Who Took My Joy? A Review/Reflection on Why We Can’t Sleep by Ada Calhoun
Today is a snow day. This means two things: Our farm is blanketed in a beautiful and serene layer of white snow and our kids (4 and 2-years old) are not going to pre-school. We are all staying home together. Also, I have time to finish Ada Calhoun’s new book, Why We Can’t Sleep, published by Grove Press. Acting as part memoirist, part journalist, part anthropologist, Calhoun explores women’s new mid-life crisis in this riveting, “generation-defining” book. I have been devouring it, since it arrived a few days ago.
My husband and I run a seasonal farm where we produce sheep cheese and grow organic herbs from April to October. In the off-season I teach agriculture and writing classes, and he works on various carpentry projects. Our life and lifestyle is both hectic and idyllic, and we are still navigating how to make it all work with young kids and multiple jobs. The farm is a business and a lifestyle and an experiment we are still willing to try, even as we both approach middle-age.
Although it is generally quiet this time of year on the farm, this snow day is a nice reprieve. Snow accumulation in our coastal sliver of the Pacific Northwest is not the norm.
It is the second week of a year I wasn’t ready to start.
Normally, I am aggressively making lists in January. To-do lists, intention lists, long-term and short-term goals. However, I had no desire to do these things this year. Yes, I have plans in the works, and there are always things happening on the farm even in the off-season. I was just not ready to have it laid out all in front of me, staring me in the face.
After finishing Calhoun’s book, I am starting to understand my aversion to lists this year. Her onslaught of statistics and anecdotes surrounding Gen Xer’s mid-life reality is startling. Having turned forty last May, I am not even quite comfortable with the middle-age designation. However, as a baby Gen Xer lying on the cusp, I could identify with almost all the of information Calhoun has complied. As she writes, “Our lives can begin to feel like the latter seconds of a game of Tetris, where the descending pieces fall faster and faster.”
I have two young children, and over the holidays one of my parent’s had a health scare. In the days surrounding Christmas I had to balance childcare and home and farm responsibilities with making myself available to be at the hospital. While things are stable now, it was a huge wake-up call for all of us. My husband, in much need of time away (we are pretty good and sharing childcare and home duties), had to cancel a trip over New Year’s since I wanted to be available 24-7 for this parent and we had no other childcare options. Even with the help of my sister and another family member, I experienced a new dimension of caretaking anxiety. I wanted to be there for everyone, make everyone happy, and I couldn’t.
Like many of the Gen Xers in Calhoun’s book, I’ve had a lot of choices and support in my young adult life. I have been encouraged to pursue my dreams and passions which have led me to running this farm, teaching, and putting my writing out in the world. I have had plenty of opportunity and along with that, choice. At the same time, my parent’s divorced when I graduated college (Calhoun reports almost half of Gen Xers come from divorced households) and, in fear of failing at relationships, I waited a long to time to marry and have kids. (She notes that the median ages for marriage and childbirth have risen substantially for Gen X compared to Boomers.) Now I am entering my forties with toddlers and Boomer parents in so-so health, several of whom we depend on for weekend childcare. It is worrisome, and also on point with my peers, apparently.
In reading Calhoun’s book I had several a-ha moments. The overwhelming statistics explaining Gen X’s unique moment in our social history and economy, as well as personal reflections from the over 200 women she interviewed, validated many of the feelings I have experienced over the last few years as a business owner, new mom, concerned citizen, and mid-career professional. I’ve never examined myself through the lens of generational trends, but throughout each pointed and thought-provoking chapter, like “Job Instability” and “Decision Fatigue,” I found a lot to relate to. It’s good to know I am not the only one carrying credit card debt or struggling to find well-(and equal-) paying work in my field, despite my extensive educational background.
Starting a farm was in some ways my resistance to the cultural shifts and politics that pigeon-holed our generation into not caring, or being labeled apathetic, in the first place. I read a lot of Wendell Berry in college and afterwards. His words were a sort of guiding light. He made me want to create something whole and beautiful with my life. I wanted to feel like I was part of the solution to the environmental issues the Boomers had bequeathed us, versus lobbing them over to the Millennials. I have succeeded in many ways in making a difference (I think?) and yet, after reading this book, I am still suffering a mid-life crisis of sorts.
