Operating Instructions

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Operating Instructions

Anne Lamott 1993

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Key Figures
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading


Anne Lamott's Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year was published in 1993. This work chronicles the first year that Lamott, a single mother, and her newborn son, Sam, spend together. Lamott records her thoughts about her unplanned pregnancy, the birth of her child, and the numerous and often challenging responsibilities of parenthood.

Operating Instructions also focuses on baby Sam's development, detailing his numerous achievements during his first year. Lamott explores her relationship with her child as deeply as she does her relationships with her friends (whom she now relies on more than ever) and her relationship with herself. She writes about the adventure of motherhood without losing a sense of herself as a unique individual, and without losing her unique sense of humor.

Author Biography

Anne Lamott was born in San Francisco, California, in 1954, the daughter of the writer Kenneth Lamott. She grew up in Marin County, north of San Francisco. At seventeen, she attended Goucher College in Maryland on a tennis scholarship, where she wrote for the school paper. However, she dropped out after two years and returned to the Bay Area, where she briefly worked for a magazine called WomenSports.

Lamott always knew that she wanted to write, and after moving to Bolinas, in Marin, she began to work on vignettes and stories. The discovery that her father was dying of brain cancer inspired her to organize these short pieces into her first novel, Hard Laughter, published in 1980 when Lamott was only twenty-six years old. Her next book, Rosie, came out three years later.

Lamott had been experiencing alcohol and drug problems, and in the mid-1980s, she quit using these substances, went into rehabilitation, and did not write for six months. When she returned to her craft, she produced the novel, All New People, whose publication she refers to in Operating Instructions.

With the birth of her son, Sam, in 1989, Lamott became a single mother. Although she had less time to write, Lamott's friends urged her to jot down notes about her daily life and her agent asked to see them. These notes eventually became Operating Instructions, published in 1993, which covered the first year of her life with Sam. The book's publication brought Lamott to national prominence.

Since then, Lamott has published both fiction and nonfiction writing. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life came out in 1994. This popular book provides a step-by-step guide on how to write and manage the writer's life. In 1999, Lamott published Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, which is a collection of her thoughts about her religious faith.

In addition to her novels and nonfiction books, Lamott was a restaurant critic for California magazine from 1988 through 1991 and wrote a book review column for Mademoiselle from 1990 through 1992. Until 1999, she regularly published her diary in the online magazine Salon. A former teacher at the University of California, she is also the past recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship.

Plot Summary

Pregnancy and Birth

Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year begins during Lamott's pregnancy. An unmarried, thirty-five year old writer, Lamott decides to keep the baby and raise it herself when the biological father makes it clear that he will not take part in the child's life. In the months preceding Sam's birth, Lamott faces her feelings of loneliness, as well as her joys and her fears.


Sam is born on September 7, 1989. Lamott's best friend Pammy and her brother Steve are in the delivery room with Lamott. When Lamott holds Sam for the first time, she immediately becomes enraptured with her baby.

During the first month of Sam's life, Lamott is exhausted. Sometimes she feels so stressed that she needs to leave the room to get away from Sam. Throughout the long days and nights, Lamott records Sam's accomplishments: crying, losing his hair, smiling, laughing, sleeping through the night, and being introduced to her church. One highlight is Sam's baptism, which takes place when he is nearly two months old. One of Lamott's novels is published during this period.


By January, Lamott notes that Sam is changing every day. She also notices changes in herself. She feels that it is easier to take care of Sam, and she also finds herself less worried. However, her journal entries show the variability of her moods. For example, just five days after writing an optimistic entry about how much easier it is to take care of Sam, she writes, "I'm mental and defeated and fat and loathsome and I am crazily, brain-wastedly tired.… This is maybe the loneliest I have ever felt."

Lamott also feels a great deal of financial pressure as her savings dwindle precariously. However, she is confident that God will come through for her, and toward the end of January, Lamott's miracle comes when she is hired to be the monthly book columnist at Mademoiselle magazine.


In April, immediately after returning from a month-long vacation, Pammy discovers a lump in her breast. She is diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. Early in May, Pammy starts chemotherapy, and although Lamott writes that this first round goes well, Pammy becomes very nauseated and tired. In August, the doctor tells Pammy that her cancer cannot be cured. Lamott is devastated by this news, but her journal entries show that she is gradually coming to an acceptance of Pammy's inevitable death.

Sam's First Birthday

Less than a week before his first birthday, Sam takes his first steps. On August 29, Lamott, Sam, Dudu, Rex, and Steve have a small birthday party; a larger one is planned for the weekend. On this day, Lamott reflects on the past year and Sam's birth, as well as thinking about what the future will bring and what kind of person Sam will grow up to become. In an after-note, Lamott reports Pammy's death two years later, in November 1992.

Key Figures

Biological Father

Sam's biological father, whom Lamott does not name, takes no role in Sam's life. When Lamott first told him she was pregnant, he tried to convince her not to have the baby. When Sam is a few months old, he files court papers falsely swearing that he could not be the baby's father.


Brian, the husband of Lamott's friend, volunteers to be Sam's Big Brother.


Dudu is Sam's surrogate grandmother. She and her husband Rex were Lamott's parents' best friends, and they have been part of Lamott's life since childhood. Along with Lamott's mother, Dudu visits often, and Lamott thinks the two older women compete for Sam's affection.

Anne Lamott

Lamott, a writer, becomes pregnant when she is 35. She is unmarried, the pregnancy is unplanned, and the biological father wants no part of the baby's life. Still, Lamott quickly decides to keep the baby.

