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Reading List: Operating Instructions

anne lamott operating instructions

He is so full of energy and muscle, teething, ranting, crazed, but he’s the best baby you could ever hope for. Still a baby, though, which is to say, still periodically a pain in the neck. Donna was saying the other day that she knows this two-year-old who’s really very together and wonderful a lot of the time, really the world’s best two-year-old, but then she added, “Of course, that’s like saying Albert Speer was the nicest Nazi. He was still a Nazi.”

A few bloggers I love have read and recommended Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year. (Their reviews here: idaclare, tulips & flightsuits, A Cup of Jo.)

Ann Lamott’s characteristic irreverent reverence is so fun to read, and she captures the full spectrum of parenting. As a new mother, there are times when your heart swells with love; you scale heights you didn’t think possible. You are proud of each of your baby’s tiny developments: “He’s very brilliant, this much is clear.”

It’s also National Sam Lamott Neck Control Day. We’re talking major, hard-core neck control. I changed our answering machine to say, “We’re apparently out celebrating National Sam Lamott Improved Neck Control Week, but operators are standing by to take your call . . . ” People left the most supportive messages, as if Sam had triumphed over muscular dystrophy, like “All right, babe—go for it.” Larry’s message said, “Oh, it’s all too much for me. Please give the little savant a huge hug from all of us.”

But then again, sometimes you feel very matter of fact, and realize, impartially, that truly, the baby is just a bore and/or a pest, viciously cramping your style: “Yesterday Sam was horrible, whiny and wired and just in general the most worthless and irritating little person.”

Lamott records sweet daily observations about her son, and the joy and gratitude that explodes in her chest when she realizes how well her tribe is taking care of her. But then, there’s also the despair: she’s a single mom, people and things are missing. In so many ways, the world is awful, and now you have a baby, and all you want is for him to outlive you. I identify with her desperation. Many times, since Mary Tobin arrived, a fear invades my mind, or I hear someone else’s tragic news, or my lack of control confronts me dead on. I think: Dear God, have mercy on us.

Lamott raises questions about life that she can’t pretend to answer. I appreciate her honesty about the insanity of motherhood, her own limitations, her striving to treat herself with love and gentleness. After reading Operating Instructions, I simultaneously dread and yearn for the arrival of Bebe Dos.

But above all, I laughed. Here’s the first passage that made me laugh aloud, when baby Sam is two weeks old:

I’m crazy tired. I feel as stressed out by exhaustion as someone who spent time in Vietnam. Maybe mothers who have husbands or boyfriends do not get so savagely exhausted, but I doubt it. They probably end up with these eccentric babies plus Big Foot skulking around the house pissed off because the mom is too tired to balance his checkbook or give him a nice blow job.

Hey oh.

It’s beautiful that Lamott’s openness about her loneliness and screwed-up-ness can meet her readers in theirs, and in the process we all realize we’re not alone. (So, our challenge for today: open up!)

Though some of her thoughts are heavy, it’s a breezy read. And though Operating Instructions is a lot about motherhood, it’s also about friendship, family, recovery, faith and doubt. So I’d recommend to anyone. You’ll feel inspired to go take care of your people, whoever they are.

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2 thoughts on “Reading List: Operating Instructions

  1. I agree on all points, Josie. I also really identified with the desperation and anxiety of wanting my precious child to outlive me. Ugh, it’s hard to think about, but Lamotts humor and honesty make me feel more human. You’re right–she makes me want to take care of people.

  2. Even though I am far from the life stage where I need operating instructions for my little one, your comments and Anna Kate’s made me think I would enjoy reading about Sam and his mom. I am impressed that a new mom was able to have a coherent thought with a two week old in the house, much less write it down. I remember asking a friend with a new baby how she was doing once, and she said, “Oh, fine. Today I took a shower. Next week I hope to shave my legs.” Maybe your generation are higher achievers than we were.

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