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.
"I had to be very protective," Lamott says. "I didn't want to expose these kids in any way. My intention was not to create crisis. So I gave everybody full editorial power." As for what that means, it depended on the circumstance. "I made a lot of changes that Amy and her parents asked for," Lamott acknowledges, although she also managed to portray the couple in all their complexity as young parents and young lovers, struggling with their responsibilities, feeling as if they were in over their heads. "The first 10 days," Lamott remembers, "when I had everyone staying with me, I was trying to make things perfect, but then I walked into Sam and Amy's bedroom, and they were talking about splitting up."
The lesson, Lamott continues, is that "you pretty much have control over only what's in your own hula hoop, which means that all you can do is get it all down, the powerlessness of everything" — a message that has been at the center of her books and essays all along.
With "Some Assembly Required," all that gets heightened because Sam and Amy are so young. He was 19 when Jax was born and she was 20, which leaves Lamott with mixed emotions, mitigated by her baby love. "Theater A," she writes, framing a metaphor for these divided feelings, "is where we see goodness in everything, beauty and generosity or, conversely, someone's need for love. Theater B is where I watch a movie about how this exquisite baby could ruin Sam's academic career … and how Sam would end up at the rescue mission and so on."
At issue are not just the burdens of parenthood but also how to navigate what Lamott calls "a difficult relationship," one she portrays, in equal measure, with frustration and love. When Amy takes the baby to visit her family in Chicago and doesn't call or text for days, Lamott must learn to bear it, as she did when Jax was in the emergency room. When Sam appears ready to break beneath the pull of his studies on the one hand and his family on the other, she must learn to stand aside and let him work it out. As often happens, the couple doesn't make it, although their breakup is not part of the book. These days, they live apart in the Bay Area but are raising Jax collaboratively, with the active help of Lamott.
What this suggests is the importance of community, which has long been another key theme for Lamott. "Without my friends," she says, "I'd be doomed," an idea that emerges again and again in "Some Assembly Required." As with "Operating Instructions," or the faith books, Lamott introduces us to her support system: her family, her church, her spiritual advisors, what Sam calls "our funny families and our friends." Here, however, she takes it further, opening the book to a range of voices — most notably that of Sam, whom she interviews throughout.
"A lot of people said it wouldn't work," Lamott admits, "but I loved the idea of it. I thought I'd be crazy to leave those voices out." As she speaks, you can hear her spark with wonder. "It's so touching to me, that there are so many people who appear from book to book. We're all of us — Jax, Sam, Amy, me — part of a community, a tapestry. And that's what sustains us, our funny little galaxy."