Lamott's personality contains seemingly conflicting elements. She is liberal but religiously faithful; she is irreverent but sentimental; and she is prone to mood swings. Lamott has published two novels and a third appears shortly after Sam's birth. The time and energy required to care for a baby by herself, however, renders Lamott unable to write anything except the reviews by which she makes her living and the journal that she publishes as Operating Instructions.

The entries in her journal reveal that Lamott undergoes the feelings and experiences that are common among new mothers: she feels fat; she finds her baby unbelievably beautiful and smart; she gets frustrated and wonders why she ever had a child; and she wishes she had a moment to herself. However, the first year of Sam's life also brings atypical circumstances. Specifically, her best friend Pammy is diagnosed with terminal cancer, and Lamott struggles to reconcile her joyful feelings and her sorrowful ones.

Sam Lamott

Sam is Lamott's son. In his first year of life, he reaches typical baby milestones: crawling, walking, laughing, smiling, grabbing objects, and other activities. He brings great joy to Lamott's family and friends.

Steve Lamott

Steve is Lamott's brother. He is present at Sam's birth. Although he remains an active presence in Sam's life, he is adamant about not allowing Lamott to make him a father figure.

John Manning

Manning is Sam's father's best friend, but he supports Lamott in her decision to have the baby. He remains a constant friend to the two of them. He is also the person who convinced her to jot down a few notes and observations each day of Sam's first year.


Megan, a former student in one of Lamott's writing workshops, is Sam's twenty-year-old babysitter. Lamott often considers Megan to be a lifesaver because her help allows Lamott to have a few much-needed hours to herself.


Lamott's mother lives nearby and spends a lot of time with Lamott and Sam. Mom babysits every Thursday afternoon so Lamott can have some free time.

Pammy Murray

Pammy and Lamott have been best friends since they were children. Pammy, one of Sam's godmothers, is present at his birth, and during the first year of his life, she visits almost everyday. Pammy and her husband are unable to have children, but Sam inspires them to plan to adopt a child. However, Pammy is diagnosed with cancer when Sam is less than a year old. She dies in November 1992.


Peg, one of Sam's godmothers, is a close friend of Lamott's from the days when both of them drank and used drugs excessively. Like Lamott, she now is in recovery. She helps Lamott with day-to-day activities, such as laundry and bringing over food.

Bill Rankin

Bill is a priest who is also a friend of Lamott's. She discusses any misgivings she has about her religious faith with him.


Rex is Sam's surrogate grandfather. He and his wife were Lamott's parents' best friends, and Lamott grew up half a mile away from them.


Rita is Lamott's therapist. Lamott maintains phone contact with her, as needed.


Single Motherhood

Lamott faces the trials of raising a child without a partner and Sam, though he is unaware of this, faces life without a father. Soon after the discovery of her pregnancy, she knows that Sam's biological father will be of no help to her. Even before Sam's birth, Lamott faces the difficult future as well as a sense of "aloneness." Although she acknowledges to herself that she will probably feel isolated for awhile, the issue of single motherhood remains of great concern to her.

Lamott often feels jealous of her friends who are raising their children with husbands. These women have someone with whom to share their worries, frustrations, and emotional ups and downs. She wonders about her ability to understand and raise a boy. She also worries about the ramifications for Sam of not having a father, which is "a huge thing not to have." She fears that Sam will grieve over his lack of a father. Since she is unable to change this circumstance, she can only hope that her friends and family will provide significant masculine role models for her son.

As a single parent, Lamott also experiences the stress of being responsible—emotionally, financially, and completely—for another human, particularly an utterly helpless one. Her confidence in herself wavers, for instance, in January, after she gets the Mademoiselle book reviewer's job. At first she is jubilant and believes that the worst of her insecurities are over, but by March she writes, "I'm just feeling stressed to the nu-nu's today, very tired and unable to keep the house and our life together. It's clear to me that we need a breadwinner." Throughout the narrative, Lamott reveals the range of emotions that she experiences from day to day.

Despite the lack of a husband or partner, Lamott has an enormously helpful support system, including her friends and family. Pammy comes over almost every afternoon. Her mother lives nearby, as do her so-called second parents, Dudu and Rex. Her brother Steve spends a great deal of time with Sam, and her friend Brian volunteers to be a Big Brother. All of these people love Lamott and Sam tremendously, and while they cannot be a father to Sam or a husband to Lamott, they do play an important role in giving Sam the necessary sense of security and helping Lamott get through this difficult year.

Religious Faith

Lamott's faith in God and Jesus is a crucial component of her life and personality. Her faith stems from the simple decision, which she made a long time ago, to believe. For the past several years, she has found tremendous emotional support and love in her church. Her religious beliefs sustain her through difficult times and give her strength because she knows that God is protecting her. Although she acknowledges that believing in God is "sort of ridiculous," she adheres to the conviction that God has a plan for her.

As an example of Lamott's faith, she believes that God will bring a solution to her financial worries, and she sees the Mademoiselle job offer as proof of her faith. She also is aware of the fact that whenever her faith wavers, something happens to make her believe again. She records her misgivings about believing in Jesus in her journal, but the next day a man from her church comes over, offering to help in any way. As further testimony to her faith, Operating Instructions closes on her musings about whether Sam will grow up to believe in God.

