Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode Amateur Hour.
About Julia Sweeney's TED Talk
Actor and writer Julia Sweeney says parenting has always made her feel like an amateur — but especially when her 8-year-old started asking some smart questions about animal reproduction.
About Julia Sweeney
Julia Sweeney creates comedic works that tackle deep issues such as cancer, family and faith. Her one-person monologue God Said Ha! is about her brother's battle with non-Hodgkins lymphoma and her own struggle with cervical cancer. It was performed on Broadway, and in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
She also wrote and performed the monologue Letting Go Of God about her search for a God she could believe in. Her latest book is If It's Not One Thing, It's Your Mother, on parenting and being parented.
GUY RAZ, HOST:
So on the show today we're asking what it means to be an amateur when you're so unprepared. You have no idea what you're getting yourself into.
JULIA SWEENEY: (Laughter) I'm just thinking that's so funny because I feel that way about every single thing I've done.
RAZ: This is the actor and writer Julia Sweeney. And the moment she felt like a complete novice, a complete amateur, like many people do, is when she became a parent.
Parenting is, like, the prototypical...
RAZ: ...Amateur thing that we - nobody knows how to do it, right?
SWEENEY: No, I think some people do know how to do it.
SWEENEY: Yeah. I wasn't one of those people (laughter).
RAZ: What did you - what did you think parenting was going to be like?
SWEENEY: I thought I'd have this baby, and she was going to look so cute and wear everything I bought for her and - just when I wanted her to (laughter). And - I mean - and I wasn't even married, so I thought, oh, I'll continue to date and I'm going to take all these jobs and I just - I thought everything would be the same, and I thought of it like a puppy. Like, oh, yeah, you know, well, you can hire a dog walker (laughter) - I mean, God.
RAZ: Julia adopted her daughter, Mulan, from China when Mulan was about 18 months old. And when she brought her home, that's when reality set in.
SWEENEY: There's an image in my mind at 3 in the morning, and I had a parenting book open to, like, a teething section. And she was screaming, crying, standing right next to my ear and then I was crying and my tears were falling onto the teething page. And it was like this is a terrible thing that's happened to me and her.
RAZ: But even a tear-stained parenting book is better than no parenting book at all. And the story you're about hear is about that. It's about a day when Julia realized she had no book, no plan. She was a total amateur.
SWEENEY: Yes, it was a day that my daughter asked me a question, and I was not prepared to give the answer, but it turned into a good story (laughter).
RAZ: And just a quick heads up for parents out there - if you're listening with smaller kids, this is a story they might not be ready to hear yet. Here's Julia on the TED stage.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
SWEENEY: I have a daughter, Mulan, and when she was 8 last year, she was doing a report for school or she had some homework about frogs. And we were at this restaurant and she said, so basically, frogs lay eggs and the eggs turn into tadpoles and tadpoles turn into frogs. And I said, yeah, you know, I'm not really up on my frog reproduction that much. It's the females, I think, that lay the eggs and then the males fertilize them. And then they become tadpoles and frogs, and she says, what, only the females have eggs? And I said, yeah, and she goes, and what's this fertilizing? So I kind of said, oh, it's this extra ingredient, you know, that you need to create a new frog from the mom and dad frog. And she said, oh, so is that true for humans, too? And I thought, OK, here we go. I didn't know it would happen so quick at 8.
I was trying to remember all the guidebooks, and all I could remember was only answer the question they're asking. Don't give any more information, so I said yes. And she said, and where do women lay their eggs? And I said, well, funny you should ask, we have evolved to have our own pond. We have our very own pond inside our bodies. And we lay our eggs there. We don't have to worry about other eggs or anything like that. It's our own pond. And that's how it happens. And she goes, and how do they get fertilized? And I said, well, men and their - from there - through their penis they fertilize the eggs by the sperm coming out and you go through the woman's vagina. And her jaw just drops and she goes, Mom, like, where you go to the bathroom. And I said, I know, I know.
