It’s not that Julia Sweeney didn’t love her family. It’s just that she wanted them to go away.
She’d gone to some trouble to pull them together, traveling from L.A. to China to adopt 17-month-old Mulan as a single mother; falling in love with a man, Michael Blum, after some strangers insisted he’d be a good match; marrying that man; and packing up their new minivan to trade Los Angeles for the “certain kind of peace” she’d craved – the family life, with its attendant carpools and cat vomit – in suburban Chicago.
And, sure, her daughter and husband were delightful and beloved. But she began to crave some time alone, too, to watch TV and eat ice cream in bed and to not wash the dishes.
At last, for a whole month in the summer, Mulan went to camp and Michael went away for work at the same time.
Sweeney, the Spokane native who starred in “Saturday Night Live” before creating stage performances-turned-books about cancer (“God Said ‘Ha!’ ”) and atheism (“Letting Go of God”), used the time to write another book. About her family.
The result is “If It’s Not One Thing, It’s Your Mother,” the title taken from embroidered pillow she got from her mother that Sweeney did not find at all funny until well into her own motherhood. The book is a series of essays about being a daughter, a wife and a sister, but especially about being a mother.
Sweeney’s most famous motherhood story might be the one that began with third-grader Mulan’s queries about the fertilization of frog eggs, which turned into questions about cat sex (“How do their legs go?”), dog sex (“But what about their legs?”) and people sex in a number of its variations (“What about Roger and Don; how do they do it?”). Sweeney has performed “The Birds and the Bees” on stages in Spokane and elsewhere. As a TED Talk, it’s been viewed more than 1.2 million times.
That’s in the book, along with stories about nannies, big strollers and discussing race with a first-grader. In a story in which Sweeney discusses Santa Claus with a 4-year-old, her half-hearted explanation comes out terrifying: “There is this guy … his name is Santa Claus and he, well, frankly he’s been watching you.”
Later this month, Sweeney, 53, will visit Spokane, where she’ll read from the book at Auntie’s Bookstore. Before her trip, she talked about family life in a phone interview from her home in Wilmette, Ill. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
S-R: You’ll be writing for a New York Times blog about parenting. When will you start? Any ideas yet?
JS: I guess I’m starting in June. I want to write about putting a family together, moving in together. Blending houses. I married somebody who didn’t have a lot of stuff, and it wasn’t really of high quality. But it got a 50 percent share in the house because it was his, and I had to make him feel like he was part of it.
Stealthily, I’ve every month removed an item of his. So, slowly, over the course of five years, everything’s mine. Actually, he has some. The end tables, which I always have to point out came from him. His bed is in the basement. It competed with my grandmother’s antique bed that she brought from Bozeman, to Spokane and then came back here. His Ikea bed won. Oh, painful. But then I had to let it go. Because now my whole thing is, “Things. Who needs things?” I’ve had to get really, really Zen about the whole thing.
S-R: Unfortunately for him, that happened after you got rid of a lot of his stuff.
JS: Yeah, exactly. He’ll say, “Yeah, convenient timing with that attitude.”
S-R: How old is your daughter now?
JS: She’s 13 and a half.
S-R: Are your parenting issues changing now that she’s officially a teenager?
JS: I have to say, at this very moment she’s at this really great sweet spot. I know, whenever I say that, it means a horrific stage will be coming as soon as I hang up. But right now, she’s actually kind of easy, because she’s really before the big teenage stuff. She likes to be home on the weekends. Michael and I go, “Don’t want to go out and meet with your friends?” She goes, “I enjoy being home with the parents.”
S-R: Is that how you were when you were 13 and a half?
JS: I was definitely wilder than Mulan. My parents weren’t strict, but I think it was also the culture. There seemed to be a bigger difference between parents and kids. Now all the parents want to be like the kids.
I think it’s good and bad. In some ways they don’t differentiate themselves as much from their parents as I felt like I did. On the other hand, it’s almost like they don’t get to have their own rebellion, because their parents are doing it with them.
The parents are going to rock ’n’ roll clubs. When we go to a club in Evanston, this place called Space, and we see bands, people bring their kids, and the kids are there rockin’ out with their parents. Whereas, when I was growing up, if you went to a rock concert, that was half of the great fun – your parents were horrified that you were going to it.
S-R: So parents are cool now?
JS: Yeah. It’s mostly good, but it’s good and bad.
S-R: Do you think Mulan thinks parents are cool now?
JS: Yeah, but she’s only 13. By next year we’ll be creepy and weird.
S-R: Do you ever ask your mom for advice?
JS: Yeah. Well, mostly I don’t have to ask. The advice comes whether you want it or not.
One example of my mom giving me good advice that I totally didn’t take and I should have: She said, “Never get a bed for a kid until they can climb out of their crib easily.” I said, “No, I’m going to get rid of Mulan’s crib.” She was in this tiny room, so you couldn’t really have both a crib and a bed. “I’m going to put a bed in there instead of a crib, because then we can lie on the bed together and read books at night as she falls asleep.” My mom said, “Don’t do it, I’m telling you, don’t do it.”
She was 2 and a half or something like that. And now she was free. She was a caged animal, and she’s no longer a caged animal. She was up, down the hallway, wandering around the house at 2 in the morning. She was coming into my bed every 10 minutes. So my mom was right.
S-R: Judging by your book, you seem pleased with your mother-in-law.
JS: We really get along great, and I feel really lucky that she’s Michael’s mom. Having in-laws that I like – I now see that has a huge impact on your happiness. My friends in Spokane, for example, mostly have kids that are getting married and having kids, because I started 12 years later than they did, or maybe more.
I can see how concerned they are about who their children are dating, what the in-laws are going to be like to them or what relationship they’re going to have to their child and their spouse. That’s something I never considered before.
But now I think, “No, that’s a really important thing. Your kid could marry somebody and you could basically never see them again or only see them in really strange circumstances for the rest of your life.” And that is a common thing to happen.
S-R: What kind of mother-in-law would you want to be?
JS: My hope is that I’m friends with Mulan. I don’t mean that I’m not parenting her, but that we enjoy each other’s company and that we’ll want to hang out together.
S-R: Does the fact that you do draw on your life, your family’s life, affect the way your family operates? Scientists call it the observer effect – people change their behavior when they know they’re being watched.
JS: Yeah, I think that’s probably true. The story about Mulan learning about sex – she was too young then to realize it. Now, if that conversation started happening, she would know that this was going to be a story. In some ways, I wanted to protect her from myself: “Don’t go forward, because I can already tell this is really funny, and it’s going to be really embarrassing for you.” …
There’s definitely stuff that’s off-limits. There’s definitely stories that I won’t tell, because Mulan has said “absolutely not” or I just know as a parent they’re not appropriate, and we just have to be really good friends for me to tell you those stories.
S-R: If you had to do Santa Claus all over again with your daughter, what would you do? Would you lie better, or maybe earlier, or would you just skip the whole thing?
JS: I can’t imagine doing it any different way, because I really didn’t like it.
I didn’t want to get sanctimonious about it, but I actually felt a physical reaction to lying to her. It felt creepy and manipulative. My friends in Spokane would think, “What? That is nothing? That is just like saying fairies exist.” And I go, “Yeah! But that isn’t true either!”
I guess I am kind of the stick in the mud that I’m warred about being, but I should just own it better. Because I feel like the world is filled with disinformation. I think like one of the most dangerous things you can have is a kid that doesn’t have good critical thinking skills. I think it’s really important that you tell your kids what you believe is true.