Photo of a woman's pregnant belly, illuminated by a soft light to the right.

Motherhood, Undone: A Review of Belabored: A Vindication of the Rights of Pregnant Women by Lyz Lenz

One evening in early April, after yet another day of sending my toddler daughter to “Frozen school” while I attempted to work from home, I found myself in the woodshed, chucking pieces of firewood into the wall. I had wandered through to put the dogs out and when a few pieces fell dangerously close to my toes, I picked one up and threw it. It felt good, so I did it again, but a little harder. And the next time, so hard I felt my shoulder burn. Fuck it, I thought, and aimed for the window.

“It’s the oldest trick in the book. Divide a woman against herself.
She’ll be so busy trying to hold herself together, she won’t have time to do anything else.”1

Reading Lyz Lenz’s Belabored: A Vindication of the Rights of Pregnant Women both stoked and unleashed my fury in the same way the sound of splintering glass did that April night. Introducing Belabored, Lenz writes: “This book is an attempt to midrash the experience of motherhood. To plumb the depths and meaning of the text of our bodies. To look at the stories we have been told and to create new ones and better ones.”2

A red background with the book title and author's name in bold black print, with a yellow outline of the side view of a pregnant belly and breasts.
Cover art for Belabored. (©Hachette Press)

This is exactly what she achieves. Using her life as the thread, Lenz stitches together the history of women, pregnancy, and birth from Eve and creation myths through the encroachment of male doctors into childbirth; she follows the increasing legislation on women’s bodies, the wildly vacillating dictates on what pregnant and parenting mothers should do, the increasing maternal and infant mortality rates, and America’s refusal to provide any substantial family supports in the way of paid leave. She is hilarious and incisive and fully articulates why, exactly, we are all so undone, even if we feel like we should just be happy to be healthy and alive right now. This is not a how-to, unless it is How to Make Sense of the Overwhelm: How to Breathe Again While Also Not Breathing.

Belabored is immensely readable. Four parts represent trimesters (3+1) of pregnancy and begin with asides that make you laugh through the teeth you’ve been grinding for months. A series of three or four chapters follow each of the “Trimester” sections, and they hold up as interconnected chapters or stand-alone reads. The narrative is propulsive, and I often found it pointing me back to myself. The exegesis Lenz provides here is not just of the state of the pregnant and parenting in the US, but of each and every one of us, and the stories we contain.

A mother with a baby; advertising the Maternity Hospital, Chicago. Colour lithograph, 1895. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

The entire text is anchored by the introduction, in which Lenz sets up the central question: “Who Gets to Be a Mother?”3 Here she identifies the deep disparities amongst and discrimination against mothers who are anything other than a “white, middle-class, straight, cisgender, married woman.”4 She makes clear her desire to reflect a more complete picture of pregnancy and motherhood in America: “The question of who gets to be a mother, and further, who is a good mother, cuts to the heart of our cultural biases and systemic inequalities. So, when we think of mother, we need to consider who we don’t see represented.”5 Lenz acknowledges in articulating her use of terms and pronouns that she will likely fall short: “And I hope that where I fail, others will succeed, showing us ways to better reflect the breadth and complexity of our reality.”6 Belabored contains many ideas and observations that each warrant full book-length explorations, and I suspect we will be hearing much more from Lenz (thankfully). Her work will be a cornerstone in the next round of feminist theory, policy, and American history. In writing Belabored, Lenz is making space for the rest of us to jump in.

In 1977, Adrienne Rich told students at Douglass College that “responsibility to oneself means refusing to let others do your thinking, talking, and naming for you.” I am reminded of this when Lenz says “The inability to name a thing disappears it from our consciousness.”7 Now, when so many of us can barely see to the end of the day, it is not a small thing that she is naming her experience and ours. In the book, she is referencing her attempt to give her daughter correct anatomical knowledge, but it also speaks to all of the experiences we have now, that we can’t quite name or communicate. In parsing the enormity of the perinatal experience in America, she gives us a place to begin.

Lenz is comfortable with nuance, and even when I wanted to jump to a set of answers or bullet points, she settles in. Lenz does admit some pregnancy truths that no one ever tells us (see crotch slime),8 and I’m happy to add her to the list of modern truth tellers like Ali Wong, Amy Schumer, and Emily Oster. However, this is not the main goal. Her confidence and patience open up the same space within the reader. I imagined she was in my living room and we were six beers into a twelve pack. I’d throw out some limited observation and she’d reply “yes, but also,” forcing my half-lit brain to fire back up. Lenz knows where she may lose the reader, where we may start to question where she is going, and pops in to tell us that she knows, but to hold on. The purpose here is not to provide an answer or rouse a call to action (she’s doing this other places), but to instigate a deep and wide exploration.

What will we do now that we know? Lenz doesn’t explicitly ask or tell us to do anything, but she does set up a series of questions that are personal, political, and force reflection. In “Ice Diapers,” Lenz writes that “the solutions of storytelling and greater visibility only seem to raise the profile of well-off white women.”9 She discusses the leaning in and facewashing and other bootstrappy solutions we’ve all encountered. She asks:

“What’s next? Is this where I offer policy solutions? Or tell you to keep your chin up, mama? Or maybe I post a picture of me with my cellulite, backlit so I look good when it goes viral? Or instead, is this where I tell us to stop making viral videos about how hard it all is and to start lobbying Congress to pass some parental leave because our nation is working hard to overturn Roe v. Wade in the name of saving babies but won’t let moms get a goddamn night’s sleep? So many other women have made this argument and we didn’t listen.”10

In Belabored, Lyz Lenz excavates the past and present forces that weigh on us like so many lead aprons. And while she doesn’t give us directives, by making each of these individual problems tangible, by naming them, she gives us hold.

Notes

  1. Lenz, Lyz. Belabored: A Vindication of the Rights of Pregnant Women (NY: Bold Type Books, 2020), 118. Return to text.
  2. Lenz, Belabored, xxi. Return to text.
  3. Lenz, ix. Return to text.
  4. Lenz, x. Return to text.
  5. Lenz, xx. Return to text.
  6. Lenz, xxi. Return to text.
  7. Lenz, 115. Return to text.
  8. Lenz, 39. Return to text.
  9. Lenz, 176. Return to text.
  10. Lenz. Return to text.

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