Sisters Julie Howard ’86 and Abby Rodman ’84 host Sisters Cracking Up, a podcast focused on midlife. They interview authors and experts as they seek truth and sanity. It’s funny, poignant, insightful, authentic— and did we mention funny?
By Diane M. Sterrett
Midlife can be hard enough—aging parents, empty nests, career challenges, physical changes—but then throw a pandemic in the midst and you have the makings of a crack-up. Sisters Abby Rodman ’84 and Julie Howard ’86 have each other to lean on, and their listeners have their podcast, Sisters Cracking Up.
Think back to spring of 2020. Like many, Abby, a psychotherapist, and Julie, a life and leadership coach, were hunkered down, worried about getting sick, sanitizing everything, living too far apart, and dealing with ever-present uncertainty. They had always wanted to work together and saw the pandemic as an opportunity.
“The idea was to create a community of women in our age group where we talk about all the things that really crack us, and all the things that keep us laughing, keep us sane.”
—Abby Rodman ’84
“We both had more time on our hands than we ever had before; we were checking in on each other more often. The podcast gave us flexibility to work on a project where we didn’t have to travel and we didn’t have to be together,” Julie says.
Their focus on midlife grew organically, as well. As they point out, it’s a life stage that previous generations really didn’t talk about. They are typical midlife women, experiencing all the joys and challenges—divorce, career changes, body image issues, and more.
“So much is happening!” Julie says. “Your children are growing up and out of the nest. Your marital status might be changing. Your career is shifting. Your parents are aging or dying. You’re going through menopause. And no one on their path through life says, ‘Gee, what am I going to be when I’m really grown? What’s that part of my life going to be like?’”
Reflecting on all they’d been through together and individually—and leaning on each other every step of the way—they knew that sharing their experience could help others.
“We realized that in all the insanity, we weren’t that much different from others who are fortunate enough to get to midlife and beyond,” Abby says. “The idea was to create a community of women in our age group where we can talk about all the things that can really crack us and all the things that keep us laughing, keep us sane. And sisterhood is one of those things.”
With that inspiration, Sisters Cracking Up was born, and the first episode launched June 16, 2020.
Producing a Winner
Creating the show was a journey in every aspect: the steep technological learning curve, surveying listeners to find topics that landed, and deciding what kind of conversations to have. They manage every aspect of the show from soup to nuts, including leaving in those little sisterly jabs that add to the authenticity and charm of the podcast.
At first, a listener is drawn in by Abby and Julie’s banter and unerring insights. Their interviews, with an incredible range of podcast guests, keep listeners coming back for more.
“Our message resonated with folks. There were some experts we reached out to who, we thought, ‘Oh gosh, they’ll never come on.’ But they did! It’s absolutely incredible. Every time a guest agrees to come on, Julie and I do a little happy dance! And anyone we reach out to, we’re really excited to have on,” Abby says.
For material, they watch what’s trending with their audience and keep an eye out for books or articles that inspire them. Julie takes the lead on planning questions and Abby likes to let the conversation flow. They’re meticulous in their research and, if the guest is an author, they read the book cover to cover.
They’ve had many memorable guests. Jonathan Rauch, author of The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50, discussed his research about aging and happiness. His conclusion: Life gets better and we get happier as we age. Gabrielle Glaser joined Abby and Julie to talk about pandemic drinking and her book, Her Best-Kept Secret: Why Women Drink—and How They Can Regain Control. And Ellen Albertson, author of Rock Your Midlife, discussed how to make your next chapter your best one.
“I’m always surprised by the generosity of our guests, their willingness to come on the show, have fun, and impart their incredible wisdom,” Abby says. “Honestly, I don’t think we’ve ever gotten off a call and not said we could be friends with that person. It’s just these incredible warm, wonderful, brilliant, generous guests who come on the show and give so freely of their time and expertise.”
Now in its third season, the podcast has a 4.8 iTunes rating, and feedback has been tremendous. Abby and Julie say they get listener comments like, “It feels like I’m listening to myself and my own sister having a conversation,” and questions like, “Can I be your third sister?”
They stress the importance of sister-friends, those who are not biologically related but who serve a sister role in your life.
“There’s an honesty in your relationship with your sister and sister-friends that you don’t really find anywhere else,” Julie explains.
At the end of each podcast, they hope listeners feel entertained, a little more informed, and part of the family—as well as part of something larger than themselves.
“We want them to feel they know us and that they’re not alone, whatever it is that they’re going through,” Abby says.
What makes the podcast unique? One of their guests, Steven Petrow, offers some insight. In Season 2, he spoke about his book, Stupid Things I Won’t Do When I Get Old. He is an award-winning journalist and book author who is best known for his Washington Post and New York Times essays on aging, health, and civility.
“I might be biased in favor of Julie and Abby because I have a real-life sister, also named Julie, who’s my best friend,” Petrow says. “When I was a guest on Sisters Cracking Up, I felt at home with these two wise, funny, and empathetic women who were so present in the interview. This might not seem like a big deal, but they actually listen to people, which is also a way of modeling a behavior we need more of these days.
