Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year, Anne Lamott

The friend who told me about this book has four children, a full time job as a UCC minister, and a husband who commutes every day about an hour each way to his job as a child advocacy lawyer. To say that they always have a lot on their plate would be a massive understatement, and yet whenever we have a chance to visit them, their house is always filled with the most joyful kind of chaos. Everywhere I look, there’s learning happening, and negotiations between siblings, and exploration sanctioned by loving, tolerant parents. Nobody there has a minute to waste trying to make life look perfect because they’re all too busy being fully engaged in the passionate need to be doing. I should have known, then, that a book recommended by a mom who seems superhuman yet manages to be completely down to earth, self-deprecating, and hilarious would be exactly the right sort of thing to read while on the precipice of this new journey. 

Of course I was crying by the time I’d finished the introduction and had to put the book down to email and scold her for telling a hormonal pregnant woman to read such a thing. She was appropriately amused by the situation and pointed out that when she read it, parenting blogs didn’t exist and it was books like this one that kept her sane after she had her first baby. I tried (and failed) to imagine how much harder that would have been. I’ve followed at least five parenting blogs for years, all written by mothers who are willing to be honest about the shit storm that is parenting – how it can be the most precious gift in the world and still completely miserable at the same time. These women write about situations that don’t always pop up in that stream of adorable kids pics on Facebook or Instagram, giving hope to all the struggling parents out there that, yes, this insanity is completely normal, and no, you’re not a terrible person if you sometimes have to lock yourself in the bathroom with a handful of gummy worms and an episode of Orange is the New Black streaming on your phone.

Before we had the opportunity to connect with other people like this online though, there were writers like Anne Lamott bravely breaking down the parenting experience. As a single mother and recovered addict, her journey through the first year of her son’s life is a tumultuous one, and she doesn’t spare her readers from the gory or glory of it all. She is blessed to be surrounded by a solid tribe, friends and family who continuously offer help when she’s at the end of her rope. I was in awe of all the people who lived nearby and were willing to jump in and lend a hand when Lamott felt like she was so buried she’d never survive.

Because the book is an exquisitely shaped journal of that first year, the highs and lows come heel to heel. One moment, she is so blissed out feeding her son that life seems like a hallelujah chorus, and in the next, she hasn’t slept for a day and a half and can hardly stand the sight of the little boy she loves so dearly. I don’t know if everyone can relate to such a feeling, but even just today I was thinking about how fortunate I am to be doing a basket of stinky gym laundry because it meant I actually had the time and energy to work out this week, and the next, I was furious about having to clean the kitchen for what felt like the tenth time. 

I wondered at how I could have felt so completely zen about my circumstances only to have everything fall apart into frustration. There was no logic to it, no reason for one moment to be as easy as breathing and the next, an epic struggle, but it made me feel profoundly close to Lamott. Here is a woman who understands and fights through these ridiculous ebbs and swells – here is a writer who wonders whether her baby is stealing her ability to be creative and productive, whether her work will ever circle around to what it once was. 

It made me feel so safe to read a book published twenty years ago that could have been taken straight out of the lives of countless parents I know. This journey is chockfull of the unknown, and at times it’s lonely and unbearable, but admitting that can be hard when it seems like every other parent must have a better way of handling the stress. Lamott makes it seem okay to embrace the crazy because she knows it brings the sublime along with the shit. 

7 thoughts on “Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year, Anne Lamott

  1. I read every single word of this post because I needed to hear it. I also need that book. In fact, I may go buy a copy right now. Your book reviews have taken on special meaning for me ever since I found out we were both pregnant :)

    The truth is that those dark, frightening days are the reason that I’m 28 and having my first child. I didn’t want the angst that came with them (especially being a military wife and the possibility of needing to deal with it all on my own). But for some reason I find a great deal of comfort, peace, and validation in knowing that other mom’s have felt it, and it’s not perfect. Plus it gives me a sense of feeling a bit more mentally prepared to bite a piece of this harder-than-I-expected taffy.

    Thanks again for sharing. I’ll let you know my thoughts.

    1. I think you’ll get a lot out of this one, Katie. One of the powerful things about Lamott’s story is how, even without a husband or partner, she is surrounded by so much love and support as she raises her son. I think every mother is terrified of having do face these challenges alone, and for you, there’s the added stress that comes from being a military wife (and all the realities that entails). It was so comforting to see how a mother could be surrounded by a tribe of people, and that she doesn’t have to face everything on her own, no matter her circumstances.

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