Actress, author, and monologist JULIA SWEENEY published “If It’s Not One Thing, It’s Your Mother” with Simon and Schuster in 2013. She’s also well-known for her work as a Saturday Night Live cast member, where she famously portrayed the beloved androgynous character “Pat," and for her Grammy-nominated one-woman show, "God Said, 'Ha!'"
Parent Co. spoke with Julia from her home in Chicago on the day after a “really bad day,” when she was still feeling the sting and frustration of a screenplay read-through that didn’t go as well as she’d hoped.
Parents: Julia Sweeney and Michael Blum
Kids: daughter Mulan, age 15
Julia Sweeney: I’m writing a screenplay that I want to make into a novel. I’ve been working on it for two years and I had a read-through of it last Monday and it just made me realize that I should quit being a writer.
Parent Co: Oh, no! But you’re doing this giant creative project at the same time as being a parent.
Yes! Which is a big job! But it’s funny because my daughter is now 15 and at least for this second, she’s much easier. There does seem to be kind of a shift in the last year. I mean, maybe she’s about to go crazy and I’ll have to be worried about her every second, but for now… I can see what it’s going to be like to have her be an adult. For the most part, she doesn’t need that much. But every time I say something like that, the next day some horrendous thing happens that requires every moment of my time.
As a parent, do you feel as if you’re just waiting for that terrible thing to happen?
No. I am always hoodwinked into the great lull; like it’s only going to be like this forever.
Was it like that for you when Mulan was really little, too?
I still do that all the time with my kids - I think, 'okay, so this is how it’s going to be,' and then it changes again.
Right! Now do you have more than one?
I do, I have a 6- and a 4-year-old.
Because I always think I wish I’d had more than one. You learn so much with one but then there’s nobody to use it on because by the time they’re a different age, all those lessons are in the past and don’t apply to the new age.
It’s true - it’s not like most experiences where you build a knowledge base that will serve you over time. You’re always building new little bases.
I do feel like I’d be so much more relaxed with the second one.
But it sounds like you’re in a good cruising spot now.
Yes. I mean, every kid has certain parts of their personality that you worry about becoming really bad, but there are certain aspects to her personality that I can already see we don’t have to worry about. She doesn’t act out, like, with boys or sexually, at least not right now, and I think I know her personality well enough to know that won’t be a thing. I was that way - at her age I was making out with everyone. I was really randy. And she is not that way.
She also wants to do well in school, so if anything my husband and I are saying to her, 'who cares if you get an ‘A’ in English?' But she cares about it in this way that makes it easy. She likes to follow the rules. That’s a good position to be in, as a parent, to be saying 'don’t follow the rules all the time!'
Where do you fall in the age-old nature vs. nurture debate? Did you parent with a lot of rules or not a lot of rules?
No! I’m not a big rule person. I think that’s really her. I really am more on the nature side of things. Even though there’s definitely things and environments I’ve created that have influenced her, people have essential personalities that are just the personality that they got. She likes familiarity and order and she doesn’t like spontaneity. She likes to know in the morning what we’re having for dinner. That has been a big thing. It’s like, ‘well, I don’t know. I might not know until right before we eat.'
And how does she handle that?
I pretty much have given into her need (to plan). But I do like it, too - it’s encouraging me to have more order. I get bored when I feel like I know the schedule, but I’ve kind of given into her thing.
It sounds like your daughter brought out that ability in you, then, even if it wasn’t a natural tendency of yours.
It’s funny because if my husband heard this conversation, he would say, 'you’re like that anyway!' He’s really not into order. He doesn’t like to make any decision that’s further away than the next three hours. When we go to the grocery store, he never can believe that we will be hungry tomorrow, also… Or if I say, 'stop on your way home and get some milk,' he literally will walk in with milk only! And I think, "really? You didn’t look around and think, ‘let’s have some bananas?’” I guess I’m thinking of the whole house and I’m wondering why he isn’t.
So the three of you all think very differently and it sounds like you’re somewhere in between your husband and your daughter - but the bulk of the household duties falls to you, which happens with a lot of moms.
Well, we’ve had a huge shift this year because I hired a housekeeper. I haven’t had a housekeeper for six years and it’s changed my life so much. I kept thinking, ‘I can do it all. I have so much energy. How hard is it?’…But after six years I realized it was making me hate everyone. Because every time they’d put down their coat in the living room, and not on a hook, I was pissed off. I was in a constant state of anger. And I realized I couldn’t get enough writing done because my best time to write is early in the morning.
What I wanted was someone to come to my house at six in the morning, wake my daughter up, make her play piano, make her breakfast, get her to school, and then clean the rest of my house while I hide in my office. My mom kept telling me, 'nobody will do that.'
But then, in November, I almost lost my mind because I was in fights with everyone all the time about their mess and all I did was walk around like a hawk. If anybody put a bobby pin out of place I started screaming at the top of my lungs, and it turns out that’s not really a great person to live with.
So I found an agency and I put an ad out for that specific job, and I found someone. And now I wake up in the morning, I open my daughter’s door, turn on the light and say, ‘it’s 5:45, time to get up,’ and I go get a coffee and a Kind bar and I walk into my office and I don’t leave this room until 10:30.
I know! It has changed my life so much… I said to my husband, ‘I’m going to hire this person, and if I can’t earn an extra amount - her salary - in a year, I’ll let her go.’ So now I’m like, shit! I gotta write something that will sell!
I mean, my marriage improved a million percent. In that last six months we’ve had, like, one fight.
What does that say to you about being in the position you’re in - that so many women are in - of being the primary caregiver and working from home, taking on so many roles and responsibilities within the family?
(Sighs) I don’t know… I’m so glad that you think this is a big deal. Because I reveled in the fact that I did it all for years. I looked down on anyone who had a housekeeper even once a week! I guess what I think is that a house really needs somebody to do that job in order for it not to be chaotic. If you want to do anything else, you really need to find someone to do that job.
At one point, I decided that I would just do it. For two years, I was just the maid. I literally was like, 'could you lift your legs up off of the coffee table so that I could take the napkin that you just used that’s wedged under your jeans and put in the garbage?' I would challenge myself to make it a Zen practice. And that worked - for a while. But I couldn’t get anything else done.(Cleaning) takes a lot of time.
So I came up with this idea of the morning person - I found Ava. And she’s like the sister wife. That’s what I call her.
That’s exactly what we all need! Good for you!
Yeah, (laughing) so now I have time to write my really shitty screenplay!
So when you’re feeling very tied-up, emotionally, in your work, do you sometimes say, ‘I’ve reached my max for the day and you guys are on your own’?
Yes, sometimes I do. And now that Mulan’s older I actually have that luxury… I can say, ‘I’m going to watch a movie,’ and she can get her dinner and put herself to bed. That’s what I mean - she’s kind of in this whole new world.
Did you have any concept of what was to come when Mulan was younger?
No! In fact, now I see parents whose kids have gone to college, who aren’t totally without care or issues, but are generally okay, and the joy they have at having (raised their kids)… I didn’t know until now that if you really hang in there, and you’re lucky with your kids being just in the range of okay, the satisfaction that you did it is so enormous that it’s absolutely worth it.