Topics for Further Study

  • Read one of Lamott's novels. Compare the style and focus of the novel to Operating Instructions. What similarities do you find? Do these titles share any themes?
  • Think about an important event in your life. Write a series of journal entries that you might have written at the time. Alternatively, start keeping a journal now, and write a few observations in it everyday.
  • Some critics have wondered how Sam Lamott will feel when he is old enough to read and understand Operating Instructions. How do you think he might respond? Explain your answer.
  • Conduct research into the growth of the single-parent family in the United States in the past few decades. Create a chart that illustrates your findings.
  • Lamott makes her dislike of the first President Bush quite clear. How do you think she responded to the election of Bush's son, George W. Bush, to the presidency in 2000? Write a journal entry that Lamott might have written.
  • Think about a challenge that you undertook that was very difficult but worthwhile. Were your family and friends supportive of your efforts? How did their reactions influence you and the decisions you made?


The friendships that Lamott has developed throughout her life prove to be of crucial importance to her during Sam's first year, and she celebrates the "minuet of old friendships." She relies on her friends to help her in many different ways. Her friends watch over Sam so Lamott can take care of simple needs, such as bathing. They bring over food and do the laundry. Their most important function, however, may be as people with whom Lamott can share the wonder of Sam. Pammy, Lamott's best friend, particularly takes on this role. Lamott has a great deal of respect for Pammy, calling her "unquestionably the sanest, most grounded and giving person I've ever known," and she relies on Pammy's dependability and love. In many ways, Pammy fulfills the role of partner or husband, as epitomized by Lamott's statement, "Whenever Sam does anything new or especially funny, my first thought is, Oh, Pammy will love this."



One aspect of Operating Instructions that many reviewers commented on, and which will likely strike many readers as well, is its humor. Lamott's reflections are witty, irreverent, and astute. She uses humor as a means of expressing her thoughts about life, which are often earnest and somber, without becoming pedantic or heavy. For example, in the book's first few pages she wonders how anyone can have a child knowing that eventually that child will 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." In the midst of her humorous ruminations about the difficulties of seventh and eighth grade, Lamott shares a simple truth: "But more than anything else, they were about hurt and loneliness."

Lamott also uses humor to convey beliefs that are important to her, such as her political beliefs. She tries to ensure that the newborn Sam will not grow up to become a Republican. On his one-month birthday, while watching the television news, she shares her feelings about President Bush. "Study that face for a second, listen to that whiny voice," she commands Sam, and then she rejoices in Sam's looking "intently at the TV for a few moments," before making the "loudest, most horrible fart I've ever heard." An intense liberal, she proclaims, "My hatred of American conservatives apparently sustains and defines me as much as my love of Jesus does, since I don't think I'm willing to have it removed." As she does in other instances, she uses this humor as an introduction to a more serious question; in this case: "Who would I be without it?"

Lamott revels in the fact that all of her friends also have "sick senses of humor" and acknowledges that for the past twenty-five years she and Pammy "have been so black-humored and cynical." This mordant humor particularly comes into play when Pammy gets sick with cancer. "All day Pammy has been asking me to do favors for her," Lamott writes. "Then she says that I have to do whatever she asks because it's her last wish." At the same time, Lamott uses humor to avoid the difficult feelings and worries brought on by Pammy's cancer. She feels her friend's impending death very deeply, as she writes in her journal:

Pammy came by with strawberry sorbet and the new People magazine.… She's so incredibly kind to us. It would be much easier to think of losing her if she weren't so … kind. Maybe I will talk to her about this tomorrow.

Narrative Structure

The narrative is structured as a chronological journal that reflects Lamott's thoughts and observations about the first year in Sam's life as they are occurring. Lamott's journal chronicles typical events in the life of a baby, following Sam's progress as he lifts his head, rolls over, crawls, and eventually walks. The narrative structure also provides a very loose form that allows Lamott to reflect on her own past as well as think about what the future will bring to her and Sam. She includes many musings that have nothing to do with Sam's life, but rather have to do with the feelings that having a child engenders in Lamott. For example, she thinks about her own childhood, her political leanings, and her religious faith.


During Sam's first month of life, Lamott reflects upon her ideas about writing. She has already published three novels, and a fourth comes out shortly after Sam's birth. She remembers that her father, also a writer, said that their job was to entertain. She writes, "I think he believed that the best way to entertain the troops is to tell stories, and the ones that they seem to like the best are ones about themselves." This statement applies to Lamott's previous novels, all of which draw from her own life experiences. However, the creative writing that Lamott does during this period is primarily her journal, and she feels little interest in fiction writing. This partially stems from being too busy taking care of Sam, but she also feels that she lacks motivation to write because the "emptiness and desire and craving and feeling and need to achieve" are now gone. With Sam, the pressure to write has vanished. This statement reflects that Sam brings her a sense of serenity, which stands in stark opposition to the "rush" or the "hit of something, of anything" that she sometimes desperately craves.

Historical Context

The Bush Presidency

George Bush succeeded Ronald Reagan for the presidency in 1988. On the domestic front, President Bush launched the War on Drugs, which was an organized effort to end the illegal drug trade, both at home and abroad. While it included drug treatment and education efforts, it primarily focused on using law enforcement to put a stop to drug use. The U.S. government also offered legal and financial assistance to get foreign countries to arrest major drug smugglers. In December 1989, Bush authorized the military invasion of Panama to arrest the country's dictator, Manuel Noriega, for drug smuggling. He was convicted by a U.S. federal court in 1992. Bush also signed a bill to update the Clean Air Act, which required that the amount of emissions released into the atmosphere be reduced, and he approved the Americans with Disabilities Act, which guaranteed people with disabilities equal access to public accommodations, transportation, and employment opportunities.

