We are so inundated with confessional parenting books and blogs that it’s hard to believe there was ever a time when brutal honesty about child-rearing seemed fresh.
Jump back 20 years, and it was revolutionary. Back then, the writer Anne Lamott introduced us to the new approach — adding a heavy dose of self-deprecating wit — with “Operating Instructions: A Journal Of My Son’s First Year,” (Pantheon Books, 1993)
Lamott is now poised to return to the genre with a book about the first year of life as a grandmother. Yes, already.
Lamott’s son Sam, the subject of “Operating Instructions,” was 19 when he told his mother that he and his girlfriend were expecting a child. The result was a baby boy named Jax and the book, “Some Assembly Required:A Journal of My Son’s First Son,” (Riverhead Hardcover) written with her son.
The book is to be published today, and Lamott’s publicity tour brings her to Washington Thursday. I caught up with her to discuss grandparenting and the cultural changes since “Operating Instructions” — a topic about which, not surprisingly, Lamott has lots of opinions.
Below is our Q&A:
What surprised you about the differences between being a parent and being a grandparent?
It’s so much easier to be a grandparent. The obviously best thing about a grandchild is that he LEAVES. You fall so madly in love with him — desperately, pathetically — but God, are you pooped by the end of the day. I was pooped at the end of the day when Sam was a baby, and I was only 35. Now I’m a hundred, and when Jax spends the night here, I feel like I’ve run a 10K. But he leaves! Sam or Amy takes him away, and I get to take a nap. It’s a great system.
Also, the grace of getting older (I’m actually only 57) is that you take everything less seriously, especially yourself. And you’re too tired to worry so much about the new kids. You know that almost all the time, kids come through, even with croup, asthma, accidents. They eat dirt, and it doesn’t kill them. You let go of things more easily. I used to say, when Sam was young, that everything I let go of had claw marks on it, but I think I’m about 50 percent better. I’m infinitely less controlling as a grandmother than I was as a mother. It’s funny, but Amy [Jax’s mother] and Sam almost never ask me for my advice on how to raise Jax, which I think is kind of rude. But also, it’s just lovely.
You write vividly of fighting the urge to control the decisions your daughter-in-law makes in terms of where to live and in the case of the baby’s croup. Many grandparents fight this urge frequently and in more mundane ways. Were there other smaller issues that frustrated you, and how did you hold yourself back?
A grandma friend of mine said something when Jax was born that has really stayed with me. I wanted to go visit Sam and Amy at their apartment in San Francisco, and clean up the kitchen for them. My friend said, “Remember how I told you it was their kid, not yours? Well, it’s also their sink.”
My default response to any conflict or difference of opinion with Sam or Amy was to try and control them — to save, rescue, manipulate, fix and manage them. But I’ve learned that this behavior is an addiction, and so while I often wanted to offer my God Ideas, I’d pray, “Please God, keep one hand around my shoulder, and one hand over my mouth.”
I screwed up many times with Amy, by not minding my own business, but she kept forgiving me, and I got better at not needing to inflict my goodness on everyone else.
In the 20 years separating your experience as a new parent and a new grandparent, can you talk about what broad cultural changes you’ve felt in terms of parenting?
I had Sam in 1989, and looking back, I can see how innocent a time that was — like the Walton’s, compared to now. I remember worrying when Sam was about 2 that I had damaged him irreparably by not hanging the black-and-white mobile over his crib when he was an infant, but parental pressure on their kids to achieve was not yet fanatical.
Sam went to a little Christian school for pre-K and kindergarten. His kindergarten teacher’s name was Mrs. Broom and she made me come in for a conference to discuss what a slow cutter Sam was — he cut out shapes in paper slowly. What a loser!
But as I said, times were more innocent, and I felt that this would not necessarily hold him back. (These days, parents would go to court to challenge the teacher and have her comments expunged from the child’s record.)
Things started to change around 2000. I wasn’t aware of the psycho-pressure on kids to get into certain schools until Sam and his friends started sixth grade. Then it became “Bonfire of the Vanities,” all the kids pressured to, within an inch of their lives, get all A’s, so they could go to the most prestigious high schools. They were the instantly-stresse- out Future Masters of America. Exceptionalism was the norm in Marin [County]. Somehow, I helped Sam stay out of the fray. Plus, what decent high school was going to take a kid with slow cutting on his resume?
He went to a little hippie granola junior high, and then to the local public school, five minutes away. The high-achieving kids in our town went on to all the fanciest universities — and we have a very high rate of suicide, major drug addiction, breakdown, which is very typical for great students in America.
I can’t tell you how many high school friends of Sam’s have died. The brightest, most gorgeous, accomplished boy the year ahead of Sam has done stints in Napa State Hospital.
Some of his peers thrived under super-human levels of pressure, and are already raking in the big bucks; but a lot of kids went down.
Lamott will be reading from “Some Assembly Required,” at Politics and Prose at 7 p.m. Thursday.