What do you do with a baby’s placenta? When I had my first child I needed an emergency caesarean. I had a blood infection and sepsis. The caesarean was preceded by an oxytocin drip. Then, as my temperature soared the Plan B spinal block was abandoned as a bad idea and I was fully anaesthetised and sent to theatre for an emergency caesarean. The first I saw of my baby was a photo. I still have that photo: she looks like a little alien. But I love and adore that photo. I don’t care how she got here, just that she got here.
Back to the placenta. Even though the birth was accompanied by extraordinary circumstances I still asked if I could take home my baby’s (my?) placenta. I live in a part of the city where this was becoming a more regular request at our local hospital as more women were feeling empowered and taking charge, seeking more input into all aspects of the birth process including taking home their baby’s placenta.
On the radio I’d heard broadcasts about placentas and what people did with them. I’d heard that by eating them you might reduce your chance of developing post natal depression, that you’d replace any missing nutrients that pregnancy had leached from your body, that you could stir fry your placenta with vegetables and serve it with rice, or simply slice off a little bit of the frozen lump and cook it and eat it like liver, Rosemary’s Baby style. Overall the impression that I got was that by keeping and eating it you’d be doing yourself some good. I’m still not convinced about all that I heard but it was interesting that the topic was on the agenda and being discussed publicly. We all want to find better ways of getting in touch with our bodies, our body’s needs and this was certainly part of that discourse, if an unusual part.
The other issue was the symbolism attached to the placenta. It was known in some places as the ‘other mother’ as all nutrition and waste were mediated by, were indeed delivered via the placenta. And it too has its own stage of birth as no birth is complete without full delivery of the placenta or the afterbirth. But the symbolic value of the placenta goes beyond its functionality.
People around the world ascribe various cultural meanings to the placenta, where it is spiritually revered. Not meaning to oversimplify cultural beliefs, we understand that the Hmong call the placenta a jacket. Following birth, the placenta gets ritually buried in the home, in a central location known to all. The placenta is needed when a person dies as their spirit must locate the jacket and put it on for the journey into the spirit world in order to be reunited with spirit ancestors. This meaning clearly ascribes a sense of completeness to the afterbirth, with an added meaning attached to not only the journey into life, but the afterlife as well.
So, to the slightly bemused looks on the maternity ward’s staff on my request they dutifully packed my placenta in a bag and put it in the freezer ready for me to take home when I eventually left the hospital. My gorgeous little premmie baby and I had to stay in hospital to recover from the sepsis, she a bit longer than I as she had to learn to take my milk. It wasn’t fun to get discharged home without her, but the relief I felt when I went in to feed her six times a day offset all of that.
I had to fill in an official Department of Health form of course to take the placenta home. The form included instructions on disposal of human tissue, the legal requirements and local council regulations around this. Seems like 3 metres or so from a common boundary line were the key determining features of the document. It was scary contemplating burial of human remains, but that essentially was what might happen if it wasn’t all sautéed and stir fried.
In the trendy part of the city where I live, placenta burials were becoming popular. I went to one at a friend’s house, someone from my Mother’s Group. Not only was it a placenta burial, it was the baby’s Welcoming Ceremony. Partners and other children were there too. My kids donned their party dresses, grabbed the well-wrapped IKEA toy snake that we’d purchased as a gift for the baby and raced for the chips, fairy bread, popper drinks and home-made sausage rolls. As it was a placenta burial there were a lot of bad jokes about what was in the sausage rolls, but the best bit was our heavily pregnant friend’s speech about kids. “Children are arrows fired into the future”. There was a lump in my throat when I heard that. That was followed by watching a lump of stuff in a plastic supermarket bag being taken from the freezer and dutifully buried beneath a tree. Then we had more drinks followed by coffee and cake.
Back home at my place I lived with the placenta in the freezer for quite a while. Like nearly five years. My baby was practically starting school and my husband was nagging me about the placenta in the freezer. What was I going to do with it? “Don’t forget that you’ve got your placenta in the freezer” “What are you going to do with it?” “Maybe we could … You’re not going to, you’re not going to eat it?” He was a bit aghast about that. Even after I explained about the hormones and the nutritional balancing and all that. I think I would have made a better case if I’d had a couple of scientific papers to back me up but in my new mum state, up-to-date references weren’t really my thing at that moment. So it sat there, taking up space next to my frozen peas, frozen kid-friendly choc chip muffins and the ice cream from the local ice cream factory, a daily reminder that as an anthropologist interested in ritual I came up particularly short when it came to creating, enacting and participating in my own.
In the end, my little family had our own private ceremony. At that time we lived in a very small house that was very run down on a very busy road in a part of town that wasn’t so fashionable. I don’t think that our neighbours would really have understood or approved of what we were about to do. We buried the placenta in the back garden and said a few words thanking Mother Nature for her help in bringing the children into the world and then buried it and planted some sweet basil on top. I had been upset earlier at the thought of doing this, thinking that this burial somehow signified that a babyhood had really passed, but of course it had: my baby was due to start school in a few months.
So because of the placenta burial I’m now attached to that piece of land at that house in a way that I’m not attached to anywhere else in the world. This is an example of how I’ve formed part of the geographic turn so evident in the social and historical sciences as I imbue this place, this special place as part of my own and my daughter’s psyche. My baby who was now four stood looking at us while I spoke and she asked, “What’s that? What are you doing? What are you putting in there?” I managed to tell her a little something without telling her everything. I felt inadequately prepared for this moment and unusually short of words. Then she ran off to play with her older sister. My husband covered the earth with the soil he’d taken out and then topped it up with potting mix. He brought me the hose and I watered it well and then planted the basil. The little punnet was chock-a-block full of seedlings, and I didn’t have much space so I planted them out in two’s and threes for the little plants to keep each other company. On reflection it was like I was somehow trying to offset the solitary state that death represents. I watered them again and as I stood there, thought about the circle of life with the girls’ voices ringing in my ears as they ran around and played …