“Giving Birth Radicalized Me”
Lyz Lenz on her new book "Belabored" and how America consistently does wrong by pregnant people and mothers
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
Lyz Lenz’s Belabored: A Vindication of the Rights of Pregnant Women is a smart, funny, moving examination of American culture around pregnancy and motherhood. The book is wide-ranging, examining pregnancy cravings, weight gain, and birth alongside discrimination against pregnant women and mothers and the crisis of maternal mortality which disproportionately affects Black and brown women. The book is structured around the trimesters of pregnancy, with each section beginning with a sarcastic take on the language used in a typical pregnancy guide. The introduction to the fourth trimester section begins, “Your baby is no longer a fruit or a vegetable. Your baby is a person. Your baby is crying. Your baby is pooping. Your baby is driving you crazy. You love your baby, but your vagina is still bleeding, and that first postpartum poop made you cry.”
As Lenz puts it in her introduction, “to be a mother is to become a myth.” Her book aims to demythologize motherhood and insists throughout on structural changes needed to make motherhood manageable.
Lenz is also the author of God Land: A Story of Faith, Loss, and Renewal in Middle America and a columnist at The Cedar Rapids Gazette. Her writing has also appeared in The New York Times, Glamour, Huffington Post, Time, The Washington Post, and elsewhere.
We talked about facebook mom groups, the toxic impact of wealthy white families making individual choices, how she almost didn’t write the book, and how to think about the political power of white motherhood in a way that isn’t weaponized against Black and brown families.
We spoke by phone just after the derecho that did so much damage in eastern Iowa, where Lenz lives.
Nancy Reddy: I loved your book. I was reading it and talking to my mom about the book and about pregnancy and working motherhood. My mom was a working mom in the ’80s and ’90s, and she’s always amazed that it hasn’t somehow gotten better.
Lyz Lenz: I think one of the things that shocked me the most in researching the book is the husband stitch, when doctors stitch up a woman after birth and they give them a little extra stitch to make things nice and tight for your husband and it was just one of the many things that I was just shocked is still happening. I mean, in that moment, right after birth, how can you even advocate for yourself? Some of the women I talked to, they didn’t even find out until after, until their six week appointment, when they’re complaining of discomfort and the doctor’s like, well, I gave you an extra stitch, and you’re like, well did you fucking really now?
You do hear individual cases of amazing labor stories, the ideal. I’ve had people apologize, like I’m sorry I just had a good experience. And I feel like, why would you apologize, that’s great. We need to know what a great experience looks like. But the problem is that these are too anecdotal and it’s not systematized. The Pro Publica report that I reference in the book about why American has such high maternal death rates is because these practices and procedures that could save women’s lives are not standardized across hospitals. I don’t think people are ill-intentioned, we’re just not doing what we need to do on a systematic level to make the process of birth successful in America. It’s mind-boggling that we don’t do it. It’s a failure on every level, from hospitals and doctors to insurance companies to just the way we think about birth in our culture.
NR: You had this Twitter thread about birth stories the other day, and you commented that you’ve seen birth radicalize women. Could you talk more about that?
LL: I think in many ways giving birth radicalized me. I’ll talk about my neighbor Stephanie who’s in the book, who’s an Evangelical woman who started having children and homeschooled them, so she’s very much of that world. Through giving birth and realizing I can do this, this is my body, through the process of having four children, by the end she was demanding things and sticking up for herself in a way that she never had before. Because of this status as a mother and what I’ve seen my body do, I can now demand free time and get what I need because nobody’s going to just give it to you without you fighting for it. And now she’s no longer an Evangelical. But that process of her saying this is what I need ended up putting her at odds with her church. Her church was telling her, if you’re having problems in your marriage, just submit more. And she was like, why would I do that? If I submit more, I’m not going to get what I need. And if I’m going to take care of these children, I need to get what I need. For me, I think there was a similar process. I had grown up very Evangelical, very conservative, and coming out of that, I was like, oh, now I’m a feminist, and everything’s fine and the world is so advanced. And then the process of having children and trying to work and trying to negotiate a life, it made me realize, oh, it is still the Dark Ages.
