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Review: Julia Sweeney's poignant, skewed view of motherhood

Julia Sweeney writes in her new memoir that she assembled her family backward, "first a delightful daughter, then a beloved husband." She adopted that daughter, Mulan, as a toddler a decade ago, after a bout with cervical cancer left Sweeney unable to give birth.

She might have come to motherhood via the road less taken, but she certainly has one essential qualification for the job: a big sense of humor. If It's Not One Thing, It's Your Mother is a hilarious account of her journey from a glam show-business career that included several years in the cast of Saturday Night Live to her current role as happy minivan-driving mom in a Chicago suburb.

The book takes its title from an embroidered pillow Sweeney's own mother gave her years ago — one Sweeney didn't think was funny until she had a daughter of her own. Rather than a linear memoir, it's made up of a series of essays.

Most are about Sweeney's relationship with her daughter, like the sweetly funny account of her trip to China to adopt Mulan and why she decided to keep that first name, given to her daughter in the orphanage, even though she had been determined to avoid any name that sounded like "I'm-From-China Sweeney." One of Sweeney's best-known SNL characters comes back to haunt her when, interviewing nannies, she meets "the Chinese Pat."

Mulan quickly proves to be assertive — she's a bossy backseat driver by age 4 — and often her mother's match at comic repartee. The laugh-out-loud chapter about Sweeney being forced to improvise the birds-and-bees talk over dinner in a Thai restaurant is worth the price of the book. And Sweeney is refreshingly contrarian about common mom-entitlement stuff, including a rant about how much she hates "Hummer-like" strollers: "So I say to mothers and other caregivers: Pick up your damn kids. Carry them. Make them walk. Better yet, get them to carry stuff!"

A few chapters turn serious, especially one about the death of Sweeney's brother Bill. But most apply humor even to serious subjects, such as raising a child whose race is different from your own.

And some are outlandishly funny, like the account of how she met her husband (a process that began with an email from a total stranger, proposing that Sweeney marry his brother) and the ironic results of her heartfelt effort to get Mulan to believe in the tooth fairy.

As Sweeney says, the kids might not get it. But for every mother who could use a laugh — in other words, every mother — If It's Not One Thing, It's Your Mother offers a touch of wisdom and plenty of wit.

If It's Not One Thing, It's Your Mother

By Julia Sweeney

Simon & Schuster, 246 pages, $26

Review: Julia Sweeney's poignant, skewed view of motherhood 05/11/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 7, 2013 5:26pm]
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