Editor’s Note: S. Mitra Kalita is the senior vice president for news, opinion and programming for CNN Digital.
I am in the sandwich generation, caring for my kids and my parents simultaneously, and now feeling those pressures acutely while in lockdown with my family.
“I can’t focus and my mind is either always racing or responding: Do we have milk, does she have a fever, the dog needs a walk, where’s Papa’s will, is ours updated, time for a team meeting, maybe my throat hurts, Trump’s speaking in the Rose Garden, charades on Zoom sound cool, Mama? Mama? Mama??!!” I wrote recently in an account of life as I and many others are finding it now.
Here’s the deal, though: Long before the coronavirus pandemic, Generation X women — defined as those born between 1965 and 1980 — were already fraying. Author and journalist Ada Calhoun writes about this phenomenon in “Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis,” which came out earlier this year. I asked her a few questions by email and lightly edited our conversation.
S. Mitra Kalita: Let’s start with what coronavirus has done to this generation and specifically women.
Ada Calhoun: Middle-aged women do most of the caregiving in this country for children and aging parents. The coronavirus has sent children home to be schooled by the parents, and it’s menacing seniors more than anyone else.
So it’s now on Gen X women to keep their parents from dying while learning how to homeschool, while either working from home or dealing with a job loss and profound financial insecurity, and no social network aside from what we can cobble together online. It’s a perfect storm of pressure.
Kalita: You write about how we are trying to do so much more with less — less resources, more expensive childcare, demands at work. Do you think the virus has lifted up the curtain on the society we created? How do we want to look on the other side of this? What policy changes might have prevented this?
Calhoun: This virus may be the anvil that broke the camel’s back. A lot of women in this country were trying to keep a whole lot of plates in the air. All of it has come crashing down, and now there are also more plates falling from the sky, like crockery-hail.
When I was working on the book, some women told me they sort of wanted to blow it all up — their schedules, the dynamics of their marriages, their career path — and start over. This is not how anyone would have ever wanted something like that to happen, but I wonder if some of those women now are in a position where they will need to rebuild from scratch: to find a new distribution of work at home, to figure out a new career path, to change their expectations for themselves.
Although, of course, that’s also a lot of pressure when it’s hard enough right now to just, like, toast frozen waffles.
Kalita: Parents are struggling to do it all right now: work, homeschool, drop groceries off at Mom’s house, maybe talk to Dad through the window of his nursing home — and that hunt for toilet paper is real. And sharing pictures of baking bread! I feel so inadequate. Thoughts?
Calhoun: Seriously. I never thought a term I’d see again and again online in the midst of a pandemic would be “sourdough starter.” This is an unprecedented crisis. I think a lot of us have a choice between whether to keep up the high expectations for ourselves — to ace work, family life, fitness, appearance, home decorating, and so on and so on, adding disinfection to the list — or whether to be very honest about what is possible right now, what we are capable of and what we need help with.
It’s plenty to just do the best we can keeping our loved ones safe and staying home so we don’t endanger ourselves or others. It’s more than plenty — it’s herculean.
Kalita: Finally, talk about the class dynamics here; small businesses and low-wage workers will be so disproportionately affected. Any thoughts on this tied to your own work?
Calhoun: Yes, one thing that is so scary is how close most of this country was living on the edge already. And now a lot of people may have no income for months? It’s terrifying.
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One thing that I learned in researching the book is that there used to be so much more support for people — from religious groups, professional clubs, neighborhood organizations, employers. The poor in particular were already suffering horribly from that lack of social support, but right now it seems like that lack is being felt by nearly everyone.