I went into birth wanting to do exactly the opposite of what my mother had done. She had eight kids, and by the end she had a midwife and wanted to do it all natural, but I felt like, oh I’m just going to trust medicine and I’ll just do whatever the doctors say, and then I had this horrific experience. I was bleeding and I didn’t know why and I was never told what was happening and if I hadn’t been proactive I never would have found out. I don’t wish to deepen the divide of those who have children and those who don’t—but for me, speaking for myself, having children made me realize how deeply we stigmatize mothers and how much we put on their shoulders. Like, the burden of the economy—we are making your fucking tax base! Give us some paid leave! For me, for my neighbor Stephanie, for a lot of women I talk to, birth is a radical process, whether it makes you realize the power of your own body and your own voice, or if you’re suddenly faced with the realization of how unfair the world is in a way you were somehow able to ignore before you had children.
NR: I’ve been thinking about your book and your Washington Post op-ed about the Wall of Moms in Portland in connection with Dani McClain’s book We Live for the We, which has the subtitle “The Political Power of Black Motherhood.” A lot of McClain’s book is about how she always understood motherhood as a political institution. So I’ve been thinking about the political power of white motherhood, which feels scary to say because it’s often been, as you say, weaponized in this horrible way—I think of white mothers screaming at Black children as they’re trying to integrate schools. So I’m curious what you think, either in your own mothering as a white woman, or white motherhood as an institution, how can we use that power in a way that isn’t evil?
LL: I think one of the failures is that we don’t recognize how power works. Right now, in the pandemic, I see a lot of parents bending over backwards to justify pulling their kids out of public schools and doing private school pods and everything like that. And it’s going to gut our school system and it’s going to fail, and it’s going to fail for the people who need it the most. And that’s going to be our fault. Right now, the justification machine is in motion. Because people are too unwilling to take their heads out of their own asses and see what consequences their actions can have. It’s the same thing you see on the Nice White Parents podcast—I’m not racist, I just want my kids to go to a better school. But if you’re always thinking about yourself, you’re not thinking about the world writ large, I think that’s the thing that nice white parents need to do, is to realize you’re not just making an individual decision. You’re making a decision that will impact others. I had this discussion with a mom the other day because she was saying, well, I have to do a pod because all the rich kids are getting tutors, and I was like, your kids are upper middle class, your kids are going to be fine.
That was something that I really had to understand when I was writing the book because I am just another white mom, writing another book about motherhood. So that was something I had to really come to terms with, and I didn’t want this to be another soft little memoir about how motherhood is hard but worth it. I wanted to bitch slap some people and say, how we do motherhood is a problem. When white moms do their like, oh let’s share cellulite on Instagrams and lift up each other’s bodies, you’re only thinking about yourselves, you’re lifting up beautiful women who can filter their bodies and have free time.
NR: Oh, that reminds me of the black and white photo challenge.
LL: Yeah, I saw it, and I was just like, I can’t right now, and then I saw something about how it was actually co-opting another Instagram thing for women in another country.
NR: Oh yeah, it was women in Turkey.
LL: But it just ends up being like, oh how pretty you are. And I don’t think people are doing it intentionally, but it doesn’t matter if you’re doing it intentionally. You’re not thinking, and you have every opportunity to think.
NR: What I love about McClain’s book is that she talks about Black motherhood as a political institution and she always understands that what she’s doing is political. And I think that white women don’t always have to think about ourselves as being political, so it’s easy for us to think, like, oh I’m just making a choice for myself and my family.
LL: Right. And it is a political institution. White womanhood is a political institution but like you’re saying, we just don’t have to talk about it because that’s a privilege. During the 2016 election, a friend of mine is a personal trainer and teaches classes of women early in the morning, so we’d all go to her garage and do kettlebells. And I remember coming in the day after the election wearing my Nasty Women t-shirt and the woman next to me said, I don’t like it that you’re wearing that, because I don’t want this space to be political. And I was like, every space is political. You just don’t have to see it because we’re not forced to confront it, because that’s our privilege. And she was like, well, I just want to have a nice time working out.
NR: But the fact that it’s all nice white ladies in the garage is already political. Like, the composition of your town is political, right?
LL: Exactly. It’s already political. We’re already being political. We’re just not being forced to grapple with the consequences of our actions because our money and our privilege insultates us. Right now, America has to grapple with the consequences of our actions with healthcare and shitty daycare and shitty schools, but instead of grappling with it, we’re running away. Like, we’re making pods.