Social Issues in the Late 1980s

By 1991, the number of children living in single-parent households had grown tremendously over the past twenty years. In 1991, some twenty percent of all white children, sixty percent of all African American children, and thirty percent of all Hispanic children lived with one parent, usually their mothers. Single-parent families were more likely to live in poverty, and many single parents faced serious financial burdens.

AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome), which had come to prominence in the early 1980s, continued to baffle scientists. By the 1990s, this disease was spreading at an alarming rate. Despite efforts of scientists and researchers, no significant progress was made toward a cure. Some activists accused the U.S. government of responding too slowly and with too little money to the AIDS crisis.

The U.S. Economy

Not all Americans approved of Bush's handling of the economy. The stock market had experienced a significant drop in October 1987, and many people began to fear the start of another depression. This decline hit many savings and loans institutions (S&Ls) very hard, as many had made investments that lost a great deal of their worth. Many S&Ls had also made risky loans to real estate developers, and with the collapse of the real estate markets, these loans were not repaid. S&Ls around the country went bankrupt, forcing the U.S. government to pay out billions of dollars in insured depositors' savings.

The stock market decline, the S&L debacle, the costs of the Persian Gulf War, a recession, and a rising federal deficit all contributed to a faltering U.S. economy. By the early 1990s, the economy was seriously weaker than it had been in previous years. The number of Americans who lived below the poverty line increased by more than 2 million in 1990.

America Abroad

President Bush presided over two important foreign issues: the end of the Cold War and the Persian Gulf War. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had been pushing for reforms that moved the Soviet Union toward democracy, movements which were encouraged by Bush. Gradually, some Soviet republics declared their independence. In November 1989, pro-democracy Germans tore down the Berlin Wall, which had stood since 1961. The following year, West Germany and East Germany reunified. The Soviet Union dissolved in December 1991, as more Soviets rebelled against hard-line party leaders. With the end of the Soviet Union, the Cold War was over.

In January 1991, an America-led United Nations force launched Operation Desert Storm in response to Iraq's refusal to withdraw its troops from neighboring Kuwait. Iraq's leader, Saddam Hussein, had long claimed that the oil-rich nation belonged to his country. After a six-week air offensive, the UN coalition launched a ground invasion, and within days, Iraq agreed to cease-fire conditions, including its withdrawal from Kuwait. President Bush's popularity rose after this successful Persian Gulf War.

Critical Overview

Reviewers lauded Operating Instructions for its humorous, poignant portrayal of new motherhood. Publishers Weekly called it a "glowing work" and applauded the "wonderfully candid" quality of Lamott's writing, as well as the "quirky humor [that] steadily draws the reader into her unconventional world." In a similar vein, Jon Carroll wrote in Whole Earth Review that the book "will make you laugh and cry." Dawna Lee Jonté, of Belle Lettres, commented favorably on Lamott's "hilarious accounts of new motherhood … [her] poignant affirmation of her newfound faith and sobriety, and heartbreaking acceptance of her best friend's terminal cancer." However, Jonté cautioned that the "pieces don't always work smoothly together; this book uneasily mixes humor and pathos."

Many reviewers found the people who populated the first year of Sam's life engaging, particularly Pammy, who responds to her terminal cancer with courage and dignity. These qualities drew parents and non-parents alike to Operating Instructions. As Kirkus Reviews pointed out, "One need not be a new parent to appreciate Lamott's glib and gritty good humor in the face of annihilating weariness."

Erika Taylor, writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, asserted that the best parts of the book are very funny, imbued with a "conversational style that perfectly conveys her friendly self-deprecating sense of humor." Taylor called it a "smart, funny and comforting read." Taylor, however, pointed out one significant flaw with the book: "Much of the writing is completely preoccupied with her traumas and her joy over her baby which, in spite of a lot of charm and wit, feels like spending hours looking at snapshots of a family you've never met."

Operating Instructions brought Lamott national acclaim. Since its publication, she has published two other works of nonfiction—Bird by Bird (1994) and Traveling Mercies (1999). Both of these works allow Lamott to further discuss issues important to her that she touched on in Operating Instructions: writing and religion, respectively.


Rena Korb

Korb has a master's degree in English literature and creative writing and has written for a wide variety of educational publishers. In the following essay, she reflects upon the reality of Lamott's fears and joys.

As the title attests, Lamott's Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year chronicles the first year in the life of Sam Lamott. The journal is filled with her son's accomplishments, her own responses to motherhood, and the other things that are going on in her life during this busy year. For most of her life, Lamott has chosen alternative paths, particularly in dropping out of college and deciding to support herself as a writer. Although before Sam's birth she sees herself as "much too self-centered, cynical, eccentric, and edgy to raise a baby," Operating Instructions proves these doubts to be unjustified. Lamott writes about her awareness of both her responsibility to Sam and to herself, a linked responsibility.

The main focus of Operating Instructions is Sam's first year of life. Sam takes the expected developmental steps, from lying in his crib to lifting his head, to rolling over, to crawling, to standing, and then to walking. He experiments with making noises. He touches things to learn about them. He develops emotional attachments. None of his actions are out of the ordinary, yet Lamott believes him to be the smartest, most beautiful, child that ever was born, a typical response. Lamott writes about Sam's new tricks as if they are signs of a baby genius. When, at the age of two months, he learns to "comfort himself without the pacifier by sucking on his hands and fists," Lamott declares, "He's very brilliant, this much is clear." She holds a party for his three-week birthday. She celebrates such important days as National Sam Lamott Neck Control Day by changing her answering machine message to reflect this momentous occasion.

