Q&A: On women, love, and mother-daughter relationships

I met novelist Ruth Pennebaker online a couple years ago and then in real life at a writer’s conference. Ruth is one of those people who, on paper, seems like a giant contradiction. For instance, she’s a liberal Texan. She’s also a former lawyer who is one of the most generous, funny, and gracious people I know.

I found myself both laughing and nodding my head as I read her novel Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakthrough. It’s a tale of three generations of women living under the same roof. Or as Ruth puts it, it’s a tale of hell. But hell can be a glorious spectator sport, one that readers like me enjoy watching from the sidelines.

One scene toward the end of the book made me laugh so hard that my dog got scared and jumped off the bed. I’m not sure if I will ever be able to say the word “pantyhose” without smirking, especially if Ruth is around.

Because a sense of irreverent wisdom permeates Ruth’s every spoken and written word, I decided to interview her about her thoughts on marriage, life and mother-daughter relationships. To get the full flavor of Ruth, try to read her answers with a Texas accent.

1. In your book, you write about some very sad relationships. In fact, most of the men are perceived as jerks. Even Ivy’s late husband turns out to be someone most women would not want to be married to. Why is that?

They are pretty bad, aren’t they? Well, except for Bruce; I think that guy has some real potential.  And I think Ivy’s husband, John, was very much a man of his generation, who earned a steady living and came home and wanted to watch TV without talking too much. The strong, silent type used to be big, remember? That was before we all started clamoring for sensitive men.

I think many of the women in the book have relied on men for too much, have wanted to be “saved” by the men in their lives — and that’s an unhealthy kind of reliance. It means the women aren’t really taking themselves seriously enough. I think you need to have a certain amount of confidence in yourself before you can have a good relationship with another person, romantic or not.

Ruth Pennebaker

2. I happen to know, however, that you have a strong marriage. What is your secret to marital success? Do you have wisdom to share?

I think both partners have to want to have a good marriage and to stick around and work things out during hard times. And I think they need a certain degree of luck in being married to someone they have good chemistry (sex, humor, similar ambitions, compatible world views) with. My husband and I were married young — in our early 20s; the younger you are when you get together, I think, the luckier you have to be. In many ways, we’ve grown up together and have changed in ways that are compatible. I have to credit luck and our own stubbornness for any success we’ve had. And that chemistry I mentioned.

3. Has your marriage ever gone through a rough patch. If so, what advice or encouragement do you have for others who are currently mired in one?

We’ve gone through a couple of rough patches and all I can say is that they were hell and I’m glad we made it through, battered, but intact. When you hit a really difficult time in a marriage, I think it either ends or you put it back together so that it’s better than it was before. But the two of you have to really want it. It has to be worth it to both of you.

And — to those who are in the middle of what I can only call a painful shit storm: You will laugh again.  You will be better than before. You will be even more committed to your relationship if you go through a painful time together; you’re never going to forget what it cost you to work things out.

After all of this, my stock line is: I don’t think you’ve really been married if you haven’t wanted to strangle each other. I’m not entirely kidding.

Me (right), Ruth (next to me) and a couple other writer buddies at Ruth's book party in New York.

4. You write about three generations of women living under the same roof. This is a struggle that is common and one that many of my readers are going through. What missteps do the characters make in your book that you hope readers won’t make in their own?

Each of the three women, Ivy, Joanie and Caroline, is struggling with different problems in her own life.  Sometimes, when you’re overwhelmed by difficulties in your life, you simply don’t have the wherewithal to be empathic toward others; you’re used up emotionally. I think it takes all of them most of the book to really notice and appreciate one another.

With any relationship, I think you need to use your imagination about what’s going on in the other person’s life so you can be more understanding. Ivy, in her 70s, is lonely and disoriented, an elderly woman in a world that worships youth; she probably doesn’t recall how hard it is to be an adolescent like Caroline, and she’s never had the experience of her daughter, Joanie, in being divorced and re-entering the job market. Both Joanie and Caroline, in turn, are too wrapped up in their own dilemmas to think about what it must be like to be old, like Ivy, and feel as if they’re not essential to the rest of the world.

Be kind to people, since everybody you know is fighting a great battle. Either Plato or Aristotle is supposed to have said that. I think it’s true. There are lots of invisible heroics going on in the world — if we just knew what was going on under the surface of others’ lives.

5. If Caroline–the teenage character in your book–were your real life daughter, what advice would you give her about men and relationships?

I know this sounds trite — but I do think you have to value yourself before you can find another person who will value you.  And I do think it’s important to find work you love that feeds something in you. My work, writing, has been incredibly important to my life and well-being. I can’t imagine not having it.

