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Sat April 6, 2013
Books

'It's Pat' Creator Muses On Motherhood And Family Life

Originally published on Sun April 7, 2013 11:08 am

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."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Julia Sweeney is a figure of bi-coastal sophistication. She's a comic actor who does one-woman shows about love, illness, faith and family. She's still fondly remembered for her androgynous character, Pat, on the glamorous "Saturday Night Live." So how does she wind up in Wilmette, Illinois driving a minivan and dreaming of solitude? Julia Sweeney's put some of her musings on becoming a Midwestern mother after adopting a little girl for China - my wife and I have two daughters from China - and finding love and getting married into a new book, "If It's Not One Thing, It's Your Mother." Julia Sweeney joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

JULIA SWEENEY: Oh, thanks so much for having me.

SIMON: How and why did you become a mother before you even knew that you'd have a spouse?

SWEENEY: Well, I think I was a little disillusioned with success in Hollywood. Like, I had some success - I was on "Saturday Night Live" - and I had some failure. I did the "It's Pat" movie that while I liked it no one else seemed to. And...

SIMON: Had I seen it, I would have liked it. But that was the problem, I guess, right?

SWEENEY: That was the problem. I think there's about eight people who've seen it. And then my brother Michael was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and passed away. I had cancer. And just show business seemed sort of empty and demanding and superficial. And then my joke to myself is but that before I knew how superficial and demanding family can be.

(LAUGHTER)

SWEENEY: So, at the time, 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.

SIMON: Yeah. There are - as I don't have to tell you - labs and all kinds of wizardry they do nowadays to help people have children. Why did you decide on adoption?

SWEENEY: Well, 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 there are a lot of friends who've done this, people who go to great expense and effort and also even endanger themselves physically in order to have a child, I don't get it. I just don't get it. I mean, just get a human.

SIMON: Yeah. I will add parenthetically sometimes when people are looking at our children in public and say they're so adorable or so bright or something like that, I'll say, well, you see the advantage of skipping my genetic contribution, and they get horrified. Like, how could I dare acknowledge the obvious, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

SWEENEY: Well, I feel that way too. I think there's probably great things in my DNA and also a lot of crappy things. But that's probably true for everyone, but that makes me think it's just a crapshoot with anybody.

SIMON: And how did you wind up with an international adoption, and China specifically?

SWEENEY: Well, at the time, I was single and China was a great place for single people to adopt from, 'cause you didn't have to be married. 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 that everyone was doing. It fit into my desires. I felt deeply about what was happening to the girls in China. Because of their one-child policy, so many were ending up in orphanages or dead. And I wanted to be part of that solution. It just seemed like a perfect fit to me.

SIMON: And I'll leave it to you to tell us the name of your lovely young daughter.

SWEENEY: Her name is Mulan, like the movie. That's right - she was named Mulan a year after the Disney movie.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Do you have any explanation for this?

SWEENEY: I don't know. I was totally ready to let her have her Chinese name. I thought she's coming with so little but she does have this name. This is one thing. Then they told me her name was Mulan. Well, I work in Hollywood. I can't have a kid named Mulan. Like people will look at me and go is this, like, the only Chinese name you can think of? Like, I couldn't...

SIMON: (unintelligible) drum song. There are plenty of names in there.

SWEENEY: Oh, my God. So, I came up with the name Tara. So, I named her Tara Mulan. I kept her middle name. But then when Mulan was about three, we were at a park and this man said, what's your name, little girl? And all of the 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.

SIMON: Do you and your daughter, now that she's older, talk about origins, talk about race?

SWEENEY: Yeah. We're getting into that more now. It's actually a complicated thing when you adopt someone because you're acknowledging my family but also acknowledging how she became part of this family.

SIMON: And now that you are married and have a family - and, look, reading the book, I am, for whatever my opinion means, utterly convinced you are a wonderful mother on your own - but now that you're a family, is there something to be said for that combination of two?

SWEENEY: Oh, my gosh. See, that comes to another shocking attitude I have that I didn't expect. I don't think it matters what gender the people are, but I really think kids are better off with two adults committed to their welfare. It isn't even necessarily coupledom. Like, I think if you had family close by that you liked, that would suffice. But I think it takes a family. And I'm surprised that I have that attitude.

SIMON: Did becoming a mother change the view that you had of your childhood?

SWEENEY: Oh, tremendously. I always say it's the best thing that ever happened to my mother that I became a mother.

(LAUGHTER)

SWEENEY: Because I, you know, I know I sound so sweet but I can be quite a harsh judger. And 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 he - that was very exotic for us in Spokane to have food out of a wok. 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. Like, and now I'm just, my mouth hangs open thinking of how hard that is to do night after night.

SIMON: Julia Sweeney. Her new book, "If It's Not One Thing, It's Your Mother." Thanks so much for being with us.

SWEENEY: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.