NR: I keep seeing these conversations—like the pandemic is revealing things, or making us see things differently, that it does really expose how everyone was kind of hanging on by a thread to start with. I’ve been thinking about Deb Perelman’s op-ed in The New York Times and your Time piece arguing that we need to entirely re-imagine motherhood. So there’s this strain of optimism in the world, like it’s so bad, people are going to have to do something better. Or maybe we’ll just kind of continue to be fucked because mothers always pick up the slack. So I wonder, what do you think? What do you make of that conversation about the pandemic and our system?
LL: Again, we always knew these problems were there. There’s this part in the book that I think about a lot, where, in writing it, I just got really frustrated, like I don’t even know what to say here, because every other woman writer and thinker and academic and Arlie Hochschild, if you’re not going to listen to her and she has a Guggenheim, you’re sure as hell not going to listen to me, but it’s worth repeating. Women who have been out here doing the work, talking about these problems, might be a little frustrated by our saying “the pandemic is revealing it” because they’re like, bitches, we’ve been shouting it for years. But I think the pandemic is forcing privileged white mothers to face the reality that they’ve been hiding from themselves for so long.
One thing that really pisses me off about political reporting and op-ed-ery is that it’s often so deeply cynical and often cynicism takes the place of actual intelligence, so I try not to be needlessly cynical. So I do hope that we can. And I do think that Americans everywhere are screaming for help, screaming for some sort of change. And I do have hope that we will get there. And I know that there are people who have been doing the work before the pandemic.
Maybe it’s not about whether I have hope or not. Maybe it’s about whether I and the rest of us can dig in and get it done. We can’t just sit around hoping. This is our burden, and this is our job.
NR: In American culture, we pitch mothers these individual solutions—so instead of saying, this is actually impossible, we should have paid leave and affordable childcare, we say, here’s a mom hack, get a bigger white board.
LL: That’s also a thing I wanted to avoid doing. So often we tell moms to try hard to find their inner goddess warrior, and that’s bullshit, you can’t find your inner goddess warrior if you’re making minimum wage and you don’t have access to healthcare or childcare or, now, by the way, school. That inner goddess warrior bullshit only works if you can afford fancy face cream. But we need systemic change.
NR: So what are the changes you want to see?
LL: I think the Time piece outlines them. And again it’s new, it’s not radical. These are things Americans have been talking about for years. We need childcare. I covered the caucuses, and there were a lot of candidates who had great plans. Elizabeth Warren gave us a blueprint. We need universal healthcare. It’s disgusting that we live in this rich, rich nation and we can buy our local police military grade trucks but we cannot give healthcare to Americans who are dying because of the lack of it. We need childcare, and we need paid maternity leave. Those three things, a really, really great start.
We’re one of the few industrialized nations that don’t have this already, and there’s no excuse. The only excuse is our American culture is so steeped in a mythology that is demeaning to women. We talk about these changes, and Republicans are like, oh, so you want socialism? But I do think that that kind of rhetoric is starting to lose its power as people are literally dying. I hope that change is around the corner.
What American mothers need to realize is that it’s not just about us getting help for our kids now, it’s about our kids when they have kids getting help when they need it, so that we can go on our death cruises in our retirement and not have to babysit.
NR: I was really interested in the subtitle—”A Vindication of the Rights of Pregnant Women,” and you talk in the introduction about Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women. What did it mean to you to place your book in that lineage?
LL: That was actually partially due to my editor, Remy Cawley. This was actually the first book she acquired as an editor. She bought it at Norton, and she moved to Bold Type, and she begged me to come with her because she believed in the book. And I’m so glad I did because when I started drafting the book I lost faith in it. I wasn’t the mother I had been when I sold the book—married, upper middle class. And I was not that person anymore. And I was just reeling from blowing up my life and I told her, I don’t know how I can write this.
My editor helped me come up with a new outline and we changed the chapters and she really walked me through it. When we were going through edits and I wrote that introduction, and she said you need to place it in this context. But I said, well, I have problems with Wollstonecraft, with all these early feminists. And her argument was, well, that’s the point, that they didn’t get the job done, and now we need to take it a step further. I’m just a person in Iowa who wrote a book but if it can do anything, if it can kick the conversation into the next phase, because I feel like we’ve been stuck in this place for so long. So the subtitle recalls the past but also hopefully pushes us forward.