Is insomnia the new midlife crisis? How to tackle your sleepless nights

We’re ‘the lucky generation’ – healthier, richer and more independent than at any time in history. So why can’t we sleep at night? Author Ada Calhoun has some surprising theories.

At first I thought it was just me. Several scheduled freelance jobs had evaporated and my husband and I had amassed a considerable credit-card debt. I’d wake up in the middle of the night and not be able to get back to sleep. I’d lie there thinking of all the things I really should do, or should not have done, until it was time to get up. From the outside, I know my life looked enviable; so why was I so miserable and anxious?

And then I started researching my book, Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis. I spoke to hundreds of women in their 40s and 50s and they all said the same thing: that they’re overwhelmed by responsibilities. They work – often full-time – in a stressful job, many are raising small children and caring for ageing parents, and on top of that they worry that they haven’t made the most of the opportunities they grew up with. They’re also dealing with the emotional and physical symptoms of the perimenopause. And they keep being told to lean in. Meditate. Be mindful. Be grateful. How lucky they are. 

They don’t feel lucky, though. They feel exhausted and busy and stressed. Ashamed that they don’t feel sufficiently grateful. They wonder who they are, convinced they have failed and that they should have done more with their lives. That’s when I realised: this is generational. Generation X women (those born between 1965 and 1980) are having a new type of midlife crisis. No wonder we lie awake, minds racing. 

During my research, I spoke to psychotherapist Deborah Luepnitz, who told me, ‘What I see in my Gen X patients is total exhaustion. They feel guilty for complaining, because it’s wonderful to have had choices that our mothers didn’t have, but choices don’t make life easier. Possibilities create pressure.’ Of course we want them, but having this infinity of choices makes life much more complicated. So many middle-aged women question their life choices. Have they made the right ones? 

Almost every woman I spoke to was lying awake at night because of the pressures they are facing. Sleep became a metaphor for a lot of the things they talked about when I interviewed them: the more you chase satisfaction the further away it seems to recede. And the more stressed you are the less you sleep, and the less sleep you get the more stressed you are. We’re in a vicious cycle.

To those who say these women are whining or who roll their eyes and think ‘first-world problems’, I say, fine, but this book is not for you. This book is for women who are trying to figure out why, given that they have a roof over their head, given that they have a more equal partner, given all the things they feel lucky for – why, then, do they stay awake at night wondering what’s going on? Why do they feel they have failed to make the most of their lives? 

Growing up, we were told that the feminism of previous generations had done the hard work for us and it was smooth sailing from now on. One woman after another would quote her parents telling her, ‘You don’t want to be a nurse – be a doctor’, or, ‘Women can be anything now’. 

But then we came up against the structural realities: the world does not make it easy for women to have a family and work. And it’s not just women with children; we’re all in the same boat. Generation X’s timing in history is unfortunate: we were raised by parents who assumed we would continue the trend of upward mobility, but we have more debt, higher stress, less job security, and face a rising cost of living. Of course we’re not getting the nine hours of sleep a night our grandmothers averaged.

That’s something I heard over and over again: it isn’t enough to be ‘enough’. We see what isn’t there rather than what is. I lost count of the women who’d say they ‘only’ had a successful career. A woman who had raised three children, one of whom had a brain injury, said she was ‘only’ a stay-at-home mother. Women with full-time jobs and three children would always focus on what wasn’t up to the mark. Maybe it’s that their body felt out of control. Or their marriage wasn’t sexy enough. Or they didn’t have the perfect home. It’s as though we’ve lost sight of what we have done amid the profusion of possibilities.

Moreover, not only do we have to do all these things, but we have to meditate until we’re filled with a warm sense of appreciation. Let me say now that mindfulness drives me crazy. It is not the solution! It is yet another added pressure. Being mindful is the last thing we want to do. I just want to go on Autopilot and crash through it all so I can go to bed without a to-do list running through my head, keeping me awake.

This fantasy that another yoga class or having your highlights done is going to make it all go away is ridiculous. Nope. ‘Me time’ is the opposite of what we need. My children still need dinner and now I’m going to be up until one in the morning to make a deadline. No amount of ‘me time’, mindfulness, juice cleanses or self-help manuals are going to help. It’s a systemic problem and it needs systemic solutions.

A sociologist who studies the generations told me that in the past we used to judge ourselves on our home or our job or our family. It was one or the other. Now there’s an infinite list of categories (those pressure-laden possibilities again) and women think they have to meet every single one of them. So not only their marriage and the kids, the home and job, but also the workout regime, the networking. One woman told me she woke up in the middle of the night suddenly stricken by the thought that she wasn’t recycling properly. We’re supposed to be this new kind of woman – a better kind of woman – who does it all and looks amazing while doing it. When our mothers and grandmothers hit middle age, it was OK to look a little bit pudgy. They didn’t have washboard abs, nor did they feel that they were supposed to. But now 50 looks like Jennifer Aniston. 

Let’s stop focusing on the fantasy of what our lives are ‘supposed’ to be like and look at how they are really playing out. Because the fantasy is not sustainable. Just because we have all these possibilities and expectations, there’s no mandate to fulfil them all. Simply getting through the day might be enough. And realising it might even help you sleep. 

7 ways to tackle your sleepless nights

  1. Talk – but do it honestly. Life isn’t perfect and recognising this is the important first step.
  2. Form groups. I found it helped to get to the place where I saw myself as part of this generation, aligned with other women. So many of us have eschewed religious and community groups and this has left us in bubbles of self-care. We need to reconvene and build support systems; surround ourselves with other Gen X women in the same predicament.
  3. Reframe how you think. Instead of focusing on how hard life is and how much you haven’t achieved, think of how hard you work. And if you’re managing to pull off even some of it, you should be proud of yourself.
  4. Go to a (good) doctor about the perimenopause: insomnia is a classic symptom. All the doctors I spoke to said that the years leading up to the menopause are harder than the menopause itself.
  5. Let go of unrealistic expectations. You don’t have to hold down a full-time job, be a domestic goddess, volunteer as a school governor and have a perfect home. That level of pressure is unsustainable.
  6. Cut back on Instagram. Its curated images of perfection are a brainwashing campaign that we willingly subject ourselves to. You’re confronted with this impression that everyone else has it all figured out. It’s not true, but you scroll and scroll, and it starts to feel a little bit true. It’s not. It’s fake.
  7. Remember, this is a stage. It’s tough, but it’s a set period of time and it will be over at some point.

Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis by Ada Calhoun will be published on 5 March by Grove Press, price £14.99

As told to Natasha Poliszczuk