Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott

My wife and baby have been away for a month now in Utah. I did go visit them for one week, but that was nearly three weeks ago. I missed some big moments – being with them on my first Father’s Day, BabyG's six-month birthday, BabyG winning the cutest baby prize at a festival, MaG and BabyG riding on a float in a parade, and BabyG's first tooth poking out to name a few.

I tried to compensate by pulling out all our baby manuals and reading about six-month-old babies. We have William and Martha Sears’s big book and the American Academy of Pediatrics Caring for Your Baby and Young Child. But the book I read cover to cover is called Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year by Anne Lamott. I guess Lamott’s book does not really go with the first two I mentioned. It really is a journal not a manual. The chapter titles are dates and most everything she tells you about just happened on the particular day of the entry.

I read the book hungrily in three or four sittings although I’m not sure what I was looking for. Lamott is a dread-lock wearing, black-church attending, single-mothering white woman in her thirties living near San Francisco. She was also a recovering alcohol and coke addict. There’s this picture of her on the back with an open, white umbrella propped on her shoulder. It’s the right picture. She’s that hopeful. White umbrella hopeful. And yet, as every review has noted, she is "brutally honest," which tethers the book, keeps it out of the clouds.

For example, she wrote on October 6 at 3:45 am, “My vagina ached terribly. I kept trying to push his pacifier in, but his jaw was sort of gritted, the way you are when you’re coming down off cocaine. I just couldn’t get the pacifier in. I kept feeling like I was trying to push a bit into the mouth of a wild horse.” But then the next entry is about his first smile. Later she admits to having thoughts of violence. She even makes reference to saying out loud to her baby that she’d fetch a stick with nails poking out when he wouldn’t stop crying. I told MaG about that part over the telephone and she said, “Honey, I want you to know I never have those kinds of thoughts.” I never think about getting a stick either, but when BabyG won’t be consoled I do occasionally have disturbing flashes of anger. And it’s helpful to read a book that bears witness to those kinds of thoughts. You’re less alone if you know someone else has felt the same way and, probably, more able to cope with those kinds of thoughts.

One big thing that I realized when reading Operating Instructions is that the 1980s are definitely over. The entries were written between 1989 and 1990. The language, the mentality, and the liberal politics are characteristic of the 80s. For example, she makes reference to Leona Helmsley. I haven’t heard that name for years. And I don’t think a writer today could get away with the rather innocent way she writes about attending a Black church. She rants about George Bush, meaning the father, who, in retrospect, was a moderate in comparison to his son. No mention of the big alternative parenting methods that have since become more or less mainstream, like attachment parenting. And no internet. There were no parenting blogs, discussion boards, and listservs back then. Why buy a journal of someone’s son’s first year in this day and age? Granted Lamott is a brilliant writer. But if she were writing the same book today, she would have to try much harder to differentiate her diary from the thousands of parenting blogs available on the web, many of which are insightful and provocative.

But then why did I read the book cover to cover? Why did my computer remain shut all that time? I think I was drawn to her struggle as a single parent. MaG’s in Utah taking care of our baby without my help. I’m here alone. Lamott’s story of creating surrogate family helped me think about trying to do the same. Two-parent families may not be forced to use that strategy like a single-parent has to, but I think we should anyway. MaG went to Utah because her step-mother is very sick. She went to tend to her family, but I think the month she spent there gave her family and friends a chance to tend to her and our baby too. I didn’t quite identify with Lamott's perspective. (Her relationship with the Black church really bothered me, the way she'd let older, much poorer women slip money into her pocket. It was like she was preying on a support network when she had access to other wealth as a famous writer.) But her deliberate way of parenting with family and friends – I’m into that.

1 comment:

cake said...

_operating instructions_ was the first book i read when i found out i was pregnant. i really enjoyed it, and oddly enough, i barely remember the parts about the black church, and something about the way you worded it made me think you meant something else, like, the church of satan or something (?), then it dawned on me that you meant the african american church...
anyway, i thought her perspective was tender, honest, humorous and, at times, quite moving. at the time i thought i couldn't really realate to her story, since she was a single mom...little did i know, right?