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

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

by Anne Lamott


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With the same brilliant combination of humor and warmth she brought to bestseller Bird by BirdAnne Lamott gives us a smart, funny, and comforting chronicle of single motherhood.

It’s not like she’s the only woman to ever have a baby. At thirty-five. On her own. But Anne Lamott makes it all fresh in her now-classic account of how she and her son and numerous friends and neighbors and some strangers survived and thrived in that all important first year. From finding out that her baby is a boy (and getting used to the idea) to finding out that her best friend and greatest supporter Pam will die of cancer (and not getting used to that idea), with a generous amount of wit and faith (but very little piousness), Lamott narrates the great and small events that make up a woman’s life.

"Lamott has a conversational style that perfectly conveys her friendly, self-depricating humor." — Los Angeles Times Book Review 

"Lamott is a wonderfully lithe writer .... Anyone who has ever had a hard time facing a perfectly ordinary day will identify." — Chicago Tribune 

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400079094
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/08/2005
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 101,787
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.55(d)

About the Author

Anne Lamott is the New York Times bestselling author of Help, Thanks, Wow; Small Victories; StitchesSome Assembly RequiredGrace (Eventually)Plan BTraveling Mercies; Bird by BirdOperating Instructions, and the forthcoming Hallelujah Anyway. She is also the author of several novels, including Imperfect Birds and Rosie. A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California.


Fairfax, California

Date of Birth:


Place of Birth:

San Francisco, California


Attended Goucher College in Maryland before dropping out to write

Read an Excerpt


I woke up with a start at 4:00 one morning and realized that I was very, very pregnant. Since I had conceived six months earlier, one might have thought that the news would have sunk in before then, and in many ways it had, but it was on that early morning in May that I first realized how severely pregnant I was. What tipped me off was that, lying on my side and needing to turn over, I found myself unable to move. My first thought was that I had had a stroke.

Nowadays I go around being aware that I am pregnant with the same constancy and lack of surprise with which I go around being aware that I have teeth. But a few times a day the information actually causes me to gasp—how on earth did I come to be in this condition? Well, I have a few suspicions. I mean, I am beginning to put two and two together. See, there was this guy. But the guy is no longer around, and my stomach is noticeably bigger every few days.

I could have had an abortion—the pressure to do so was extraordinary—and if need be, I would take to the streets, armed, to defend the right of any woman for any reason to terminate a pregnancy, but I was totally unable to do so this time psychologically, psychically, emotionally. Just totally. So I am going to have a baby pretty soon, and this has raised some mind-boggling issues.

For instance, it occurs to me over and over that I am much too self-centered, cynical, eccentric, and edgy to raise a baby, especially alone. (The baby's father was dramatically less excited than I was to find out I was pregnant, so much so that I have not seen or heard from him in months and don't expect to ever again.) At thirty-five years old, I may be too old and too tired to be having my first child. And I really did think for several seconds that I might have had a stroke; it is not second nature for me to believe that everything is more or less okay. Clearly, my nerves are shot.

For example, the other day one of the innumerable deer that come down here from the mountain to eat in the garden and drink from the stream remained where it was as I got closer and closer. It was standing between me and my front door. I thought, Boy, they're getting brazen, and I walked closer and closer to it, finally to within four or five feet, when suddenly it tensed. My first thought was that it was about to lunge at me, snarling. Of course it turned instead and bolted through the woods, but I was left with the increasingly familiar sense that I am losing my grasp on reality.

One moment I'm walking along the salt marsh listening to sacred choral music on headphones, convinced that the music is being piped in through my ears, into my head, down my throat, and into my torso where the baby will be able to hear it, and the next moment I'm walking along coaching the baby on how best to grow various body parts. What are you, some kind of nut? I ask myself, and I know the answer is yes, some kind of nut, and maybe one who is not well enough to be a mother. But this is not the worst fear.

Even the three weeks of waiting for the results of the amniocentesis weren't the most fearful part, nor was the amnio itself. It was, in fact, one of the sweetest experiences of my life. My friend Manning drove me into San Francisco and stayed with me through the procedure, and, well, talk about intimate. It made sex look like a game of Twister. I lay there on the little table at the hospital with my stomach sticking out, Manning near my head holding my hands, a nurse by my feet patting me from time to time, one doctor running the ultrasound device around and around the surface of my tummy, the other doctor taking notes until it was his turn with the needles.

The ultrasound doctor was showing me the first pictures of my baby, who was at that point a four-month-old fetus. He was saying, "Ah, there's the head now . . . there's the leg . . . there's its bottom," and I was watching it all on the screen, nodding, even though it was all just underwater photography, all quite ethereal and murky. Manning said it was like watching those first men on the moon. I pretended to be able to distinguish each section of the baby because I didn't want the doctor to think I was a lousy mother who was already judging the kid for not being photogenically distinct enough. He pointed out the vertebrae, a sweet curved strand of pearls, and then the heart, beating as visibly as a pulsar, and that was when I started to cry.

Then the other doctor took one of his needles and put it right through my stomach, near my belly button, in a circle that the ultrasound doctor had described with the end of a straw. I felt a pinch, and then mild cramping, and that was all, as the doctor began to withdraw some amniotic fluid. Now you probably think, like I thought, that this fluid is some vaguely holy saltwater, flown in from the coast for the occasion, but it is mostly baby pee, light green in color. What they do with it then is to send it to the lab, where they culture it, growing enough cells from the tissue the baby has sloughed off into the amniotic fluid to determine if there are chromosomal abnormalities and whether it is a boy or a girl, if you care to know.