6. Why do you think mother-daughter relationships are so mired in difficulty?

Women take their relationships seriously. We make time for our friends, we worry about them, we prize those we’re close to. When I bring up a problem in a friendship, I can see my husband’s eyes roll (oh, no!  She’s talking about her friends again!). But I don’t care; these friendships are like oxygen to me. And the mother-daughter relationship is exponentially more intense than most friendships.

I should add that my own daughter turns 29 today.  It’s a wonderful thing for me to have this new friend in my life now that she’s grown.

Readers: This winter has been nasty. You need a light read to lift your mood. Pick up Ruth’s novel, laugh, and then give her a good review. Read her blog. Or learn more about her.

Also, comment here about the nature of mother daughter relationships. Do you struggle in yours? Why? Or just comment about how you wish winter would end already.


* At the Yummy Mummy Club I wrote about ways to put the romance back in Valentine’s Day. You can also find ways to win a copy of PHEA.

* At Simple Mom I write about ways to teach your spouse to romance you. You can also win a copy of PHEA on this post.

23 comments… add one

  • Alexandra February 11, 2011, 3:12 pm

    Having just returned from a therapy session with my two daughters, I can say that yes, I struggle. I read Ruth’s book last week and loved it. She puts her finger on so much truth as she explores the complexities of different generations in a family. Sometimes I wish my own mother were still alive, to help me get through the issues one of my daughters is now having. Thanks for this excellent interview. I really enjoyed it.
    Alexandra´s last blog post ..Why You Should Say No to Herbicial Spraying

  • Steph Auteri February 11, 2011, 3:17 pm

    Mother/daughter relationships are SO fraught. I feel as if no one has the power to affect my sense of self-worth as much as my mother does. We’ve always been simultaneously close and at each other’s throats. It’s definitely easier when we’re not living under the same roof. ;)
    Steph Auteri´s last blog post ..Permalancing- The Good- The Bad- And The Mildly Horrific

  • Sarah Liz February 11, 2011, 3:21 pm

    I have to read this book! I lived with my mom and grandma at the same time from ages 13–19, and while I wouldn’t say it was ‘hell,’ it wasn’t exactly easy either. My grandma is passed on now, and I miss her dearly, that being said; no way would I have ever wanted to live with BOTH my mom and grandma (at the same time) ever again. I’m utterly grateful for both of these amazing, strong, courageous women who absolutely made me the woman I am today. One of my favorite parts of being in my late 20s is realizing how very much we all (the three of us) have in common, and how very much we’re different. The key is honoring those differences, and recognizing that the love is unconditional, the respect is always there; but the agreeing and the liking, not so much. I consider being my mother’s daughter, and my grandma’s grandaughter, one of the most significant and beautiful blessings in my life! Thank you for sharing this, this is definitely first on my “Personal Reading List” once Spring Vacation comes (I’m in school right now)! Thanks for sharing, Alisa, and great photo of you and the ladies!

    Have a great weekend, all!

    Many Blessings,
    -Sarah Liz :)

  • Frugal Kiwi February 11, 2011, 3:26 pm

    I haven’t had the pleasure of reading Ruth’s book yet, but I’m looking forward to it. Her blog is in turns hilarious, heartbreaking and thought provoking. If you haven’t read it, you should.
    Frugal Kiwi´s last blog post ..Gold Thieves- Honey Heist

  • Maureen February 11, 2011, 3:36 pm

    My daughter and I were SO at odds with each other when she was a teenager. She thought I was abandoning her for my second husband and I thought she was abandoning for her biological father.
    Now…it’s totally different. She calls me all the time. I call her. We send random texts to each other during the week that we love and miss each other. I am totally smitten with our relationship now.
    It makes me shiver to think what she was like as a teen. I’m sure she thinks the same.

  • Sarah February 11, 2011, 10:05 pm

    My Mom is one of my best friends. That doesn’t mean we don’t disagree sometimes or that we never annoy each other, but overall it’s a good relationship. My mother-in-law, though, that’s a whole different story. In fact, my terrible mother-in-law actually caused me to appreciate my Mom so much more! A lot of things I used to think were so bad about my Mom I completely changed my mind about after seeing the flip side ;-)

  • Kathy February 12, 2011, 8:38 am

    I’ll have to put this on my Amazon wish list. I was just ordering books yesterday and I would have gotten this book if I’d read this blog earlier.

  • Jane Boursaw February 12, 2011, 10:08 am

    Can’t wait to read this! It’s next on my list, and Ruth’s witty blog is a daily stop for me. Thanks so much for the interview, Alisa and Ruth.

  • Jane Boursaw February 12, 2011, 10:10 am

    And I love the picture of all of you!

  • Merr February 12, 2011, 10:15 am

    I’m enjoying Ruth’s book – and I love that she’s explored the multigenerational effect with heart and humor. I really enjoyed this interview, too.