“And I love their sense of humor—which is pretty close to my own. For all these reasons, Abby and Julie are unique in the media landscape today.”
How To Happily Work Together
“There’s an honesty in your relationship with your sister and sister-friends that you don’t really find anywhere else.”
—Julie Howard ’86
Not all siblings can work well together, but these two clearly do. Abby warns it wasn’t always a bed of roses. In the beginning, one of their biggest hurdles was learning how to collaborate and make room for what was important to each of them, given that they both like things to be “just so.”
“We really had to adapt to the way the other one worked, to our own sensitivities, frustrations, working styles … all of that. You can love somebody and hang out with them forever, but if you don’t work with someone, you have no idea who they are in that situation,” Julie says.
Even so, they agree that working with each other has also been their biggest joy. “Julie is absolutely creative to a fault. She’s super-bright, much brighter than I am, and that’s so great for me; I get to ride on her coattails. But honestly, nobody in this world makes me laugh like she does,” Abby says.
“We laugh all the time,” Julie agrees. “And people really like Abby, so much more than me, which has been incredibly helpful in getting guests. I think she could get anyone to come on the podcast.”
Beyond the practical how-to-podcast lessons, they’ve both learned some things about themselves from the process.
“The podcast has forced us to look at things about ourselves that maybe we wouldn’t have had to before in any kind of work situation, because this work situation is unique,” Abby says. “I know what triggers Julie, she knows what triggers me. We have a shared childhood experience and history. The key is looking at ourselves and each other and not always liking what we see but leaning into the love anyway.”
No One Can Call You Out Like Your Sister
Their close relationship shines throughout the podcasts and in their conversations. Throughout childhood, their dad would remind them, “Your sister is your best friend.”
“I’m not sure whether he was speaking our closeness into truth, but it worked,” Abby says. “One thing I do like to be mindful of is not projecting an idealized version of our relationship. Believe me, we’ve had our ups and downs over the years. But our closeness is never in question. Part of that stems from having to navigate a very chaotic childhood with two parents who made chaotic choices. From a young age, we must have realized we were better navigating those choppy waters together. I heard someone say recently that your sibling is the person who will know you the longest in your life. Your partners, your kids, your parents, they only get a portion of your lifespan. That resonated hugely.”
Julie agrees. “We got closer as we grew older and as our parents’ relationship simultaneously dissolved. By the time we were in middle school or early high school, we were tight. Later, the pressure of our respective lives, parenting, careers, marriage, etc., definitely created times when we weren’t spending as much time together or connecting as we would have liked, but whenever we felt that gap, we reached out and made it a priority.”
Making the Most of Every Hour
In addition to the podcast, they both have full-time jobs, clients, families, and other demands on their time. Abby is a speaker and author of the Amazon bestseller Without This Ring: A Woman’s Guide To Successfully Living Through and Beyond Midlife Divorce. She is regularly sought out by media outlets for her expertise on relationship and parenting issues and is a featured contributor to HuffPost. Julie is a former beauty, wellness, and trend expert who has worked for some of the world’s most recognized brands. She is also the author of a middle-grade fantasy novel and a young adult coming-of-age novel and is a lifelong advocate for the healthy development and empowerment of women and girls.
“It’s funny that all these years later, doing this podcast kind of reflects our studies from URI, journalistically and creatively.”
—Julie Howard ’86
How do they manage it all? With grace and humor.
“When you’re passionate about something and you want to do it, you find the time,” Abby says. “I don’t think either one of us has as much free time as we’d like, but we’re doing this amazing thing together, talking to great minds and authors and expanding our own worlds and hopefully expanding others’ worlds, as well. It’s a pretty rewarding way to spend your time.”
Rhode Islanders at Heart
Though they live out of state, the sisters still have a home in Rhode Island and feel URI is an inextricable part of their history. Julie was an art major, and Abby was a journalism major. For them, college was a safe space to test the boundaries of independence.
“I felt supported by the faculty and the teaching body that I had around me. It was a very healthy, solid education for life,” Julie says.
“At URI, we learned to flex our creative muscles,” Abby explains. “It’s funny that all these years later, doing this podcast kind of reflects our studies from URI, journalistically and creatively. Certainly my journalism studies helped me tremendously in the work that I’m doing now on the podcast in terms of what it means to tell a story start-to-finish and tell it well. A lot of those things I learned at URI.”
The sisters show no signs of slowing down and aim to keep podcasting on a regular basis.
“We have a list of dream guests including soccer great and author Abby Wambach, podcaster and author Mel Robbins, physician and addiction expert Dr. Gabor Maté, and actor Danny Bonaduce,” says Abby. “We will keep going as long as we can attract incredible guests and our sisterhood of listeners sticks with us.”
Get in on the Conversation
Abby and Julie invite you to listen to the podcast on your favorite podcast platform and reach out at sisterscrackingup.com.
“We’d love to hear from URI alumni! If anybody’s doing anything interesting that they want to talk about, let us know,” Abby says. And then you, too, can be part of the family and offer your insights on life’s crack-ups with a side of humor.