My 15th interview is with Ruth Pennebaker. She lives in Texas. She is 59 years old, married, and has two children. She is a working woman and worked outside the home while raising her children. She has a blog called The Fabulous Geezersisters' Weblog.
What does the word feminist mean to you? Has the meaning changed over time? To me, a feminist means someone who believes women and men should have equal opportunities.
Do you consider yourself a feminist? Definitely
Would others consider you a feminist? They’d better.
If you are a feminist, do you feel comfortable owning that title in your everyday life? Again – definitely. Which doesn’t mean I’m always on the same page as every other feminist. But the term is as much mine as theirs.
What are some images that come to mind when you think of the women’s movement? Very specific ones. When I went to law school in 1973, our class at the University of Texas had fewer than 20 percent women; today, it’s more than 50 percent. Also, I think of my daughter, who’s now 27. She grew up in a different era from mine; it would never occur to her – as it did me, when I was very young – to hide her intelligence.
What was the greatest gift of the women’s movement? Women and girls take themselves, their ambitions and desires seriously. That sounds so simple, doesn’t it? But I can recall a time when we weren’t considered worthy of being taken seriously, when our voices were never heard.
What was the greatest failure of the women’s movement? Defeat of the ERA. Also, taking a few years to develop a sense of humor.
How do you feel about the sexualizing of young women in our society? I really dislike it.
Did your mother work outside the home? My mother was a housewife. A very smart, but very depressed housewife.
How did that affect you growing up? I knew I never, ever wanted to be a housewife and dedicate my life to my family. I always wanted a career.
What impression did that leave with you about women working outside the home? When I was a kid, women who worked outside the home were considered sad cases. Clearly, their husbands didn’t make enough money to support their families. Or maybe – horrors! – they didn’t have a husband.
Was your mother a homemaker? Yes
How did that affect you growing up? She was unhappy and she obsessed about my sister and me. It made everything harder.
Did your father respect your mother? He worshiped her and was scared to death of her.
Did your mother respect your father? Not particularly.
Who were your earliest female role models other than your mother? Aunts. Fictional characters like Scarlett O’Hara, Elizabeth Bennett, Nancy Drew, Jo in Little Women.
What did you dream of being when you were a child? An artist or a writer.
Was getting married/partnered a conscious goal or focus early on in your adulthood? I’d say yes, a very conscious focus.
Is there an event(s) that affected you in childhood/adolescence that impacted your identity in a positive or negative way? I was cripplingly shy when I was a teenager. That was nothing but negative.
Have you ever dieted? Oh, sure.
Are you happy and/or comfortable with your weight? Yes, I am.
Would you describe yourself as someone with “body issues?” If so, when do you remember this starting? What do you attribute it to? You know what? It’s hard to be an American female without body issues. It hit me – as it does most of us – in junior high. I blame the culture first, then the rest of us for giving into it. It’s sheer craziness.
What do you wish your mother had told you about marriage, life, anything…that you didn’t hear from her? I just wish my mother had been capable of more honesty. I wish, too, she had approved of me more than she did.
What role did your father play in your childhood? A limited, reluctant one.
What was your relationship like with your father? Not great.
How do you feel about aging? I had stage 2b breast cancer when I was 45 and have lost many friends to the disease. That changes your attitude about aging somewhat. But, sure – sometimes it bothers me that I’m not as energetic as I used to be and I’m not thrilled about seeing my knees upside-down when I do yoga. Other times, I realize I’m happier being older than I ever was when I was younger.
How do you feel about plastic surgery? Ambivalent!
Did your mother or another caretaker talk to you about sex and what to expect? Yeah, kind of.
How was your first sexual experience? Exciting, but bewildering.
Is marriage liberating or inhibiting sexually? Some of both.
What makes you feel sexy? A good sexy movie or book (love “Bull Durham” and will forgive Kevin Costner anything for his role in that). A fire in the fireplace.
Do you have the energy/desire for sex at the end of the day? Depends on the day.
What turns you on? See answers above. Also, being desired.
What would make your sex life better? More time, more relaxation. Trips!
What is your job/career? I’m a writer – of novels, newspaper essays, blogs, radio commentaries.
What do you love about being a working mom? I love my work and find great satisfaction, meaning and identity in it. But I also love the fact that both my daughter and son saw that women, as well as men, could have work they cared about.
What are the challenges of being a working mom? Being limited to a 24-hour day, for starters. Having enough patience and energy. Being able to change speeds quickly.