Another response that Lamott shares with other new parents is feeling exhausted and worn out all the time. She jokingly questions why she had a child, even acting as if Sam were an item she purchased at the store, one that she could return if she decided it wasn't what she wanted or expected. "Sam sleeps for four hours at a stretch now, which is one of the main reasons I've decided to keep him," she writes when he is nearly seven weeks old. Other times, however, she records her trials less humorously. On October 14, she calls the Pregnancy to Parenthood 24-hour line. Writing with utter candor, Lamott records how she "told the person on the line that I didn't think I was going to hurt him but that I didn't think that I could get through the night." Such a statement illustrates the depth of the strain that Lamott undergoes in caring for her child. The fact that this hotline exists for worried parents shows that Lamott is not experiencing uncommon feelings.

December 1 in her journal depicts the variability of her feelings. The entry for that day begins bluntly: "It has been a terrible day. I'm afraid I'm going to have to let him go. He's an awful baby. I hate him. He's scum." Later that afternoon, however, she "fell right back in love" with him, and by midnight, she has concluded that the problem lies within herself, not Sam. She writes, "I don't think I like babies." In this progression, Lamott typifies any overstressed, sleep-deprived mother—in other words, any normal mother. The changes in her feelings are not Sam's fault, but are based on the challenges that any new baby poses without meaning to do so. Lamott understands this, yet she still writes passages that sum up a new parent's conflicting feelings, such as this one from November 22:

I wish he could take longer naps in the afternoon. He falls asleep and I feel I could die of love when I watch him, and I think to myself that he is what angels look like. Then I doze off, too, and it's like heaven, but sometimes only twenty minutes later he wakes up and begins to make his gritchy rodent noises, scanning the room wildly. I look blearily over at him in the bassinet, and think, with great hostility, oh, God, he's raising his loathsome reptilian head again.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Ariel Gore's The Mother Trip: Hip Mama's Guide to Staying Sane in the Chaos of Motherhood (2000) is a collection of essays showing the highlights and the low points of motherhood. Gore, an outspoken urban mom, gives inspiration, encouragement, and moral support to real-world mothers.
  • Breeder: Real-life Stories from the New Generation of Mothers (2001), edited by Ariel Gore and Bee Lavender, is a collection of essays about motherhood from Generation X writers.
  • Mother Zone: Love, Sex, and Laundry in the Modern Family (1992) is the autobiography of Toronto journalist Marni Jackson. It portrays the drama inherent in mother-child relationships in a society that idealizes motherhood while devaluing its importance.
  • Perri Klass's collection Love and Modern Medicine: Stories (2001) focuses on domestic life as experienced by young couples and families.
  • Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1994) drew rave reviews and was a national bestseller. It serves both as a practical guide to writing and as a glimpse into the mind and life of a professional writer.
  • Mary Morris's novel A Mother's Love (1993) portrays the artist as a single mother. The painter-protagonist of the story was abandoned by her own mother at birth and now must recreate her own life through her art.
  • Shadow Child: An Apprenticeship in Love and Loss (2000), by Beth Powning, describes a woman's experience giving birth to a stillborn child and how this tragedy affects her marriage and her future mothering.
  • Edith Wharton's novel The Mother's Recompense (1925) focuses on Kate Clephane, who abandoned her husband and infant daughter. She is summoned back to New York society by her grown daughter, who is intent on marrying a man that Kate once loved. The moral quandary that faces Kate and the ensuing drama startled readers of that time.

Lamott also records surprise at how quickly Sam is growing up—again, a typical parental reaction. By January, when Sam is nearly four months old, she notes that he is changing every day, and moreover, that she is losing her baby. "He's becoming so grown-up before my very eyes. It's so painful. I want him to stay this age forever," she writes. Clearly, a four-month-old baby is hardly grown-up, but Lamott is speaking in comparative terms, as a four-month-old baby bears little resemblance to a newborn. A newborn seems to just sleep and eat, but a four-month-old baby takes many developmental strides, such as showing cognizance of surroundings, making noises for fun, and moving arms and legs on purpose. Lamott's reflection that she wants him to stay at this period in his life forever is typical, and one which she repeats throughout his first year. As she watches Sam grow and reach new goals and develop new awareness, she feels that she is losing him. In June, when Sam is almost ten months old, she writes, "I feel like he's not even a baby anymore. He's becoming a young adult." This statement reflects back to Lamott's pre-birth thoughts, when she already is worried about "that inevitable day when my son will leave for college." This running commentary illustrates a theme common to all parents—the knowledge that one day the child will become independent.

Another difficulty that Lamott faces—and that Sam increases—are financial problems. As a writer, she does not earn a great deal of money. Her only source of financial stability derives from a few ongoing magazine columnist jobs. At one point, she records that she is down to her last $800 in savings and knows that she may be forced to borrow money from Pammy. Despite these serious troubles, when she focuses on the financial drain that having a baby poses, she maintains a sense of humor: "I'm not suggesting he's a deadbeat," she writes, "but I must say he's not bringing in any money on his own.… it's so expensive and time-consuming to have a baby, you might as well keep hothouse orchids. At least you can sell them."

