Julia Sweeney is a figure of bicoastal sophistication. She’s a comic actor who does one-woman shows about love, illness, faith and family. She’s still remembered for creating the androgynous Pat on Saturday Night Live. She hobnobs with famously glamorous and witty people.
So how did it come to pass that she wound up in Wilmette, Il., driving a minivan and dreaming of solitude? Sweeney has put some of her musings on becoming a Midwestern mother — and keeping up her life in comedy — into a new book, If It’s Not One Thing, It’s Your Mother.
Sweeney tells NPR’s Scott Simon that she had become disillusioned with Hollywood and her life in show business. “I had some success, I was on Saturday Night Live, and I had some failure — I did the It’s Pat movie, which, while I liked it, no one else seemed to,” she laughs. “I think there’s about eight people who’ve seen it. And then my brother Michael was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma and passed away, I had cancer, and just, show business seemed sort of empty and mercurial and demanding and superficial. And then my joke to myself is — but that was before I knew how superficial and demanding family can be.”
“At the time,” Sweeney continues, “it seemed like family was this way to connect in a much deeper way — and actually, that’s true, I don’t mean to make light of that — but … as you know, family is everything. The spectrum.”
Sweeney adopted a daughter from China rather than try fertility treatments. “I always have to watch my words carefully here when it comes to this topic because I think I’m kind of militantly against that, even though I know how unpopular that idea can be,” she says. “I personally don’t see that it’s that important that my DNA goes into the future, and I think there’s a lot of children out there that need parents. And I have to say, even though I have a lot of friends who’ve done this, people who go to great expense and effort, and even endanger themselves physically, in order to have a child — I don’t get it. I just don’t get it.”
At the time she decided to adopt, Sweeney was single, and she said she chose China because Chinese adoption authorities didn’t discriminate against single parents. “Now, I think I would have been more open to doing a U.S. adoption, but at the time, it just seemed like the thing everyone was doing,” she says. “I felt deeply about what was happening to the girls in China … and I wanted to be part of that solution, that just seemed like a perfect fit to me.”
Mulan, her daughter, was indeed named after the Disney movie; Sweeney jokes that she wanted Mulan to be able to keep her Chinese name, but “I work in Hollywood — I can’t have a kid named Mulan. People will look at me and go, ‘Is this like the only Chinese name you could think of?’ “
“And then my mother was calling me with … her ideas of names,” Sweeney continues, “which were also kind of obvious names in other Americanized ways, like, ‘Why shouldn’t she be Lily or Pearl?’ And I just hated all of it. So I came up with the name Tara because I had done a lot of traveling in China and Tibet and Bhutan, and the goddess Tara is everywhere. And it’s also an Irish name, common Irish name, so I thought that was perfect. So I named her Tara Mulan; I kept her middle name.”
When Mulan was about 3, a stranger at a park asked her name. “And all of a sudden, as I said ‘Tara,’ she said ‘Mulan!’ And then she sort of looked at me, like, ‘You can call me Tara, but I answer to Mulan.’ And I had to give it up! She was Mulan. It’s a beautiful name. The further away we get from the animated film, the better it is.”
Sweeney is married now and says she does think kids are better off with two adults committed to their welfare — but, she adds, she doesn’t care which gender the parents are. “It isn’t even necessarily coupledom, like I think if you had family close by, living close by, that you liked, that would suffice. But I think it takes a family. And I am surprised that I have that attitude.”
Becoming a mother drastically changed her opinion of her own childhood, Sweeney says. “I always say it’s the best thing that ever happened to my mother, that I became a mother,” she laughs. “I really relaxed my attitude about my mom in a significant way. Like, when I think that my mom had four kids in five years, and then had another kid a few years later — and for example, like, my father was sort of a gourmet cook, but he was a once-in-a-while gourmet cook, where he would bring out the wok, and that was very exotic for us … and I would tell people how my father was such a great cook. But my mom got dinner on the table in 30 minutes. When there were seven people hungry, she got dinner on the table. And I did not appreciate that at all … and now I’m just, my mouth hangs open thinking of how hard that is to do, night after night.”