Julia Sweeney titled her new memoir after a pillow embroidered with "If It's Not One Thing, It's Your Mother" given to her by her mom that Sweeney hated until she had a daughter — who now dislikes the pillow herself. The former star of Saturday Night Live ("It's Pat!") and Broadway ("God Said 'Ha!'") writes about her long path to a nontraditional family with insight and warmth. Also, refreshingly candid humor: She received her adopted child, Mulan, in China, from a man who entered a crowded ballroom, holding the baby aloft in the air, while a Muzak version of Celine Dion's “My Heart Will Go On” played from a boom box. [videoembed id=128730]
That must've been an overwhelming and complicated moment. Did you even register at the time that it was also funny?
Yes! I was so fixated on it, that I missed some of the emotional moment. And that, I would say, is something I do. [embedgallery id=128833]
You write about investigating your genealogy. How has adopting a child affected your thoughts about it?
People have this idea that in the sea of 7 billion humans, our lineage has a special line from Africa to us. But I've been in conferences about it and they say, "In this room of 300 people, if you go back five generations, you'll have one person in common with all of you." You’re related to everyone. It's terribly meaningful. And also completely meaningless. When I adopted Mulan, I felt like I had to not care about my family history. But then I realized, I do care. I just took my niece and nephew to the cemetery, and I said, "So, this is your great-grandfather." Mulan added, "And my great-grandfather." I felt bad, because I'd been talking more to them. So I replied, "Yes!" But then I thought, Is it? It's a gray area.
How does Mulan feel about being in your book?
Right now she likes it, but if we butt heads, she'll say, "And I will resent you for the rest of my days because you wrote that book." I just say, "I'm sorry. I know. But when you're older, you'll appreciate it."
Because of the book, does Mulan like the pillow more?
No! She still hates it. And I just looked at it this weekend, and thought, I should put it in the next bag to Goodwill. Then I remembered, Oh no, but it's the pillow! I've infused it with all this meaning now. I guess I have to keep it.
How to tell your nine-year-old about the birds and bees, with Julia Sweeney:
1. Accidentally launch into it by speaking too knowingly about tadpoles. Be proud of answering her follow-up question with, “Women have evolved to have our own pond, right inside our own bodies.”
2. Be totally honest until she asks if people do it in groups, at which point you lie and say, "That would never happen."
3. Tell the story as a wildly successful TED talk and then expand it into a funny and heartwarming book.