Also notable in these journal entries is how, through her relationship with Sam, Lamott develops a new sense of self and of what is important. One day she uses Sam as an excuse for getting out of a party. After doing this, Lamott feels little guilt but rather a "tremendous sense of power." In this instance, being a mother to Sam has given her the courage and opportunity to be true to her own needs and interests.

Lamott also becomes more aware of her relationships with men, which is an important self-discovery for a woman who feels that the men in her past have actually held her hostage to her desire to make them like and need her. When the baby is two months old, Lamott writes that she is still "so taken up by Sam that I don't have to deal with men." To Lamott, this is a positive benefit of motherhood. The next time Lamott meets a man with whom she might have previously become infatuated, she holds herself back. She now recognizes that any romantic or sexual entanglements will affect Sam. "It would be one thing if I could leap into a disastrous romance and it would be just me who would suffer," she writes, "but I can't afford to get lost because Sam doesn't have anyone to fall back on." With this statement, Lamott demonstrates her comprehension that, as Sam's mother, she has a greater burden in the choices she makes. Her next comment—"And I don't have anyone else to fall back on, come to think of it"—shows a newfound maturity that has been shaped by having to take responsibility for the life of another human.

Despite its subtitle, Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First year is more a portrait of Lamott than it is of her son Sam. In October, when Sam is about six weeks old, Lamott writes in apparent wonderment, "I just can't get over how much babies cry. I really had no idea what I was getting into. To tell you the truth, I though it would be more like getting a cat." By Sam's first birthday, Lamott has changed significantly, learning more about herself and life through her relationship with her son.


Rena Korb, Critical Essay on Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Erik France

France is a librarian and teaches history and interdisciplinary studies at University Liggett School and writing and poetry at Macomb Community College near Detroit, Michigan. In the following essay, he discusses ways that humor, faith, family, and friendship fuel Lamott's resilient approach to life as a first-time mother and persistent writer.

" By Sam's first birthday, Lamott has changed significantly, learning more about herself through her relationship with her baby son."

In Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year, Lamott employs a mixture of humor and pathos, witty observation, remembrance, and anecdote to carry the reader through her first year as a mother. She tells a compelling story that highlights her complicated life issues and resilient faith. Equally, she makes evident the charity and support of a wide variety of friends and relatives who help console and sustain her through many ups and downs.

The calendar structure of the book adds drama to the often-exhausting life changes inherent in the first year of a mother-child relationship. Each entry is dated and usually includes a brief account of baby Sam Lamott's growth and development. These entries are written in a way that allows the reader to gain considerable insight into Lamott's ever-changing feelings and responses.

Lamott, at age thirty-five, painfully but successfully faces the challenge of sustaining her life as a writer while becoming a single parent. Her decision not to have an abortion, but to follow her pregnancy through, results in Sam's birth and her own increasing sense of responsibility. She is not alone in this transition. By this time in her life, she has developed a sense of faith. She has already given up alcohol and drug addictions, and she now turns more energetically to a network of healing people, a sort of mutual aid society.

Lamott's willingness to ask for and receive help represents one of the main themes of the book. She refers to the people closest to her as her "pit crew" (race car terminology for the people who maintain and repair a driver's car and who look after the well-being of the driver, most crucially during the stress of actual races). She also uses the more general term "tribe," a religious and anthropological metaphor for people who help each other at a deep level, to describe other friends and acquaintances from her church and elsewhere. To appreciate how far Lamott has come by the end of the book, one may usefully consider where she came from. Lamott reflects in many journal entries about her past: this is part of her process of healing and living in a healthier, more hopeful way.

When the journal begins, Lamott finds herself pregnant and abandoned by the father of the child. This unnamed man, more than fifteen years older, is the latest and (she hopes) the last in her long string of relationships with men whom she characterizes as "crummy." But Lamott's complex set of problems and issues go further back than any of her boyfriends. They originated from her complicated and difficult family. Situated in the San Francisco area, Lamott and her brothers John and Steve lived in a somewhat dysfunctional household with their parents, Dorothy and Kenneth Lamott. The children were exposed to a mix of left-leaning politics, intermittent Bohemianism, alcohol, drugs, and unconventional people. Lamott experienced many discussions and parties with her parent's friends and acquaintances, including atheists, artists, and political activists. Lamott retained the social consciousness of her parents, but, feeling empty without a sense of religious meaning, she became a practicing Christian after years of stubborn resistance and self-abuse. Her faith plays a major role in the raising of Sam, and many members of the St. Andrew Presbyterian Church of Marin City, California, help and encourage her along the way.

Despite the complications her parents gave her, Lamott did benefit in two very lasting ways. Her father was a strong role model for her as a writer. He kept at his writing regularly, a disciplined habit that Lamott picked up and, despite various addictive distractions and years of self-sabotage, adhered to. During Sam's first year, her novel All New People reached the point of publication and distribution. She also wrote a regular column for California magazine, kept the journal that became, in published form, Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year, and was contracted to write another magazine column.

Lamott's mother also provided a strong role model in one particular way: Dorothy Lamott refused to place herself second to anyone. She had gone to law school and had left the family for awhile and moved to Hawaii to pursue her own dreams. By the time Lamott began her journal in 1989, her father was long dead from a brain tumor and her mother was back in California helping with Sam. In the meantime, Lamott had increasingly turned to the rest of her tribe and pit crew to help her find her own way through life.

