The birth taboo
The last birth taboo ... connecting the “miracle of life” with the messy bits.
“January Jones Eats Own Placenta” screamed the hysteria masquerading as a headline late last month.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Hollywood’s “Mad Mum” had smoked one too many of those wacky tobacky cigarettes. But, no, as she told People Magazine after the birth of her first child Xander Dane last September, the stress of having to be back on set in a matter of weeks took a toll on her physically and emotionally.
Lucky for her, her doula had taken care of things. She dehydrated Jones’s placenta and turned it into vitamin pills that are purportedly high in nutrients. “It’s not witch-crafty or anything!” chirped the actor. “I suggest it to all moms.”
I did get a kick out of Mad Men’s resident ice-blond becoming the poster girl for placentas, but I’ll be honest with you – I’m a little jealous. Because for a more than a year my own sat in our freezer like some dirty little secret.
Not that my husband and I ever harboured any plans to ingest mine in any form. No, I had long before disentangled myself from those new-age roots of mine. We came to the idea of taking home the placenta some five years ago after the somewhat traumatic birth of my first son.
You could say that we weren’t exactly clear-headed. Moments after our son’s birth, he was whisked off to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit with a suspected bilateral pneumothorax. Upon seeing our obvious distress, our midwife rightly suspected that we needed something tangible to, well, hold onto.
She was right. And so it was that while our son lay in an ICU incubator, a white box with my name on was placed in one of the hospital’s industrial freezers. The thought of something that had sustained my son for nine months being out there somewhere, for me anyway during this unsettling period, was strangely comforting.
A week later, we took home our beautiful newborn. Yes, and the placenta. By then my feelings towards it had grown slightly more ambivalent. I wasn’t alone. Those we told gave us the “You’ve-clearly-lost-your-mind” stare. Over time, we learnt to say nothing.
Our son’s first birthday came and went. The placenta stayed put. I became adept at ignoring it cowering in the corner of the freezer. Several more months went by before it started to haunt my dreams. “It’s got to go,” I told my bemused husband after one such disturbing imaginary nocturnal visit. The next day he got the shovel, while I drew the short straw and prized the misshapen box out of the ice.
We buried it between the compost and the old unused chook pen. There was no ceremony, but it was no less moving for that. Lying under the native mint wasn’t just a shrivelled old organ, but all that uncertainty and doubt of new motherhood.
Buried, too, were the memories of confusion and despair during those interminable days spent in the hospital with a sick newborn.
In the end, the burial seemed as unceremonious as starting a compost, and that’s what depresses me most about these latest reports that the sensationalist headlines have turned the placenta from a natural part of childbirth into a subject of ridicule – a social taboo.
But it hasn’t always been so. A recent documentary looking at the placenta’s role in regulating the weight of a foetus focused on the work done in one particular Saudi Arabian laboratory. Here placentas obviously ruled. At the back of the lab lay rows and rows of tiny mounds, where the organs that had proven so vital to research were finally laid to rest.
Watching these erudite scientists solemnly carrying small boxes to the ‘cemetery’ was weird; I’ll give you that, but it was also strangely noble and, well, poetic.
Yes, it’s not for nothing that the organ is known as the tree of life. Like the Saudi researchers, what Jones did was give the placenta another shot at being relevant.
No, scrap that. What Jones—that placentationalist—did was make the placenta prime time. In her own way, Jones managed to somehow reconcile the “miracle of life” with the messy bits. But for me the best part was that she had us mouthing the word again, and again. Just like a mantra.