Book Note: “Operating Instructions” by Anne Lamott



I’m not usually a fan of reading books that contain extensive use of the “F-bomb.” It ends up sounding lazy, trite, and meaningless. But when Lamott used it in her published journal about the first year of motherhood, Operating Instructions, I mumbled an “Amen” maybe more than once.

The edgy and honest style with which Lamott writes is perfectly suited to writing about the reality of becoming a mother. She is equally open about the beautiful moments with her new bundle and the recurring urge to go smoke something or get high or do something stupid just to escape the tedium. She writes of her struggles with what it means to be a single mom, she shares the challenges of accepting help and the beauty of community that result, and she discusses motherhood through the mommy-lens, the writer-lens, and the faith-lens – though not so specifically as to call them this.

I hesitate to purchase books that are based on a journal – often they come across as Dear Diary anecdotes with little meaning – but in this case, the approach is almost a necessity. It would be hard to imagine a mother writing deliberately, reflectively, creatively, passionately, and coherently about the first year of motherhood while still in the first year of motherhood and with enough substance to constitute a book. Lamott’s entries magically pull together all of this. By keeping a journal, she can write with the immediacy of the emotion and without censoring. Several of the entries reveal the dichotomy of first-time parenting with headings that section the day differently – Morning, Later, Evening, Midnight, etc. The swing of emotions possible in a brief time-span would make anyone’s head spin, but it’s hard to explain without going through it. When you read it in journal format, without the transition sentence you’d find in traditional book, the shift is abrupt and somewhat disorienting – as it should be.

I recall telling my sister, who is about to have her first, that I remember the first few months being awful but I can’t remember exactly why. This is one of God’s tricks, to slowly erase your memory of the bad, emphasize the good, and encourage consideration of a sibling as if it was a joyride the whole time. I should probably suggest that she read this book…in a year.

If you’re recently a new mother, you’ll empathize with nearly 80% of Lamott’s raw coverage of her own experience (let’s leave 20% for the blessed uniqueness of every parent/child situation). If you’re a mother who has made it through this stage and is onward appreciating the challenges of other stages or if you’re not yet a mother at all, this book may not resonate as strongly or may come across as downright offensive.

I enjoyed reading Lamott’s Traveling Mercies earlier this year and look forward to picking up Bird by Bird (a book on writing) in the near future. Her style is not for everyone, but if you can approach content with a fresh perspective, her work will leave you with plenty to consider and a few good laughs.

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