For many years, Lamott had turned to addictive behaviors to deny the sense of grief and loss brought about by her offbeat upbringing, her parents' divorce, and her father's death, and to avoid having to deal with internal loneliness and longing. Since the time she was a teenager, she had "tried everything in sometimes suicidally vast quantities—alcohol, drugs, work, food, excitement, good deeds, popularity, men, exercise, and just rampant obsession and compulsion—to avoid" facing herself. Finally, when she is pregnant, she faces herself and somehow manages to go on. Though she must do the heaviest work alone, she is consoled and helped by her many friends, one of whom, John Manning, is also a mutual friend of the man who abandoned her.

Three very important members of Lamott's tribe and pit crew include her therapist Rita, her brother Steve, and her long-time friend Pammy Murray. Rita helps Lamott come to terms with herself and discover forgiveness, including the ability to forgive herself for past excesses. A recovering alcoholic and addict, Lamott relies on Rita "mostly because I had so many variations on the theme of low self-esteem, with conceitedness marbled in, the classic egomaniac with an inferiority complex." Between sessions with Rita, the demands of raising Sam, and continuing at her writing, Lamott learns how to develop and protect her personal boundaries. She learns especially how to avoid distractions and how to be open to people who can and do truly help her. Lamott's brother Steve helps in practical ways, provides comic relief, and serves as a reminder that not all men are "crummy." Of Pammy, her best friend, Lamott writes, "I could not have gone through this, could not be doing it now, without Pammy." When Pammy is diagnosed with cancer during Sam's first year, Lamott is devastated; still, because of Sam, Lamott persists. Though these three people stand out, there are many others who help Lamott persist.

Finally, in addition to faith and the familial community of her tribe and pit crew, Lamott keeps herself and others going with her biting jokes and sense of humor. When not making fun of herself and her neuroses, she devotes many of her sarcastic quips to belittling a range of "crummy" men, including ex-sexual partners, a potential Republican boyfriend (she is a lifelong Democrat) from whom she decides to spare herself, and even George Herbert Walker Bush, the standing president during Sam's first year of life. Lamott describes Bush as reminding every woman of her first "ex-." Her passionate rage against Republicans is humorous as much for its excess as anything else. The diatribes against Bush also provide historical context for Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year. The San Francisco earthquake of 1989 does this as well. Lamott is able to see humor even during this disaster, for she recognizes and satirizes her obsessive concern for good reviews and sales of her writing even in the midst of the major earthquake.

Reflecting on her son's first year, Lamott realizes that one cannot and need not be in control of all of life's details. It is enough to have a grasp of the important things in life; beyond that, each day is a new adventure to be taken in daily terms. She paraphrases writer E. L. Doctorow's analogy comparing writing and night driving, adapting it to life. At night, one can only see as far as a beam of headlights permits, but if one is careful, that is enough to permit one to successfully drive all the way to one's destination. Lamott further contemplates and explores the main themes of Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year in two subsequent nonfiction works: Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, and Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith.


Erik France, Critical Essay on Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Josh Ozersky

Ozersky is a critic and essayist. In this essay, he discusses an overlooked aspect of Lamott's book—its deep religious underpinnings.

Religion, on the face of it, would seem to be the last thing Lamott's Operating Instructions is about. Primarily, it's about a baby: his face is on the cover, and the book's subtitle is A Journal of My Son's First Year. Lamott is pro-choice, dislikes Republicans, lives in San Francisco, and is a single mother with liberal convictions. The book is packed with pop-culture references and profanity. Only rarely does the author explicitly talk about God, and then often in a facetious way. But a good case could be made for Operating Instructions being an essentially religious book.

" Of Pammy, her best friend, Lamott writes, 'I could not have gone through this, could not be doing it now, without Pammy.' When Pammy is diagnosed with cancer during Sam's first year, Lamott is devastated; still, because of Sam, Lamott persists."

To understand how, it's important to understand Lamott, both as an author and as a character in her memoir. Any author who writes about themselves, even if they are as truthful and transparent as possible, still creates a character for the reader. We do the same thing in daily life, every time we choose to speak in a way that we hope will create a favorable impression. Like T. S. Eliot's Prufrock, we "prepare a face to greet the faces that we meet." The character of "me" in Operating Instructions is far and away the most interesting and complex one the reader meets. The reader learns more about her, cares more about her, and is more involved with her than anyone else in the book.

Lamott's character in the book can be contradictory. She is ironic, skeptical, and tough-minded, but also emotional and moody. She is intensely loving—with Sam, with her friends, with her family—but seems to despise herself much of the time. Her tone is primarily a humorous one, with many snappy one-liners and pop-culture references, but the content of much of her writing is profoundly serious.

It is hard not to feel, as one reads the book, that Lamott is talking directly to the reader as the days pass. One begins to feel as if he or she is a part of her extended family—the network of friends, neighbors, and fellow parishioners who are helping her to muddle her way through Sam's first year.

But is this necessarily so? Surely there must be decisions that Lamott had to make. What does she choose to tell readers? What isn't she telling readers? Is there any part of her life that is being concealed? If so, why? And even if readers are getting the complete story, it's only the complete story as she knows it.

This is especially important when it comes to Lamott's religion. Her grip on her own identity is obviously very strong, even for a writer. And she has a laser-like focus on her son. But as Erika Taylor wrote in the Los Angeles Times,"At the base of Lamott's experience is a deep, hard-earned trust in her self and her God." But as with motherhood, religion is an ongoing learning experience. And this can be misleading.