If you had a choice to be at home with your children, would you? Given my experience with a depressed mother, I always knew I could never stay at home with children.
Was the decision an economic one (e.g., your family requires two incomes)? The second income helped. But it wasn’t a necessity.
Do you beat yourself up for not spending enough time with your kids? I’m very good at beating up myself – and could certainly do it if I went back over the past minutely. But what’s the point? I think parents aren’t uniformly good or bad through their kids’ childhood and adolescence; they vary. I think I was a much better mother as my children became preteens, teenagers and young adults than I was when they were infants and toddlers.
Do you feel supported by your partner? Yes
Do you feel supported by other women? Women who are friends, certainly.
Do you feel valued in your workplace? Yes
Do you feel valued at home? Yes
Do you believe a happy, fulfilled mom is a better mom whether her choice is to work outside the home or to stay at home with her children? Yes
Can women do it all? Nobody can – and certainly not all at once. You’re always sacrificing something like sleep, time with friends, time with your mate, time with your kids.
How old are your children? Our daughter is 27 and our son 23
What do you want to do differently with your children than what you received from your parents? This may sound strange, but I wanted to be less involved with them. It’s not always healthy to feel you’re the center of someone’s existence, the very reason for their being. What do you have left for yourself, in that case?
What would you like to carry on that your parents established with you? An intact home.
How has having children changed the relationship with your partner? Looking back, those very full years with young children put a strain on all relationships, including ours. But neither of us would have missed it for anything; our children have ultimately enriched our lives and relationship.
Do you have dates with your partner? Sure.
Do you have personal “ME” time scheduled every week/every day? You bet. But remember, we’ve got an empty nest now.
How do you combat stress? Writing, yoga, talking with my husband and friends.
Do you get out regularly with girlfriends? Yes
Has it been challenging to retain a separate sense of self from your role as mother & wife? Not really.
What do you do to facilitate that? Does your partner help make that happen? My work has made that possible. My husband’s respecting my work and my ambitions has helped.
Do you help create personal space for your partner? No, he’s pretty good at doing that himself.
Does your partner share in household tasks? He cooks. Also, he cleans up when nagged.
How did you think your life would be when you got married? How do you feel now? We were so young – in our early twenties – when we got married, that I’m not sure what I envisioned, except for unbroken bliss. Thirty-six years later, I can say a couple of things: a long marriage isn’t a monolith – it’s a series a smaller relationships that change through the years; also, you’ve never truly been married if you haven’t wanted to strangle the other person; and, finally, I’m so glad we’re together.
Do you see evidence of “The Mommy Wars” in your everyday life?Oh, it’s everywhere, still, the same way it was when my kids were small. We’re all so incredibly afraid of messing up and doing the wrong thing – and so insecure that we have to justify our own choices by criticizing others’ decisions. It’s a shame. Women need to support one another more and realize our lives, talents and decisions are individual.
Our kids are now grown. I feel fortunate they both have college degrees and one has a master's. They're both smart and funny and, most important, they have good hearts. My husband and I both enjoy being around them; it's a wonderful thing to talk to your adult children and to try to see into their worlds.
What do you yearn for? The only thing I really yearn for now is more professional success. I have so much of what I’ve always wanted. Peace on earth and a cure for cancer would also be nice.
Are you happy and/or fulfilled with your life? Why? Yes, I am both happy and fulfilled. Because I have a wonderful family and friends, I’m healthy, and I do work I get great satisfaction and enjoyment from. Also, because Obama was elected and I can quit screaming at the TV set, which I’d been doing for the past eight years.
As you can see, I worked throughout my kids' childhood. That was the only decision I could make. I think you can bring up good, healthy children if both of you work outside the home or if one of you stays at home. I don't think there's any magic combination that guarantees success here.
The truth is, we can't completely control our children's lives. We can love them, feed them, care for them, dress them and give them as stable a home life as possible. But so many other things are beyond our control: their genetic heritage; the temperament they're born with; their friends; their environment at school; life's sheer randomness. If our kids turn out well, I think we should count ourselves as incredibly lucky, because all of us need all the luck we can get. If they don't turn out so well or take a tougher, more circuitous route, do realize it wasn't all in your control to begin with.
We all do our best, I think, and we all make some wretched mistakes along the way. Give yourself a break and bring some lightness into your life. Whenever you can, enjoy your children.
Thank you, Ruth.
The Motherscribe Interviews are closed to comments. For more about Ruth, please find her on The Fabulous Geezersisters' Weblog.