Marieke's Reviews > Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year

Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott
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Oct 20, 2009

really liked it
bookshelves: nonfiction, read-in-2007
Read in March, 2007

My friend Michelle lent me this book after we were talking about feminist books about motherhood. I haven’t read anything by Lamott before, but after reading this one I definitely want to read more of her books, both fiction and nonfiction.

She has a book about writing called Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life that sounds interesting; I might look it up. Operating Instructions is presented in the form of a journal, excerpted from the personal journal she kept during her first year of motherhood.

From the beginning I am impressed by Lamott’s ability to openly discuss her fears about bringing a child into the world. She makes this serious subject humorous, saying that more than anything she fears the knowledge that her child will have to go through the seventh and eighth grades. But she becomes serious again, asking, “So how on earth can I bring a child into the world, knowing that such sorrow lies ahead, that it is such a large part of what it means to be human?” (11).

This question seems to reverberate throughout the book, as she examines the painful aspects of her own life along with the joys. She balances her overwhelming love and faith with an honest, raw portrayal of the trials of single motherhood.

More than anything else I am drawn in by her honesty--well, what I assume is honesty. It seems that if someone offers stories of pain, addiction and darkness and laces her stories with self-deprecating humor, she must be honest. Who knows, really. But I think: How could this not be honest. Her words are so deeply felt, so violently real.

I believe Lamott’s story, perhaps too much. I believe that a story of motherhood without this total insanity--incredible pain, despair, agony--would be false. Maybe I’m too cynical. But I can easily believe that if I were in her circumstances, raising a newborn baby by myself while trying to support us, I would probably fall into a dark pit of despair and not come out.

The challenges of raising a child seem to me to be insurmountable. Not sleeping for months, crying and bleeding, being covered in milk, shit, tears, and vomit, dealing with screaming and crying for hours on end, losing one’s mind... I don’t know if I could survive.

Suddenly I look around at all the people I know who have children. How did they do it? Bringing a child into the world and raising it has got to be the most courageous act of heroism I can imagine. Ordinary people seem to have accomplished the impossible--raising children without going insane or killing someone. Either it’s not as hard as I imagine, or all these people are heroes.

What Anne Lamott has that I lack is faith in God. This is a beautiful part of her narrative, as lovely and sustaining as her boundless love for her child and the unshakable support of friends, family, and community. Lamott finds strength and love in God and this gets her through some of her darkest moments.

The way she portrays her community of friends is holy. They save her with their presence, their gifts of food and love, helping her around the house, taking the baby for a while. Just being with her, sharing the moments with Sam, as if that is the most important thing in the world to be doing.

Lamott’s journal is filled with beauty, and heartwrenching love. The awesome mother-love that she feels; realizing that now there is something in her life that she cares about so much, it could destroy her. She says, “I feel that he has completely ruined my life, because I just didn’t used to care all that much” (61).

Somehow, Lamott vividly portrays this overwhelming, complex feeling of love, pain, hope, fear, and awe without idealizing motherhood or her baby. She doesn’t hide her darker feelings of anger, frustration, pain, hopelessness, and fear, but lets them into the story as part of the full experience of being a mother.

The serious, precious moments of insight are interspersed with funny stories about the baby’s turds or weird animal behaviors. Throughout the journal Lamott throws in humorous interludes, memories of past events, stories about friends and family, and political commentary.

The journal is many-layered. It is not just the story of Lamott and her son, but of her family history, her close friendships, her personal difficulties, her career as a writer, and so on. As I neared the end of the book, I wanted it to go on. I wanted to know the people better, to watch Sam as he grew, to hear him start talking and see him go to school.

The more personal narratives I read the more I can believe that people’s lives really are very interesting when told in an insightful, powerful way. Life must be inherently interesting, all the challenges and hurdles, funny little foibles, big achievements that are perhaps silly but worth celebrating. Like a baby’s first smile.
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