SWEENEY: That's how we evolved. It does seem odd. It is a little bit like having a waste treatment plant right next to an amusement park.
SWEENEY: Bad zoning.
SWEENEY: She goes, but, Mom - but men and women can't ever see each other naked, Mom, so how could that ever happen? And then I go, well - and then I'm like - put my Margaret Mead hat on. Human males and females develop a special bond and when they're much older, much, much older than you and they have a very special feeling, then they can be naked together. And she said, Mom, have you done this before? And I said, yes. And she said, but, Mom, you can't have kids 'cause she knows I adopted her and that I can't have kids. And I said, yes. And she said, you don't have to do that again. And I said - and then she said, but how does it happen? When a man and a woman are together, like, how do they know that's the time? Mom, does the man just say is now the time to take off my pants?
SWEENEY: And I said, yes.
SWEENEY: That is exactly right. That's exactly how it happens. So then we're driving home, and she's looking out the window. And she goes, Mom, what if just two people saw each other on the street, like, a man and woman and they just started doing it? Would that ever happen? And I said, oh, no, humans are so private. Oh - and then she goes, what if there was, like, a party and there was just, like, a whole bunch of girls and a whole bunch of boys and there's a bunch of men and women and they just started doing it, Mom? Would
that ever happen? And I said, oh, no, no.
SWEENEY: That's not how we do it. Then we got home and we see the cat and she goes, how do - Mom, how do cats do it? And I go, oh, it's the same. It's basically the same. And then she got all caught up in the legs. But how would their legs go, Mom? I don't understand the legs. And I was like - she goes, Mom, everyone can't do the splits. And I go, I know, but the legs - and I'm probably like, the legs get worked out. And she goes, but I just can't understand it. So I go, you know, why don't on the Internet and maybe we can see - like, on Wikipedia.
SWEENEY: So we go online, and we put in cats mating and, unfortunately, on YouTube there's many cats mating videos. And we watch them and I'm so thankful 'cause she's just like, wow, this is so amazing. She goes, what about dogs? So we put in dogs mating and, you know, we're watching it and she's totally absorbed and then she goes, Mom, do think they would have on the Internet any humans mating?
SWEENEY: And then I realize that I have taken my little 8-year-old's hand and taken her right into Internet porn. And I looked into this trusting, loving face and I said, oh, no.
SWEENEY: That would never happen.
SWEENEY: Thank you.
RAZ: I think you did a pretty good job. I, like...
RAZ: Yeah, I think you, you know, you did everything you possibly could do.
SWEENEY: OK, good, thank you (laughter).
RAZ: Yeah, I would grade you - I would give you a grade A.
SWEENEY: Oh, good, yay (laughter).
RAZ: Yeah, and this is a tricky one to navigate.
SWEENEY: Well, you know what it was - and I think I - now that I've talked to other parents, I think many people make this mistake. But because I feel like I have a healthy attitude about sex, I'm not squeamish about it, it isn't embarrassing to me, I thought just because I had that attitude it would make that conversation like any conversation. Like, how to make an apple pie. Like, it would just be nothing, and yet it wasn't.
RAZ: So do you think that actually doing something in a way where you don't have any experience at it and you're just sort of thrown into it in some ways, like, is kind of an advantage?
SWEENEY: Oh, yeah. I think if I really understood what parenting was going to take, I would not have done it. And I'm really glad I did it. It changed me completely. It changed my attitude about the world. It made me see everything in the world totally differently. And I needed to be a parent to really get it. But if I knew how much it - what the price really was, which is basically 100 percent of your mind and 100 percent of your heart and soul, I don't think I would've done it, so thank you universe that I just had no idea.
RAZ: Julia Sweeney's a writer, actor and incredible TED speaker. You can see all of her talks at TED.com. Our show today - Amateur Hour. Stay with us. I'm Guy Raz, and this is the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.