A couple of weeks ago, my friend, Erin, gave me this book. With a title like “Operating Instructions” I really did think it was going to be along the lines of many other books about raising children. At this many months he should be able to support his head and look around. At this many months he should be crawling. Etc. etc.
But that is not what Anne Lamott wrote about at all. This is literally what it reads on the front cover- a journal. It’s documentation of what it was like as a 35-year-old woman surprised to find herself pregnant and alone. The father is mentioned a few times but chooses entirely not to be in the picture. Thankfully Lamott had a great group of friends, family and members of her church to hold her up and comfort her.
Now, the way I’ve just described her predicament, you’d think that it was a book full of sad and spiritual stories strung together over the course of the year. And at times you’d be right. However, I was howling with laughter by page 26.
“I was putting petroleum jelly on the thermometer when she tore from the kitchen, back through the living room, and out the front door, still with her eyes averted, as if she had little blinders on. A minute later, I inserted the thermometer into Sam’s rectum. I think it surprised him a little bit, and right at that exact second the kitty tore back into the house and ran up to the couch to check out the new arrival. In the next few seconds, with the kitty’s eyes on us, shit began spouting volcanically out of the baby’s bum, and I started calling out for help. The shit just poured voluminously out of Sam while the kitty looked up at me with total horror and disgust, like “You have got to be kidding, Annie, this one’s broken.” Like she had put her trust in me to pick one up at the pound, and this was the best I could do.”
-September 15, 1989
Passages like this would have me holding back laughter in the doctor’s office waiting room, trying not to wet myself with the imagery. Her prose can be in the middle of something so heartfelt you’ll have tears in your eyes as you visualize her situation, and then she will totally blind side you with the ridiculous, unfiltered truth of it all that you’ll laugh despite a second ago feeling her despair.
In one entry, Lamott describes the first time she went to church after having her son. The congregation asked her to bring Sam up to the front and introduce him. Though she was still recovering from a pretty traumatic labor and delivery, she hobbled to the front and told the assembled that this was her son. Then the tears took over her body as she shakily talked about how much she loved him and how glad she was to have the church to bring him to where he would be accepted and loved.
Even as she describes this beautiful, bittersweet moment, Lamott then reminds you that because she is still healing she had been sitting on one of those doughnut pillows to keep pressure off her tender bits. And that the doughnut pillow had not stayed in the seat when she got up, but instead stuck to her backside for the entire tender talk. And you’re struck with the insanity of it all so sharply that you can’t help but laugh.
The reverse is also true in this book. Lamott will have multiple entries on the same day when her son is fussy and making her wonder if she can be anything like a true mother to him. She’ll be angry and fuming about her situation. Or just talking about the simple ins and outs of daily life with her child. And then, out of nowhere, she’ll make an observation that will move you to honest tears.
In her October 15 entry, she writes about how her son had been colicky for days. So she had switched to a wheat and diary free diet to combat it. The new scheme was showing signs of promise and the mother and child, along with Lamott’s brother, Steve, had just settled in to watch the 1989 World Series. Then Lamott’s son gets very active, and the brother and sister attempt to help him “walk.”
“He’s very active all of a sudden, kicking all over the place, like Nadia Comaneci. He looks ready to walk. I hold him up so he’s standing on the dressing table or floor or whatever, and I say urgently, “Lock your knees! Lock your knees, I’m going to let go!” He looks puzzled but game. His hands are like little stars.”
-October 15, 1989
And I came undone. (Not that it’s hard to get me to cry these days.) I mean, it’s a totally normal setting. Sitting around, watching a baseball game with your family and pretending to teach your son to walk though he’s not nearly old enough yet. And then she just randomly throws out there that his hands are like little stars. What a thing to write. Something only a mother would notice and find worth remembering. Even in a mundane little moment, Lamott finds something miraculous to share.
When Lamott is not bad mouthing republicans (George Bush the senior was president at the time) or talking about the “funkiness” of penises, she documents her new life as a mother honestly and truthfully. There’s humor, there’s sadness, there’s a yearning to do a better job and a near constant underlying sense of anxiety and fear. As a woman expecting her own child, I can relate to everything she mentions.
Thankfully I will not be a single parent, but my mother was. It is interesting reading what I’m sure mimicked my own mother’s thoughts and emotions when she was the sole parent to two daughters. It’s like being able to see what life was like on the other side of my childhood. Though the eyes of my lonely, tired, cash-strapped mother. It makes me feel humble.
I wouldn’t want to spoil the book for you, but I feel this last thing should be mentioned. One prominent figure in Lamott’s trials was Pammy. This woman went to Lamaze classes with the author, coached her through the birth and was the go-to figure for help and relief as Lamott adjusted to motherhood. But halfway through Sam’s first year, Pammy is diagnosed with cancer. So as her son grows older, bigger and stronger, you see the counter balance in Pammy as her health fades and weakens.
The mastery with which Lamott weaves the beginning of one life and the end of another is heartwrenching and pure. You come to love Pammy for her great strength and depth of character as she faces chemotherapy and her terrible prognosis. You love her because Lamott loves her. You grieve with the author for the honorary auntie that Sam will never really remember even though Pammy does so much to ensure his safe arrival into the world.
After reading the book, I can see why Lamott wrote it in 1989 but did not publish it until 1993. Not only was she busy being a mother, she also had to sort out her feelings about Pammy. To grieve, to mourn and then to write her as she was and will always be in Lamott’s heart.
Despite knowing that Lamott obviously manages to keep her son alive for at least one year, and knowing that poor Pammy dies, “Operating Instructions” is still worth your time. This book is for anyone who sometimes feels that they are not living, but just surviving. That they are barely keeping their head above water. Anyone who knows what it’s like when the odds are stacked against you. For the depressed, the addicted, the sober and the people who just keep spinning their tops hoping that the next day will better. This book is for you. Because despite the title, it’s really about how life has no manual and how to be okay with that.