Family Matters

Some Assembly Required: Q&A with Anne Lamott on Grandparenting

The author says being a grandparent is liberating in a way that parenthood can't even approach. Think of it as a bonus round, a chance to really enjoy children.

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If there is a doyenne of the parenting memoir, it would be Anne Lamott. Long before “parenting” was an actual word, an activity, a philosophy, Lamott chronicled what it was like to raise her son, Sam, in the book Operating Instructions. A journal of Sam’s first year, it has become required reading for any new or expectant mom who wants to know the real deal on motherhood.

Lamott loves kids — she’s the kind of person who can calm a cantankerous toddler she doesn’t even know — but she wasn’t anticipating having another in her life quite yet. Her grandson, Jax, was born when Sam was just 19. Sam called to tell her the news the night before Thanksgiving 2008. “I’m going to be a father, “ he said. Lamott was stunned, nowhere near ready to assume a grandmotherly persona. “I was a young fifty-five,” she writes. “Maybe a medium fifty-five. Let’s say a ripe fifty-five, with a child just one year past his majority.” But, she notes, “Who asked me?”

Lamott has had lots of practice holding her tongue in the nearly three years since Jax was born, particularly as it relates to Jax’s mom, Amy. As I’ve written before, the relationship between parents and grandparents can get pretty dicey; that’s where grandparenting classes come in.

Lamott didn’t take one, but she tackles many of the same issues of navigating boundaries in Some Assembly Required, the generational sequel to Operating Instructions. The concept for Some Assembly Required — a grandparenting memoir instead of a parenting memoir — was suggested by Lamott’s editor. “I thought it would be exploitative,” says Lamott. “and he said it wouldn’t be if I didn’t exploit anyone.” For his part, Sam was all for it; he co-wrote the book with his mother and in the introduction, he describes Operating Instructions as “the greatest gift anyone has given me.”

(MORE: Grandparenting 101: Teaching Grandma and Grandpa About Modern Parenting)

Here is a portion of my conversation with Lamott about grandparenting, in which she shares her favorite acronym and admits to telling the most boring bedtime stories ever:

HealthlandWhat’s so special about the relationship between grandchildren and grandparents?

Lamott: It’s beyond love. I think that parents tend to fixate on a child’s progress and future and how point B leads to C and does your child need help with that. With grandparents, they don’t give a shit. It’s a kind of bonus round because we’re not responsible for their character. All kids by the time they are 4 are trying to resist their parents because their parents are always trying to get them to do something or stop doing something. But I don’t have expectations, I don’t need for him to be this way or that. … I had only one living grandmother and she was not warm. She was not into it. I would have loved to have a grandmother who loved me. It would have been like a sanctuary.

You didn’t take grandparenting classes. How did you know what to do?

I had secret weapons, other grandmothers who had slightly older grandkids. I had decided I would go and help Sam and Amy clean up their apartment. But maybe they didn’t want my help. Another woman said, “Annie, you know this is not your child and this is not your sink.” I realized it’s up to them to find out what’s true and real and right for them.

In your book, you come to terms with the fact that your help was in fact not very helpful. What do you mean by that?

They really did not want my opinion very often. And I have such good ideas, I really do. I have such excellent ideas for the whole world. But my good ideas were annoying. A lot of the book is about learning to W.A.I.T., which stands for Why Am I Talking? Why do I have this urgency to try to control people? It wasn’t my kid. I just had to learn to let them be the parents.

Were there any instances in which you just could not keep your opinion to yourself?

I really wanted Amy to pump breast milk so Sam could feed Jax and I could feed Jax. But she was the mother. It’s a sacred relationship she has with Jax. And I always really wanted Jax to be in day care because I believe in letting kids discover other kids and discover sharing, that it’s a communal reality they’re a part of.

So does he go to day care?

No, he goes to nursery school at church once a week with me so he has time with his colleagues. I love watching him learn to share.

(MORE: Daddy Day Care: Why Does the Government Consider Dads “Babysitters”?)

Were you upset that Sam was going to be a dad at 19?

My preference would have been for him to finish school, but who asked me? He took a semester off and will start back this summer. He will be a full-time student in the fall.

What was it like writing a book with him?

It was like high school trying to get him to do his homework. He was in art school and also had an infant. There were bribes, threats and nags. But then I’d be blown away. As soon as I’d have his writing in my hands all would be forgiven because it was so beautiful.

Becoming a father made Sam realize how hard you’d worked as a single parent to raise him. He and Amy have since split up, making Sam a single dad. How do you feel about that?

There is nothing on earth worse than being a child in a bad marriage, having been a child in a bad marriage. They weren’t married of course. … It’s hard to be a little kid on earth. You can’t protect your children or your grandchildren from the realities of life, that scary things happen and people you love get injured.

How do Sam and Amy divvy up Jax’s time?

He spends Tuesdays and the weekends with Sam, and on the weekend they are at my house. I usually take Jax to Sunday school and after church, Amy comes and meets us.

Any chance they will get back together?

I doubt it.

What does Jax call you?

He calls me Nana, my grandma nomenclature. Sam called my mom Nana. I wanted to honor her by being Nana also.

What’s your favorite part of being a grandmother?

I take a 45-minute nap every afternoon and he takes a two-hour nap. I love being on the bed under the blanket with him. It’s like a sweet movie moment. I always read Jax a story or make up a story. I tell these incredibly boring stories [to make him fall asleep].

What kinds of stories?

Sleepy Horses. Sleepy Planet. Sleepy Beach.

What happens in them?

Well, nothing. First, you have to drone: one day, Daddy and Jax and Nana decided to go for a walk on a long beach called Sleepy Beach. The sun made them tired. They’d walk and walk and walk and stop for a while for some shade and then walk and walk. … In Sleepy Planet, me and Jax and Daddy are going to really sleepy planets, and they’re warm from the sun so that makes everyone doubly sleepy. It’s kind of like meditation for the person telling the story.

Do you have any parting advice for other grandparents?

Not talking is so profound. The most challenging thing is to hold your tongue and not correct and not offer advice unless they request it. The fact that it’s their baby and their sink was really important to me.

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