During the first week of waiting, you actually believe your baby is okay, because you saw it scoot around during the ultrasound and because most babies are okay. By the middle of the second week, things are getting a bit dicey in your head, but most of the time you still think the baby is okay. But on the cusp of the second and third weeks, you come to know—not to believe but to know—that you are carrying a baby inside you in only the broadest sense of the word baby, because what is growing in there has a head the size of a mung bean, with almost no brain at all because all available tissue has gone into the building of a breathtaking collection of arms and knees—maybe not too many arms but knees absolutely everywhere.

Finally, though, the nurse who had patted my feet during the amnio called, and the first thing she said was that she had good news, and I thought I might actually throw up from sheer joy. Then she talked about the findings for a while, although I did not hear a word, and then she said, "Do you want to know its sex?" And I said yes I did.

It is a boy. His name is Sam Lamott. Samuel John Stephen Lamott. (My brothers' names are John and Steve.)

A boy. Do you know what that means? Do you know what boys have that girls don't? That's right, there you go. They have penises. And like most of my women friends, I have somewhat mixed feelings about this. Now, I don't know how to put this delicately, but I have never been quite the same since seeing a penis up close while I was on LSD years and years ago. It was an actual penis; I mean, it wasn't like I was staring at my hand for an hour and watched it turn into my grandfather's face and then into a bat and then into a penis. It was the real thing. It was my boyfriend's real thing, and what it looked like was the root of all my insanity, of a lot of my suffering and obsession. It looked like a cross between a snake and a heart.

That is a really intense thing you boys have there, and we internal Americans of the hetero persuasion have really, really conflicted feelings about you external Americans because of the way you wield those things, their power over us, and especially their power over you. I ask you once again to remember the old joke in which the puzzled, defensive man says, "I didn't want to go to Las Vegas," then points to his crotch and says, "He wanted to go to Las Vegas." So it has given me pause to learn that there is a baby boy growing in my belly who apparently has all the right number of hands and feet and arms and legs and knees, a normal-size head, and a penis.

Penises are so—what is the word?—funky. They're wonderful, too, and I love them, but over the years such bad things have happened to me because of them. I've gotten pregnant, even when I tried so hard not to, and I've gotten diseases, where you couldn't see any evidence of disease on the man's dick and he claims not to have anything, but you end up having to get treatment and it's totally humiliating and weird, and the man's always mad at you for having caught it, even though you haven't slept with anyone else for months or even years. It is my secret belief that men love their penises so much that when they take them in to show their doctors, after their women claim to have caught a little something, the male doctors get caught up in this penis love, whack the patient (your lover) on the back, and say thunderously, "Now don't be silly, that's a damn fine penis you've got there."

A man told me once that all men like to look at themselves in the mirror when they're hard, and now I keep picturing Sam in twenty years, gazing at his penis in the mirror while feeling psychologically somewhere between Ivan Boesky and Mickey Mantle. I also know he will be someone who will one day pee with pride, because all men do, standing there manfully tearing bits of toilet paper to shreds with their straight and forceful sprays, carrying on as if this were one of history's great naval battles—the Battle of Midway, for instance. So of course I'm a little edgy about the whole thing, about my child having a penis instead of a nice delicate little lamb of a vagina. But even so, this is still not the worst fear.

No, the worst thing, worse even than sitting around crying about that inevitable day when my son will leave for college, worse than thinking about whether or not in the meantime to get him those hideous baby shots he probably should have but that some babies die from, worse than the fears I have when I lie awake at 3:00 in the morning (that I won't be able to make enough money and will have to live in a tenement house where the rats will bite our heads while we sleep, or that I will lose my arms in some tragic accident and will have to go to court and diaper my son using only my mouth and feet and the judge won't think I've done a good enough job and will put Sam in a foster home), worse even than the fear I feel whenever a car full of teenagers drives past my house going 200 miles an hour on our sleepy little street, worse than thinking about my son being run over by one of those drunken teenagers, or of his one day becoming one of those teenagers— worse than just about anything else is the agonizing issue of how on earth anyone can bring a child into this world knowing full well that he or she is eventually going to have to go through the seventh and eighth grades.

The seventh and eighth grades were for me, and for every single good and interesting person I've ever known, what the writers of the Bible meant when they used the words hell and the pit. Seventh and eighth grades were a place into which one descended. One descended from the relative safety and wildness and bigness one felt in sixth grade, eleven years old. Then the worm turned, and it was all over for any small feeling that one was essentially all right. One wasn't. One was no longer just some kid. One was suddenly a Diane Arbus character. It was springtime, for Hitler, and Germany.

I experienced it as being a two-year game of "The Farmer in the Dell." I hung out with the popular crowd, as jester, but boy, when those parties and dances rolled round, this cheese stood alone, watching my friends go steady and kiss, and then, like all you other cheeses, I went home and cried. There we were, all of us cheeses alone, emotionally broken by unrequited love and at the same time amped out of our minds on hormones and shame.

Seventh and eighth grades were about waiting to get picked for teams, waiting to get asked to dance, waiting to grow taller, waiting to grow breasts. They were about praying for God to grow dark hairs on my legs so I could shave them. They were about having pipe-cleaner legs. They were about violence, meanness, chaos. They were about The Lord of the Flies. They were about feeling completely other. But more than anything else, they were about hurt and aloneness. There is a beautiful poem by a man named Roy Fuller, which ends, "Hurt beyond hurting, never to forget," and whenever I remember those lines, which is often, I think of my father's death ten years ago this month, and I think about seventh and eighth grades.

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?

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