Operating Instructions is definitely not a conversion narrative, like The Confessions of St. Augustine or The Autobiography of Malcolm X. In those books, the authors have transcendent encounters with God, and are forever changed; the authors write from the point of view of people who have found the truth. Lamott's religion, on the other hand, is clearly more of a work in progress. She is beset by doubts. Some of the most revealing passages in the book, in fact, show her inability to take her own faith seriously. Referring to the crucifix, Lamott writes:

I believe in it, and it's so nuts. How did some fabulously cerebral and black-humored cynic like myself come to fall for all that Christian lunacy … It, my faith, is a great mystery. It has all the people close to me shaking their heads. It has me shaking my head.

Even as she makes these protests, however, Lamott stresses her belief in the fundamental tenets of Christianity: redemption, resurrection, and the movements of Providence.

Part of what makes her such an appealing narrator is that her faith, though strong, is so flawed and fallible, and wedded to what appear to be such unlikely non-religious beliefs. Lamott is an avid churchgoer, and considers doing Christ's work to be "the only operating instructions I will ever need." But she won't go out with an attractive man because she finds that he voted Republican.

Likewise, she is alternatively beset by a heady mixture of self-pity and self-loathing ("I'm mental and defeated and fat and loathsome and I am crazily, brain-wastedly tired. I couldn't sleep. This is maybe the loneliest I have ever felt.") and lifted up on the highest flights of rapturous love and gratitude ("Sam was baptized today at St. Andrew's. It is almost too painful to talk about, so powerful, so outrageous and lovely.").

" Part of what makes her such an appealing narrator is that her faith, though strong, is so flawed and fallible, and wedded to what appear to be such unlikely non- religious beliefs."

In some of her other books, most notably Traveling Mercies, Lamott dwells more at length on her faith and how she arrived at it. In Operating Instructions, she dwells on it more as background, with occasional flares, both positive and negative. In that sense, Lamott's religion is more persuasively painted than if she spent the better part of her narrative discoursing on Christianity. It's precisely because she is so back-and-forth with her faith, because she is so preoccupied with her son and herself, and because the whole period is such a roller-coaster ride for her, that we get such a deep feeling of what it means to her.

What is that religion? It seems to vary with Lamott's emotional state. At moments of weakness or distress, she has the natural impulse of people in difficult straits—God as cosmic cavalry, coming to the rescue. Several times in the course of Operating Instructions, Lamott writes or prays to God to help her with specific financial or emotional problems—and is promptly, and positively, answered. This kind of religion is undemanding and innocuous, and seems at odds with the larger spiritual sense Lamott describes at happier moments: "I know we all only talk about God in the most flat-footed way, but I suddenly had that Old Testament sense of God's presence."

At other times, Lamott frankly doubts her own faith. She looks back on all the years when she was addicted to cocaine and alcohol. She feels helpless as a mother. She feels neurotic and unstable. She feels unworthy of her friends. At these times, her faith in God doesn't so much waver as flicker in and out of the narrative. Some critics have taken Lamott to task for being so frustratingly indecisive and vague about God, about calling herself a Christian writer when she so obviously subscribes to no particular doctrine, and has such an undeveloped theological sense.

But this criticism is misguided, and misses the whole point of Operating Instructions as a work of literature. If Lamott's feelings and perception of God change as she changes, it isn't because she is weak-minded; it's because she's human. By being so candid and honest in this memoir, she opens herself to criticism of being unstable, flawed, an unworthy receptacle of divine inspiration. That's no problem; it's all true. But she never claimed to be a saint, or to speak for religious people everywhere. She is a religious person, and in writing about the things most important to her, she inevitably brings her ideas about God to bear on them. For a religious person, nothing of any importance can exist in a spiritual vacuum. And for a person who believes in an infinitely powerful deity, nothing of any importance can exist outside of the concept of God's love and will. It's an alien concept for many readers who don't share Lamott's deep-seated faith in the Christian God; but it's one that is bone-deep in her writing and informs every page of Operating Instructions.


Josh Ozersky, Critical Essay on Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.


Carroll, Jon, Review, in Whole Earth Review, No. 78, Spring 1993, p. 24.

Jonté, Dawna Lee, Review, in Belle Lettres: A Review of Books by Women, Vol. 9, No. 1, Fall 1993, p. 7.

Review, in Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 1993.

Review, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 240, No. 12, March 22, 1993, p. 65.

Taylor, Erika, "Keep the Baby and the Faith," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 9, 1993, p. 2.

Further Reading

Feinsilver, Pamela, "Anne Lamott: The California Writer Talks about the Birth of Her Son and the Rebirth of Her Career," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 240, No. 22, May 31, 1993, p. 30.

This article presents a good overview of Lamott's life, work, and her inspirations.

Fisk, Molly, "Anne Lamott: One Bird at a Time," in Poets & Writers Magazine, Vol. 24, No. 5, September—October 1996, p. 52.

This interview with Lamott focuses on the success of Operating Instructions and Bird by Bird, as well as on ideas to help new writers.

Lachnit, Caroll, "Anne Lamott: Taking It Bird by Bird," in Writer's Digest, Vol. 7, No. 6, June 1996, p. 30.

In this interview, Lamott discusses how and why she writes.

Lamott, Anne, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, Pantheon Books, 1999.

This nonfiction work presents Lamott's religious ideals and beliefs in greater depth.

Montgomery-Fate, Tom, "Vulnerability Is Not Weakness," in The Other Side, Vol. 36, No. 2, March 2000, p. 28.

Montgomery-Fate discusses how Lamott's three works of nonfiction all focus on the process of becoming something—a mother, a writer, and a Christian.