Lyz Lenz. Belabored: A Vindication of the Rights of Pregnant Women. New York: Bold Type Books, 2020. 240pp, $26.
At church, I was taught that if a woman denied sex to her husband, he would find sex elsewhere. At church, I was taught that a man’s sexual desire was so great, it was a need – not a want. At church, I was taught that men were biologically different from women; they craved sex, while women simply endured it. As I did with most sermons, I internalized this message.
I began to think that if my one-day husband cheated on me, it would be my fault – for not being available enough, for not being skinny enough, for not being pretty enough. I was terrified of pregnancy and childbirth, not for the normal reasons, but because these are times that couples often need to practice abstinence for medical or physiological reasons. When I thought about the prospect of marriage, I was plagued with images of my husband leaving me just as I was preparing to give birth to his child. And for the longest time, I thought marriage was something that I would never be able to do — thank God (literally) for counseling and better teaching.
Critics of conservative evangelicalism highlight questionable trends in its teachings on biological sex and sexuality, which tend to be rooted in extra-biblical, overwrought gender roles and books on “kissing dating goodbye” rather than a robust theology of our bodies. While the desire for a biblical account of sexuality is right, purity culture and untethered forms of complementarianism went a bridge too far. They sold a false bill of goods to their adherents: “follow these rules, and you’ll have a long and successful marriage and family.” “Follow these rules, and you’ll be happy.”
Like me, Lyz Lenz was one of many Christian women (and men) who were led to believe this lie. And her book, Belabored: A Vindication of the Rights of Pregnant Women, is an attempt to rewrite the narrative of what it means to be a woman, what it means to be a mother, what it means to be embodied. Part social-anthropological history, part memoir, Belabored is an irreverent, hilarious, devastating, and pithy window into Lenz’s lack of fulfillment in the roles of wife and mother, and her subsequent search for meaning in the wake of a failed marriage.
Throughout, her prose is punctuated with colorful (read: foul) language. She dedicates the book to her children, who “ripped up my vulva on their way into this world,” and explains childbirth as her lower half feeling like “a Vegas hotel room after it had been trashed by a B-list rock band.” But for all the gusto with which Belabored dispells the lies we tell about sex, marriage, and ourselves, Lenz’s new myths are just as incomplete as the old ones.
Lenz’s subtitle reveals something of her inspiration. Belabored is an homage to Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman, a trailblazing work of feminism published in 1792. Where Wollstonecraft was responding to a certain French politician’s claim that woman’s chief end was to be the companion of man and romance the primary goal of her life, Lenz’s response is to her own context of Christian purity culture, which says woman’s chief end is to be a virgin until married; a submissive wife, sexually available to her husband at all times and in all manner; and a sacrificial mother that forgoes all other work or ambition to raise her children.
Lenz’s book is, in her own words, “an attempt to midrash the experience of motherhood” (xxi). As her description implies, the book is surprisingly religious, and Lenz employs biblical language throughout: “Back at his mother’s house, in the quiet of the basement room, where we were stashed away, chaos and darkness met water. Sex, I mean sex. And we created a daughter” (6). She describes the “moment of generative and formless existence” at conception, claiming that we need to project a new cultural narrative on what it means to be a woman no matter how she decides to “use her uterus” (7, 3).
The structure of her story is born in four parts: “first trimester,” “second trimester,” “third trimester,” “fourth trimester.” Each part is subdivided into topics fitting to the trimester; virginity and conception in the first, ice diapers and mom bod in the last. And in each, Lenz attempts to shock the reader with her own story before critiquing the society – and often the church – that, according to Lenz, landed us in this forsaken situation in the first place.
While some of Lenz’s arguments are painted in broad strokes, making it difficult to infer exactly who or what she’s arguing against, her primary concern is the way society conceives of and treats women, particularly mothers. Most concretely, Lenz critiques the deficiency of medical research into pregnancy and maternal care, rising rates of maternal mortality, and lack of paid family leave and other social supports, such as childcare. More abstractly, Lenz criticizes society’s obsession with female virginity, a woman’s lack of autonomy due to the “stranglehold of patriarchal power on our bodies” (36), the “destructive narrative of purity” (37), restrictions on eating during pregnancy, and unattainable beauty standards pre- and post-pregnancy.
Lenz attributes many of these problems to evangelical teaching on purity and sexuality. “Purity culture” is a common whipping boy for evangelicals and exvangelicals alike, but contrary to popular belief, many of the views endorsed by purity culture don’t align well with traditional Christian ideas about sexuality. “Don’t have sex before marriage, but then everything is fair game” was not the historic church’s teaching on sex, but it was what I (and apparently Lenz) grew up hearing in the pews. This, despite the fact that the church historically taught that sex was to be approached with chastity, that hardest-of-all virtues to cultivate, the one Saint Augustine prayed for – “but not yet.”
