March 19th, 2021

Why We Can't Sleep by Ada Calhoun

I have no idea where I found Why We Can't Sleep by Ada Calhoun and decided it was a book for me to read because it's a book intended for GenX women working through mid-life crisis. I may be the right age, but I'm not a woman and I don't think I'm currently experiencing anything that could be considered mid-life crisis.

Yet, one day the library emailed me to say the book was waiting and I picked it up without looking at the title. When I sat down I realized I was reading a book for women in mid-life crisis and it was interesting.

Let's dive into some of the threads I focused on.

Women Could Have More So They Feel The Must Have More

Fairly early on Calhoun talks about the feeling that because women are told the could have it all, they feel they must have it all1. Instead of simply being happy with a decently clean house and some kids that mostly behave and a career that's heading the right way and the fact that you didn't murder anyone...you lament the fact that you're not a top mind in your field currently. You lament the car that isn't quite as nice as you dreamed.

This is exacerbated by the lack of clear indicators for "making it" which means many people use busyness as a proxy for productivity2 and thus overload themselves with work that doesn't push their career forward. The focus on the surface of their work, how they look to others, and neglect the deep turmoil that's going on beneath3 in the vain hope that none of the turmoil will bubble to the surface.

At the same time as women were told they could have it all, men haven't stepped in to the unpaid work that women have done at home. Even when they want to, Josh Levs in All In, showed that businesses don't support men being at home or doing the "daddy" thing. That men pay for taking time off to get to know their new baby by loosing promotions and miraculously becoming "bad" at their job if they take more than a week or so off.

Women pay for this business attitude with less help at home even from willing men. Kids pay for this with less time with dad. Dad pays for this with less time to be the dad he wants to be. Work pays for this as male employees decide to opt-out of work that doesn't let them be there for the family the want to have. As the pandemic has forced people to work at home we have an explosion of bossware because jobs never want to acknowledge that employees may have children that need caring for. Despite the fact that since 1980 worker productivity has risen hugely without pay increases to match. Work simply wants all of you and doesn't want to pay for that privilege.

We Let Children be Lazy and Untrusted

Another key point is that we now let kids be lazy. It's rare that children are responsible for major chores4. Fifty years ago kids would be bailing hay and driving tractors or cleaning to keep the family running, today good luck expecting them to pick up their socks.

Related to this is an idea from Selfish Reasons to Have Kids, that we no longer send our kids out to play5. Instead parents tag along because an unwatched child is a tragedy waiting to happen6. Tying in here is the lack of organic community we all suffer with7. Fewer people belong to a church, which might bring meals to new parents or have the youth group offer babysitting as a cheap fundraiser for new parents. We don't have connections in bowling leagues, and gone are the days when neighbours would gather around an open car engine helping each other to fix it.

This means that kids stay inside unless an adult can watch them. That adults have to spend so much more time parenting than previous generations did. That neighbours are more likely to call the police on a kid swinging quietly in the park or taking the bus with their siblings than make sure a child is okay and seems responsible. This lack of support mostly means that mom bears the burden, and gets burnt out from it.

Decisions Feel Good In The Moment

The final key point I'll look at is the mounting cost of decisions. While decisions to purchase a house, car, couches, TV....may seem good in the moment they can add up to a life you never wanted to lead8. Unfortunately for most they realize this at the point when they are tied to all the decisions with financial obligations. For women this especially takes it's toll because many GenX women feel like they're left with the brunt of the decision making9. According to Calhoun they say that their male partners simply wait around for things to happen in the family and don't take charge of anything.

For many women this means that looking around at the life they don't really want means they look at a failure to make decisions that are consistent with themselves. So it's all their fault.

Should You Read Why We Can't Sleep by Ada Calhoun?

Before I say, let's remember that human's aren't intended to be permanently content10. This would be called stagnation and dismisses the idea that bad things do happen in life and we need to deal with them.

If you're a GenX woman in your 40's dealing with a sense of malaise, then this can help walk you through some of the reasons that you feel the way you do. I'm not sure that Calhoun offers much in the way of advice on how to change things, but even having a reason can be helpful.

I'm not sure I'd recommend it for any other reading group though.

Purchase Why We Can't Sleep by Ada Calhoun: Independent Bookstore | Amazon


  1. Page 54 

  2. Deep Work Page 64 

  3. Stillness is the Key Page 87 

  4. Page 3 

  5. See Free Range Kids for more on unwatched children 

  6. Designing Your Life Page 211 

  7. Page 122 

  8. Page 137 

  9. Page 211