The pressures of lockdown are creating a vicious cycle of insomnia and worry, and driving many of us to midlife crisis
When I was conducting interviews for Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis, my book about the stressors on Generation X women in midlife, one woman after another told me she felt like she was reaching breaking point.
Between caregiving duties, work stress, perimenopause and all the other pressures, many said they were on the verge of “blowing it all up”.
The book is not a sleep guide — actually, I was using sleep as an example of how the cornucopia of stresses on us can manifest themselves. It could have been called Why We Drink or Why We Just Threw Our Phone Against the Wall.
And yet, as I lay awake at four this morning wondering if my son would have school in person again this year, if I’d make it through this whole thing without getting sick, and if my parents were going to stay safe, I had to admit that sleep — or the lack of it — is a big part of midlife right now, particularly for women.
The stereotypical male midlife crisis involves busting stuff up — mostly marriages but also careers, norms, reputations.
In my observation — and many experts I’ve spoken with have affirmed — women’s crises tend to be quieter.
More often, she sneaks her suffering in around the edges of caretaking and work. Women might drain a bottle of wine while watching TV alone, or cry every afternoon on the way to school pickup.
Or, in the middle of the night, they might lie wide-awake, eyes fixed on the ceiling.
Generation X women — born 1965 to 1980 — were the first to be raised from birth hearing the tired cliché “having it all”. We thought we could have thriving careers and rich home lives, and make more and achieve more than our parents. But most of us have gained little if any advantage.
And when I set out to talk to women having a midlife crisis, it turned out to be harder to find one who wasn’t. Then along came Covid, which blew it up, for real.
Those who were worried about their job stability were furloughed. Women have been hard hit by rising unemployment. Those worried about help with children lost their childcare — and had to learn how to homeschool while working from home.
Those trying to find a partner or start a family were marooned at home alone — in some cases, for what felt like the end of their fertile years.
Those whose marriages were on the brink were sent into the crucible that is a home with two people trying to do Zoom meetings on one wi-fi network.
Those who got sick found themselves slow to recover, or suffering from long-haul symptoms.
Everything bad got much worse: more caregiving, less work security, more isolation, less financial security, and a resulting surge in depression, anxiety, and loneliness. And our sleep has suffered more than ever.
A report by the Society for Women’s Health Research says women, already more likely to suffer from insomnia, are experiencing that even more now.
There’s an insidious cyclical connection between sleeplessness and stress.
The more stressed we are, the more sleepless, and the more sleepless, the more stressed. And on and on until we’re so tired we’re pulling out our credit card to open our front door and our keys at the cash machine.
According to a recent Canadian study, sleep disturbances are common after natural disasters, and the pandemic reached a whole new scale: “Such a major stressful life event is also likely to have impaired sleep and circadian rhythms, at a time when healthy sleep is particularly important to cope adaptively with this crisis and uncertainty about the future,” the authors write.
In other words, now we really need the peace and restorative function of sleep, it’s hardest to come by.
Just like always, the crisis found those in midlife caught between Boomers and the younger generations. Our parents were right in the disease’s crosshairs; our Gen Z children were sent home for us to educate. Many seniors weren’t as careful as we wanted them to be. A lot of young people were still partying over the summer.
Now that the vaccine is here, midlife women I know in the US feel like they’ve entered some kind of new Hunger Games challenge in which they use skills honed competing for gig tickets in the Nineties to score their parents an appointment and possibly save their lives.
The only good news might be that Generation X was almost engineered for this emergency. And yet, no one needs to be told twice that this year has been hard. And hard times make for sleepless nights.
So what’s the fix? We’re often told to get on a schedule. I’ve found this to be a challenge.
For me, time’s gone squishy in quarantine. Every day feels like the 87th of Thurstober. The other night, exhausted after hours of Zooms and cooking, I put on pyjamas and started to get into bed. My husband pointed out that it was only 7:30. “A.m. or p.m?” I asked.
We struggle with sleep because, even without a global pandemic, this is a rough stage of life. We were raised with the mantra that we could have it all, only to find out that compromises and sacrifices come along with having even some of it.
And now, we’ve added on a very real fear of illness, financial turmoil, isolation, uncertainty about our parents’ vulnerability, and our children’s faltering education.
For perspective, I spoke to sleep expert Janet Kennedy, psychologist and founder of NYC Sleep.
She told me: “The mental load is astounding and the presumption that we will just pick up all of this tremendous slack is rage-inducing.
“What’s interesting is that women are sucking it up and dealing [with it] in a lot of cases. I’m seeing a lot of men whose sleep has finally forced them to seek treatment.
"But women seem to expect and accept that it’s going to be horrible and kind of stop there — probably, at least in part, because they simply don’t have time to add anything to their lists.”
That rings true for me. A hundred million sick. Two million dead. Tragedy on that scale is almost impossible to wrap our minds around by day. Is it any wonder that by night those numbers wreak havoc on our dreams?
Dr Kennedy says following the news while stuck in my house for weeks on end is a recipe for more stress: “It’s also important to understand that, even while life is monotonous, this situation is over-stimulating.”
Waiting for the end of the pandemic, waiting for a night of unbroken sleep - the two are intertwined.
And for many of us, the second might not come before the first.
© Telegraph Media Group Ltd 2021