Part of the problem with purity culture was its intemperance, its emphasis on abstinence until total freedom, rather than the cultivation of chastity. Chastity is mistakenly understood to mean abstinence from sex only, and thus a virtue to be dispensed with once one is married. Don’t get me wrong: abstinence before marriage and sex only within the bounds of marriage are clearly biblical goods – but a sexual free-for-all after saying “I do” is not. Chastity requires more.
One of the best descriptions of chastity I’ve heard is refraint from “selfish sex” – sex that is disconnected from sex’s dual purpose (unity between the spouses and the procreation of children), or disconnected from the needs or desires of one’s spouse. Chastity historically understood is much more in this vein – it’s the temperance of the body before, during, and after marriage – as a virgin, a married person, and a widow or widower. It is, according to John Calvin, “purity of mind, combined with purity of body.” Thomas Aquinas remarks that “conjugal chastity” – that is, chastity within marriage – “abstains from unlawful pleasures,” which assumes there are pleasures that are off-limits to the marriage bed. It is for this reason that the church has historically condemned the use of contraception: sexual pleasures that split the unitive and procreative purposes of sex within marriage hinder the cultivation of temperance or chastity.
This idea that sex requires more than just consent (or a marriage license, for that matter) crops up in another recent critique of sex proffered by Christine Emba in her new book, Rethinking Sex: A Provocation. Emba suspects that more sex rarely means enjoyable sex, and asks what it would mean for sex to be good – not just pleasurable, but objectively good. Her working answer relies upon Thomas Aquinas’s idea of “willing the good of the other” as a potential alternative for ethical sex, an alternative which sounds much like the virtue of chastity.
Lenz asks different questions than Emba; she’s not just ill-contented with sex, but with marriage and motherhood and being a woman. One reads the frustration in the author’s voice as a frustration with her own life – as a child raised in toxic elements of Christian purity culture, a woman married to an unforgiving Christian man, and a mother expected to give up every other aspect of her selfhood. Readers learn in the acknowledgements that Lenz’s marriage finally collapsed before the book’s completion – and with the death of her marriage, the death of a Christian way of thinking about her life: “This is not the story I want to tell of my life. It’s not the truth of who I am. I want a different myth.”
The problem is that Lenz’s new myth is just as flawed as the first. Where the first myth idolized marriage and motherhood, the new myth idolizes autonomy and self-actualization. But both of these myths focus chiefly on power and who holds it (there’s an entire chapter to prove it). As a result, Lenz’s self-professed desire is to be “fully free of everything,” “every cultural pull, every patriarchal impulse.” That desire, though, is exactly that: a myth. Autonomy is not freedom. Ridding ourselves of all entanglements and responsibilities does not make us free. Stripping ourselves of all our titles – wife, mother, sister, daughter – does not enable us to divine our “true selves.” Autonomy only makes us more isolated, alone. Emba knows this, and though they ask different questions, I think Emba has the better answer: when seeking for freedom at all costs, “the outcome is a world in which… people are both liberated and miserable.” I suspect Lenz knows this, too.
In one of the most poignant stories of the book, Lenz recounts a trip she took alone. She missed her husband. She missed her kids. She didn’t know how to live “when someone wasn’t demanding something of my flesh.” But it’s precisely these demands, these relationships to other human beings, that make us who we are. One title does not strip us of another. Motherhood makes us no less a friend, a lover, or a fine writer, as Lenz is. True selfhood is not an enlightenment one reaches once free of all entanglements (and thus, reality). True selfhood is our relationships, our covenants with other human beings, our context on this earth, our language, our customs, and yes, our religion. As Lenz herself speaks of pregnancy – we are symbiotic beings, both in utero and out.
Christianity tells a better myth than the one Lenz was taught. Lenz asks unironically for a “story in which food is not the danger but the salvation,” and the Christian myth, the true myth, tells of one: the Eucharistic body and blood of Christ. Christianity tells of a day when our imperfect bodies will be resurrected, alongside creation, to new and perfect life. It tells that sex and marriage are good, but not ultimate goods. It tells men and women that abstinence and chastity and self-restraint are not only possible, even in marriage, but required of those who love their spouses and love God. Above all, it tells of grace – overwhelming, indescribable, undeserved, overflowing grace. Evangelicalism could stand to rediscover this myth. I hope Lyz Lenz does too.