Author Anne Lamott. (Sam Lamott, Sam Lamott )
Without Anne Lamott, the entire sub-category of contemporary parent writing —which includes Brett Paesel, Christie Mellor, Ayun Halliday—as well as all those mommy bloggers — probably wouldn't exist. Her 1993 bestseller "Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year" set the standard, acknowledging the doubts and the difficulties, the sense that many first-time parents have of being cast into an alternate universe where simply taking a shower and getting dressed in clean clothes is a moral victory over the chaos and entropy that every infant leaves in his or her wake. "I am much too self-centered, cynical, eccentric, and edgy to raise a baby," Lamott writes in those pages, an admission that anyone who's ever been there can't help but recognize.
"People hadn't written about what a mixed grill parenthood can be," she recalls now, speaking by phone from her home in Marin County. "It's unfathomable how exhausted I was during those first months. I was beyond running on empty — overwhelmed, out of my depth, madly, crazily in love with this baby, and yet so worried that I couldn't function."
Lamott finds herself looking back to "Operating Instructions" because she has just, 19 years later, published a sequel: "Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son's First Son" (Riverhead: 272 pp., $26.95). Written — to some extent — with her son Sam, it tells the story of her grandson Jax from delivery to first birthday, echoing the form and some of the concerns of "Operating Instructions" while opening up new territory.
"It's easier being a grandparent because you're at a distance," Lamott explains. "You're also older, and you haven't given birth, so you're less exhausted." Then she laughs and adds: "And they leave."
She's right, yet that distance comes with its own issues, which Lamott explores. When Jax gets sick, and ends up in the emergency room, she has no choice but to balance her anxiety with the need to let Sam and his girlfriend, Amy, take care of the situation on their own.
"When I didn't hear from them for a few hours," she writes, "I naturally assumed Jax was in the ICU, after thoracic surgery, or hooked up to a heart-lung machine." Eventually, Sam calls to reassure her, grateful for her calm and her restraint. That we know differently is part of the trick of the narrative, the way Lamott reveals the outer and the inner life.
This question of revelation, of what to share and what to withhold, has long been a challenge of Lamott's nonfiction, which, collected in "Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life" and three volumes of essays on faith and family, "Traveling Mercies," "Plan B" and "Grace (Eventually)," revolves around the small dramas of domesticity.
"Sam," she says, "grew up in libraries and bookstores, so he never knew anything different. I began running stuff by him when he was 10, but even before that, I never revealed anything really private. I always had ferocious boundaries about his private life." Indeed, when she began to consider a follow-up to "Operating Instructions" — at the suggestion of her editor, Jake Morrissey — Lamott's immediate concern was how her son would feel.
In a preface to the book, he describes his reaction: "When my mother first approached me about this book … she spoke to me over the phone in an unsure voice, her Worried Mommy voice, and her tone made me brace myself for what seemed to be a tough question. But when I realized she was asking me about whether I was okay with her writing a sequel to 'Operating Instructions,' my shoulders dropped with relaxation and I shouted, 'Yeah! Of course … Why didn't I think of that myself?'" For Sam, "Operating Instructions" is "the greatest gift anyone has ever given me," an expression of love and belonging that he wants for his own son. "He says he could hear my heart talking to him," Lamott enthuses, "and that's such a dream for a parent, to have a grown child feel that way."
And yet, it's this matter of the grown child, as distinct from the small child, that made "Some Assembly Required" a bit different, a bit more complicated to work out. Jax, after all, is not just Sam's son but also Amy's, which means another family to consider, for whom growing up in public was not a way of life.