HBO hit) prefer to call themselves “Girls.” And indeed, Roupenian’s story picks up on the same bleakness and impotence that Dunham’s show (which ends with the protagonist Hannah Horvath as an isolated and resentful single mother) infamously illuminated.
If “Sex and the City” reflected nihilistic buoyancy, in which women could make shortsighted choices in pursuit of fun and still live happily ever after, since the simplicity of utopia was right around the corner, “Cat Person” and “Girls” reflect nihilistic fatalism, in which it doesn’t matter what choices women make because they will end up degraded and unfulfilled regardless, since anything that isn’t utopia might as well be hell.
These are different sides of the same unsophisticated, childish coin. Only now, instead of idealizing the portrayal of spoiled children that get everything at once, we are content to wallow in the depiction of sullen children who can be satisfied by nothing.
Maybe, instead, we millennials can vindicate Generation X by growing up, as they did, and accepting the inevitable optimization and prioritization of that decision. Maybe we can recognize that realism about time, space and biology must be considered part of, not in competition with, women’s (and men’s) ability to lead lives of great purpose and some joy.
Maybe we can have it all. Even (a little) sleep