In Jezebel’s newest series Rummaging Through the Attic, we interview nonfiction authors whose books explore fascinating moments, characters, and stories in history. For this episode we spoke with Lyz Lenz, author of Belabored: A Vindication of the Rights of Pregnant Women, a work that explores Lenz’s experience with pregnancy and motherhood, all within the greater context of how society has perceived and treated women’s bodies, pregnant people, and parenthood from Biblical times to present day.
When Lyz Lenz first announced she was writing a book on pregnancy and parenthood, she found people were all too eager to share their own experiences. “Everybody wanted to tell me their birth story, which I love,” says Lenz. “Some women’s birth stories happen through adoption, some people’s birth stories happen through in-vitro, some people’s birth stories happen because they end up taking care of an older child who becomes their child.” But she also uncovered peoples’ experiences of feeling lost, ignored, and afraid for their lives: “Other people’s birth stories are over-medicalized horror stories of overreach, of doctors not listening, of women bleeding out on tables and not knowing what’s going on,” explains Lenz.
If you’re against reproductive freedom, universal paid parental leave and affordable childcare, Lenz’s Belabored: A Vindication of the Rights of Pregnant Women is not for you, she says: “I think the people who hate [this book] are the people who do not want to see that happen.” Part memoir, part manifesto and part history, Belabored challenges standard conversations around pregnancy and parenthood through personal stories, anecdotes, facts, and the historical record. Lenz explores and debunks some of the most popular myths surrounding pregnancy, such as the dominating belief introduced in the Bible that women’s pain and childbirth is a punishment; she also lays out the dark history of twilight sleep and how it originated from doctors experimenting on unmedicated enslaved women. The story of a woman’s body is, as Lenz puts it, “as complicated as the mix of cultures in America.”
One dangerous myth Lenz explores is the constant portrayal of pregnancy and motherhood in America as a “beautiful, fulfilling endeavor,” even though the country has one of the world’s highest maternal mortality rates, which disproportionately affects women of color. In what Lenz calls “the fourth trimester,” which is the period immediately after birth, she describes the mother’s body as having undergone a series of traumas that require intense healing. The medical system in America, she says, has historically failed to assist in that process: “In America, we don’t give women more than one postpartum check but we’ll give babies monthly checks, weekly checks, for however long it needs so that that fourth trimester is, once again, another way in which we devalue the means in which we create a baby, and then uphold the baby.” Lenz explains that by dividing the two, mother and baby, against one another, a false binary is created. “[This] undermines the rights of all people for reproductive choice.”
“When you see a woman as only a mother, only a potential mother. You erase the contributions of women to society. You erase the creativity, the scientific discovery, the words, the thoughts, and the feelings of a person. You fail to see that person as a person, and it all comes down to, again, that reproductive capacity—when we all know women are so much more.”