A Grandmother’s Tale: When Anne Lamott’s Teen Son Became a Dad

What would you do if your teenager had a child? For author Lamott, it was a crash course in the challenges and blessings of an extended family.

By Anne Lamott from Reader's Digest Magazine | March 2012

 Anne Lamott Grandmother's TalePhotograph by Jonathan Sprague/Redux

My very young son became a father in mid-July of 2009, when his girlfriend, Amy Tobias, gave birth to their son. They named him Jax Jesse Lamott, Jesse after Amy’s beloved grandmother, and Jax because they like the way it sounds. Amy was 20 when she delivered, and Sam was 19. They’re both a little young, but who asked me?

Sam’s birth on August 29, 1989, was by far the most important day of my life, and Jax’s was the second. Sam and I are quite close, and I’d always looked forward with enthusiasm to becoming a grandmother someday, say ten years from now, perhaps after he had graduated from the art academy he attends in San Francisco and settled down in a career, and when I was old enough to be a grandmother. I was a young 55. Maybe a medium 55. Let’s say a ripe 55, with a child just one year past his majority.

I had heard that Amy was expecting on the day before Thanksgiving, 2008, when I got a call from Sam, in despair.

“Mom, I’m going to be a father,” he said.

I was silent for a time. “Oh, Sam,” I said finally.

He and Amy had been together, tumultuously, since his birthday a year earlier, but they had split up a couple of months before — although not, I can see now, in the Biblical sense. Amy is beautiful, tiny, and Hispanic, with her roots in Chicago and her parents now living in North Carolina. She first bounced into my house in shorts that would fit my cat, long thick black hair, huge brown eyes, and a perfect smile. She is around four feet ten, and weighed 90 pounds at the time.

Just over a year later, Amy had terrible morning sickness. She spent a lot of time taking naps on my couch and nibbling bird-size snacks. I was happy all the time at the thought of Sam being a father, and me getting to be a grandmother, except when I was sick with fears about their future, enraged that they had gotten themselves pregnant so young, or in a swivet of trying to control their every move, not to mention every aspect of their futures.

Amy and Sam had moved back in together, in his tiny studio apartment two blocks away from his art school, and I was paying all of his bills while he was in college, and thus, I was paying some of her bills too — rent, food, utilities. Amy frequently escaped to my house in Marin County, California, mostly for companionship, as Sam was in school full-time, but also for the sun and relative peace, as their apartment was loud and dark. By the time the morning sickness passed, her belly was huge, especially because she is — or rather was — so tiny. She had an elaborate space-age ultrasound at four months, which indicated that the fetus was a boy: The technician printed out Jax’s picture for us. He looked like a bright, advanced baby.

Sam was woozy with pride and scared to death. Amy was clear, calm, and fiercely into becoming a mother. She did things the way she wanted to, even when it made me unhappy. For instance, two weeks before her due date, she skipped a routine doctor’s appointment, for some youthful willful reason, and I spent several days pacing around my house, trying to make peace with the idea that now the baby would almost certainly be born with some degree of disability. I cried. Sam tried to protect her from my neediness and anxieties — i.e., I didn’t hear from them for days. And they fought routinely. Amy would threaten to move back to Chicago, which made me crazier than anything, but I would not interfere. Sam would call in despair, and I would stay neutral, with undertones of suppressed rage, like Saudi Arabia during World War II, and they’d come through their conflict, and I would get to be the beloved tribal elder for having stayed neutral.

We went to St. Andrew [church] together many Sundays, unless Sam had too much homework. During the summer before Jax’s birth, Sam was both in school and working for a contractor, trying to sock some extra money away. I would still be paying the bills, as I had promised Sam a four-year education: room, board, books, transportation. It was extremely expensive, and I had a nagging belief that things were not going to become cheaper after Jax was born.

I had loved being pregnant with Sam, mostly, all the parental blessings of feeling bigger, envied, completed, amazed, proud, grateful, and I loved Amy being pregnant with Sam’s baby, mostly. I was excited that he was going to have all these feelings for someone too. It was going to be better for him in some ways than it had been for me; I had not had any money our first few years and I was a single mother. Yet even with two parents, having a child ends any feelings of complacency one might have, and I knew what Sam was in for. It’s like having a terminal illness, in a good way.

I prayed every day for a healthy baby, an easy delivery, for Sam and Amy to be good parents, and for me to let God be in charge of our lives. I prayed to be a beneficent grandmother — and not to bog down in how old that made me sound. I had two slogans to guide me. One was “Figure it out is not a good slogan” and the other was “Ask, and allow” — i.e., ask God, and allow grace in.

July 21
Amy delivered late last night by C-section after 18 hours of hard and heroic labor at the UCSF Medical Center, one of the nation’s great teaching hospitals.

Sam had called me at 2 a.m. and told me to meet him, Amy, and her mother, Trudy, at the hospital. Trudy is very sweet and smart, a couple of years older than I. We were given a private room, and Amy was plugged into various monitors. Sam coached Amy for the first few hours, and then Trudy and I coached her, and then Sam again. After many hours, Amy was dilated to six centimeters, but she wasn’t getting any further. She refused any drugs, even Pitocin to intensify the contractions, and watching her I felt crazy with powerlessness and thwarted Good Ideas: Let’s everyone settle down and take a lot of drugs! Get this show on the road! Of course, I pretended to be supportive of whatever she decided. Sam, Trudy, and I took turns going to the cafeteria for snacks while Amy was brought hospital meals at which she picked, partly because the nurses cautioned her to go easy and partly because the meals looked like upscale pet food, with a side of boiled vegetables. When all was said and done, we mostly ate Cheetos and M&M’s. And when I say “we,” I mean me.

Amy’s contractions were wracking her body, but they weren’t productive enough. She was in maternal warrior mode, and I was humbled by how hard she was working, how much pain she was able to bear, and how stoically. By this point in my own labor, 19 years ago, I’d already had the Pitocin, an epidural, and a few refreshing shots of morphine. I felt stunned and teary about what a good birth coach Sam was — it wasn’t so long ago that we were bickering about wet towels on the bathroom floor or why he can’t manage to keep his cell phone charged.

Hours later, Amy finally let the nurses put some Pitocin in her IV, and the three of us took turns breathing with her. But the baby, who had been estimated to weigh nine pounds, was just too big for her small body, and she was exhausted.

Finally, the doctor said, “I recommend we do a cesarean,” and Amy said, quietly, “OK.”

Trudy and I went off to the waiting room, where we writhed around until a huge male nurse came to tell us that Jax had been born. Amy was fine, but she desperately needed to sleep for a couple of hours before she could begin nursing. He said we could come meet the baby. Trudy and I hugged and jumped and pumped our grandmotherly fists.

We found Sam in the nursery, dressed in scrubs, holding his swaddled new son, peering into his peaceful face, crying, and saying over and over, “Hi Jax, I’m your dad. I’m your dad, Jax.”

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