Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year
by Anne Lamott
“I woke up with a start at 4:00 one morning and realized that I was very, very pregnant,” Anne Lamott writes in the opening of her 1993 memoir, Operating Instructions. “What tipped me off was that, lying on my side and needing to turn over, I found myself unable to move. My first thought was that I had had a stroke.”
Being Lamott, who writes with sometimes hilarious, sometimes agonizing frankness about her struggles with writing itself, with addiction, love, death, Republicans, God¾ especially God¾ we understand this will not be a Dr. Spock-style manual on childrearing.
Or will it? She’s full of first-hand advice on what it feels like to trim your baby’s fingernails too close, whether to circumcise, the pros and cons of natural childbirth and breastfeeding. And things I worried about with my child, (and maybe that other parents worry about as well). Are they eating enough? When will they sleep through the night? How can I deal with their pain and sickness? And most of all: How are we going to do this, with all that this implies?
In Lamott's story, in 1989, a few years after becoming sober, and after previous abortions, she became pregnant again. This time, she wanted to keep the baby. Her lover, however, “was dramatically less excited than I was to find out I was pregnant,” she writes, “so much so that I have not seen or heard from him in months.”
She dreaded facing another abortion, she writes, even while fearing over and over “that I am much too self-centered, cynical, eccentric, and edge to raise a baby, especially alone ¼ At thirty-five years old, I may be too old and too tired to be having my first child. And I really did think for several seconds that I might have had a stroke; it is not second nature for me to believe that everything is more or less okay.”
Struggling with her decision, she wrote her fears on paper and “said to God ¼ I am willing to have the baby if that is your will, if that is the right thing for us, and I am willing to have an abortion, if that would be best for the baby and me; so I am putting this in your in-box, and I’m just going to wait for my next operating instructions.”
And so it goes, through the journey of self-discovery that comes from bringing up another human being, the son she would name Sam. Her emotions range from the ecstasy of her first sight on her newborn¾ “he was like moonlight” to ruminations about his “reptilian head” as he wakes her yet again, exhausted from too little sleep and realizing, like many new parents, that she can’t remember when she last had enough free time even to bathe or brush her teeth.
As Lamott fans know, still ahead at the end of Operating Instructions ends is Sam’s own journey of self-discovery, including his present life as the unmarried father of a son born before he was out of his teens.
But in 1989, that was still in the unforeseeable future.
“There are times when he experiences bad things, pain or fear or hurt feeling, and he clings to me like a wet cat,” Lamott writes at the end of her book. “I don’t know what to make of it all. But, as I was writing this just now, Sam went into the living room closet, played a little song on the guitar, and then, just then, just this second, peered around from behind the closet door, babbling absolutely incoherently, grinning at me like some crazy old Indian holy man.”
(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics completes a December of spirited adventures with Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s “Roshomon.”)