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Placenta and Me: A Postpartum Doula Attempts to Make Friends With the Afterbirth by Jen Wittes

When I gave birth to my daughter, nearly seven years ago, I barely knew what a placenta was.  Here’s what I thought, in a nutshell:  big lumpy organ, attached somewhere inside me, feeds the baby good stuff, filters out (some) bad stuff?

My guesses were somewhat accurate, however, I didn’t give the matter much thought and in fact, was surprised when—shortly after birth—I had to push out one more thing.  The late contractions and slithery expulsion of the placenta were far more unpleasant, to me, than the intense sensations experienced moments before in actual birth.  It seemed that in the calm after “the big show” I felt the lesser pain of involution and the birthing of the placenta more acutely than I’d felt the rest.

In truth, childbirth is all encompassing and ends in euphoria—it would make sense that the little twitches and tremors (and the detachment and release of a huge, fleshy thing) would seem like a nuisance or at best, an afterthought.

I didn’t look at my daughter’s placenta.  I didn’t even think to and besides, a viewing wasn’t offered.  Best I can tell from the pictures from that day, it was dumped in a bucket, where it sat patiently at the feet of the doctor as she mended my tears.

With my second child, I decided to have a home birth.  In reading and researching how one might best accomplish this, I learned a little more about the placenta, but not much.  As you would imagine, the “Tree of Life” received a few more shout-outs in the crunchier, homebirth population and likewise, books devoted to natural and instinctive birth.

And perhaps because homebirthers are after all, actually responsible for the thing, they often feel the need to “do” something with their placentas.  In my reading, I came across stories of tree planting, printmaking, spiritual ceremonies, and of course, placentophagy—or, the eating of one’s afterbirth.

I was mildly curious about all this hullaballoo and ritual, but felt certain that none of it was for me.  I actually wanted to know—waaaaaaay ahead of time—if there was a special placenta drop-off site with certain hours of operation.  My plan was to get it the heck out of my house as soon as possible.  The answer given to me by my midwives was, “Freeze it and throw it out on trash day, otherwise you might find a neighborhood dog running down the street with your placenta.”

I quite liked that one and quickly developed an affinity for placenta humor.  How many times have I told the story of my then husband’s quest to make French fries for our daughter, following our son’s birth?  Are you sure we have fries?  “Did you check under the placenta?”

A friend of mine, at the time, pointed me in the direction of her online birth story.  She had a free, unassisted, lotus birth—no midwives, no doctors, no cutting of the cord.  That’s right—your friendly neighborhood placenta stays attached to the baby by umbilical cord and is, if need be, toted around in a little dish, perhaps after an herbal preparation to prevent unpleasant odor.  So yeah, this woman did all that, and also ate a bite of it.  Cut it right off with a knife and fork—a little square, if I remember correctly.  She described it as earthy and cosmic.  She also said that it had tasted like the day—her daughter’s birthday.

How I both envied and recoiled at her experience.

I mean, on some level I got it.  If something in me made me desire homebirth, why couldn’t she have the whole enchilada?  And folks, you’d better believe there’s a recipe for placenta enchilada out there.  I’ve seen pizza, lasagna, smoothies, pita sandwiches, stews…it’s apparently a very versatile ingredient.

But I’m getting off track.  Back then, I liked my afterbirth jokes and read about lotus births as if reading about a newly discovered alien civilization.  My feelings ping ponged from fascination to discrimination and it’s safe to say that I was pretty detached from my own miracle meat.

My midwives kind of insisted that I look at the placenta I created for my son.  It was enormous!  And still in my broken membrane sack.  Interesting enough, somewhat surprising.  But amazing?  I just wasn’t there yet.

And to tell you the truth, I’m still not.  But I want to be.  I mean, the placenta is something that actually fits the overused word “awesome.”  An entire organ that satisfies the needs of two—the only I know of that is spontaneously created several years into life.  It is the only disposable organ, and when you think of how powerful it is for such a short period of time, you can easily get lost in marveling over the intricacies of instinct, evolution, and biology—and, oh yeah, the amazing power of women.

Shortly after my son was born, I was asked if I ever get sentimental about his belly button…because that is where he was attached to me.  Our common point?  The placenta.  Pretty cool.  Still, I don’t find myself flipping out over the thing, like some do.

Why am I telling you this?  Well, I am hearing more and more about this whole placentophagy thing—in particular, placenta encapsulation.  This is when a trained placenta preparer (I know one personally, actually) comes over, cooks your placenta, grinds it into powder, and turns it into anywhere from 80-200 pills.  It’s one of those things that you can easily roll your eyes at or chalk up to hippy kookiness.  I wouldn’t say that I’ve been that closed-minded about it—I am somewhat aware of the hows and whys.  And I think I’m ready to take a closer look.

You see, the shout-outs in resounding favor of ingesting placenta all point to postpartum emotional health as the number one benefit.

As a postpartum doula, how can I not dive into this and—at long last—become a friend of the placenta, if not an expert?

But again, why did I have to tell you all about my vague and disorienting history with the placenta?  Because—ha ha—I know what it sounds like when a doula researches or recommends something “earthy.”  It can easily be written off as “too alternative” or weird or fruity—you know, incense and organic peppermint tea.  I joke, but I wanted to point out that I’m right there with you.  Eating what was once your organ is a little bit weird.  But only because it’s not the norm.  Postpartum care is not the norm.  Some people think it’s weird to have a postpartum doula—and, well, you can imagine how I feel about that.

I am always jabbering on and on about how women focus—almost magnetically—on labor and childbirth, neglecting to plan for postpartum rest and recovery.  It’s almost comical—me, a teacher and advocate for what comes after birth, has somewhat shied away from what we often refer to as the afterbirth.

So, come on.  Stay with us this week.  Let’s rock the placenta, or at least make peace with it, and decide whether or not messing with it can offer true benefits to our new mamas.

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