SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
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 fondly remembered for her androgynous character Pat, on the glamorous "Saturday Night Live." So how does she wind up in Wilmette, Ill., 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 from 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 was before I knew how superficial and demanding family can be.
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 I have 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?
SWEENEY: Well, I feel that way, too. I think there's probably great things in my DNA and also, a lot of crappy things. And 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.
SIMON: Do you have any explanation for this?
SWEENEY: I don't know. I was totally ready to let my daughter have her Chinese name. I thought, she's coming with so little, but she does have this name; this is one thing. Then they tell me her name is Mulan. Well, I work in Hollywood - I can't have a kid named Mulan. Like, this - people will look at me and go: Is this like, the only Chinese name you could think of? Like, I couldn't...
SIMON: (LAUGHTER). That's right - See "Flower 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 3, we were at a park and this man said, what's your name, little girl? 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.
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 - (LAUGHTER) - 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.
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 year, 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.