Over the years I have written to Wendell Berry and, thankfully, he responds. I am not sure if he finds my letters interesting or not, but he listens—to my plans, my ideas, my worries. Recently I wrote to him again and told him we added a sheep creamery to the farm in 2018. That we had a second daughter in 2017. I was finally writing more, working on a memoir. I wrote that I felt good about what we were doing, but that I was also really tired.
His response was short, just a few lines. One line stood out in particular. “Don’t take on so much work that you overwhelm your gratitude.”
I fumed. Then, after I calmed down a bit, I felt embarrassed. Dear God, how could I be mad at this person that is so important to me? This very important person who bothers reading my letters and responding in his own handwriting! The agrarian prophet of the Silent Generation. (Actually, that type of reactive, rage response has become a norm for me since having kids, like I shed a filter or something along with my placenta.)
What did I want him to say anyway? Maybe I had hoped for some grand praise for my efforts or for him to tell me that this was the “right” thing to be doing with my life and that I was, in fact, making a difference. In reading Calhoun and comparing my own life to her interviewees, I maybe think he was right. He wasn’t saying don’t be tired, just be careful.
Like many of the female forty-somethings in Calhoun’s book, I have been resilient. I have worked very hard, and yet at the same time I have never given myself the option of not working hard. I want to have it all, a family and a career and a creative life, and I didn’t want to wait around for it to find me either.
Now at this unprecedented and delicate transition point, perhaps waiting is the best thing I can do. Not trying to do everything, and well. Perhaps this is not a time to panic (Did I make the right choices? We will have enough money?) but instead a time to relish. As Calhoun writes in her final chapter, “Maybe the Generation X story need not be: We’re broke. We’re unstable. We’re alone. Maybe it can be: We’ve had a hard row to hoe. We’ve been one big experiment. And yet look at us: we’ve accomplished so much.”
I have let myself get overcommitted largely for many of the reasons Calhoun expounds on in her book, so instead of making lists I am making 2020, for me, the year of radical self-care. And I am not talking about facials, but small, honest ways of caring for myself. Finding “solace” as Calhoun describes. I can’t say I exactly know how to do this, but I think in part it starts with just admitting that this is a hard time in life and between the kids, the farm, my students, husband, and parents, I have a lot of responsibility.
I like to think about my Grandmother who was of the same generation as Berry. She passed away when I was thirty-one, so I was able to develop a solid relationship with her in my young, adult life. She didn’t have a lot of choice, yet I never felt like she carried a lot of regret. She raised five kids, she buried her husband, and she continued to live alone for another ten years. I imagine she wasn’t happy all the time, but, from my point of view, she leaned into her life and her home.
Instead of finding immediate remedies or uprooting my life in some Eat, Pray, Love odyssey perhaps the best thing for me is continuing a self-imposed “journey of one inch,” as described by Berry. “Very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home.”
As Calhoun prescribes, learning to be at home in middle-age is possible if we are patient and honest and seek support. And we will eventually get past this perimenopause stage of life, and its roller coaster of hormonal and emotional shifts, and enter a new reality. As psychologist Amy Jordan Jones is quoted in the book as saying “This is the time of life that we learn we don’t have to be pleasing; the work now is just to become more ourselves.”
Today, on this snow day, I let my husband take the kids out to play in the snow. I pull my dusty, cross-country skis up from the basement. I can hear them cheering for me as I head out down the snowy, unplowed road. I make it to the end and in that brief thirty minutes, before both kids’ hands freeze and they start howling to return inside and have lunch, I feel something that I haven’t felt in awhile. Is it adrenalin, excessive oxygen, or, maybe, just plain joy? That feeling that I have had glimpses of over the past few years, especially in the tender moments of mothering. That feeling that can be drowned out by sleeplessness, post-partum depression, and life stresses that have noticeably heightened in my life between the ages of thirty-eight and forty.
The joy is there though and I feel it resurfacing with the knowledge, which Calhoun has diligently and generously provided, that I am not alone. I have my generation to comfort me as I sift through the gooey slime of middle-age (from her apt Double Dare analogy—God, I loved that show!) looking for my own, damn orange flag.
Jessica Gigot is a poet, farmer, teacher and musician. She has a small farm in Bow, WA called Harmony Fields that makes artisan sheep cheese and grows organic herbs. Her first book of poems, Flood Patterns, was published by Antrim House Books in 2015 and her writing appears in several publications, including Orion, Taproot, Gastronomica, Mothers Always Write, The Hopper, Pilgrimage, and Poetry Northwest.