  • Casey@Good. Food. Stories. February 12, 2011, 10:57 am

    Instead of clinging to Oprah’s every word, all women should be listening and listening good to Ruth Pennebaker. Ruth, how are you able to distill these huge life lessons into quoteworthy, hilarious soundbites? As always, an excellent interview.
    Casey@Good. Food. Stories.´s last blog post ..CC and BF are Cavemen

  • Susan February 12, 2011, 11:57 am

    Mother/daughter relationships are tough because much as we love our mothers, we hate it when the men in our lives tell us that we’re turning into our mothers. And our mothers hate it when they see us making decisions that they disagree with but they have to bite their tongues because we’re adults and have to learn these things for ourselves.

  • Sarah Liz February 12, 2011, 6:59 pm

    @Susan: so well said–perfectly put!

    My mother is one of my best friends too, ever! I enjoy that aspect of our relationship so much, it’s such a blessing in my life!

    Many Blessings,
    -Sarah Liz :)

  • wendy February 12, 2011, 10:44 pm

    This was really interesting. I am looking forward to reading the book. I know my relationship has been a lifelong struggle with my mom and my friendships are like oxygen to me. They have helped me through some of those struggles. Thank you!

  • MyKidsEatSquid February 12, 2011, 11:35 pm

    I love Ruth’s blog. I’m reading her book right now and loving it. And I second Casey’s comment.

  • JenP February 13, 2011, 5:59 am

    I’m really lucky to have the mother that I have. What makes her special is the fact that she seemed to have no trouble letting me and my sister go off and lead our own lives. (Perhaps we were awful children and she couldn’t wait to get rid of us!!!) She never demands anything from us and we don’t feel under any pressure to call or visit.
    As a result, both of us see our parents far more than most of our friends see their parents.
    Her attitude reminds me of a poster that I had when I was a child – it was a bit cheesy but it was a bird flying free and it said, “If you love something let it go. It will come back to you.” Or something like that. My mother let both of us go and as a result, we keep coming back. Through love rather than obligation.
    JenP´s last blog post ..More about the Wildlife Exhibition

  • Christine February 13, 2011, 10:09 am

    I read this book, and I really enjoyed it! I’m quite impressed by how well Ruth perfectly captures the angst of women at such different stages of their life. It’s funny, but poignant too. I love Ruth’s blog as well – her wisdom, encased in dry wit and mixed with a dose of awareness of the poignancy of life, really really speaks to me.
    Christine´s last blog post ..Blue- blue hat

  • Donna Hull February 14, 2011, 10:05 am

    I read Ruth’s book. What an excellent read. She really captured the spirit and problems of the mother, daughter and grandmother. Of course I enjoy Ruth’s blog too. I sure hope The Fabulous Geezer Sisters wins the 2011 Bloggies for best blog writing. Did you know that Ruth’s a finalist?
    Donna Hull´s last blog post ..Saturday’s scene- Moody Montana

  • Ellen February 14, 2011, 10:39 am

    I apreciate you doing all these research
    Great blog post! In addition, mu husband and I is planning to go on a vacation. Find cheap hotels and enjoy some moments alone, away from work and other stressful things. Valentines should be special.

  • Angela P. February 14, 2011, 11:47 am

    Thank you for giving me some more great reading material!

  • Roxanne February 14, 2011, 12:22 pm

    Well, I do know this … mother-daughter relationships get even MORE complicated when your mommio is diagnosed with a terminal illness.

  • Jennifer Margulis February 14, 2011, 12:42 pm

    My mother is one of my favorite people in the entire world. My relationship with her is also one of my most fraught. I pre-ordered Ruth’s novel and can’t wait to read it. First I am reading The Host as part of a new mother-daughter book group that just started. It’s about a million pages long. Ruth’s book up next.

    (Mor on the book group, in case anyone’s interested: http://mothering.com/jennifermargulis/family-life/is-this-an-activity-youd-consider-doing-with-your-daughter)

  • Cheryl February 15, 2011, 8:01 pm

    I am extremely interested in mother-daughter communication and relationships as I have grown to have a strong relationship with my mom. I am currently a graduate student working on my thesis which is going to focus on mother daughter communication once the daughter graduates high school and moves away to college and how technology aids in maintaining their relationships once the daughter moves away. I have started a blog in hopes of getting the chance to communicate with other mothers and daughters in order to find out their experiences, observations, experiences about the relationship they share.

    So if you are a daughter who has just graduated high school and are about to move away from home or have already moved away from home or if you are a mother who has a daughter that fits this criteria I would GREATLY appreciate any and all help with my thesis research. And please pass this link on to any mothers and daughters who fit this criteria as well.

    I am still in the beginning stages but here is the link to my blog:


    Thank you!


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