Recently, a close friend got knocked up. The reality of how pregnancy changes lives brought with it trepidation, excitement and many sleepless nights.
In the latter months of her pregnancy, she joined me for tea and conversation. As an experienced mother (i.e. a single mom with one kid having survived thus far into teenagerdom and another trailing closely behind), friends approach me with inquiries about the perils and triumphs of parenting. Often the questions resemble the following: “How do I know if my wife’s breast milk is heated enough for the baby?” Or “Did you have hemorrhoids all up in your business when you were preggo?” Or even “Man, did you want to screw everything in your third trimester or WHAT?” On this particular day of tea and talk, the conversation unfolded like this:
FRIEND: I am worried about postpartum depression.
ME: You should be. That shit is serious. I fantasized about killing both of my kids and myself every day after my second was born.
FRIEND: Whoa. So, will you prepare my placenta so I don’t lose my mind after the baby is born?
ME: Uh, ok.
I should be clear here. My friend was not desiring a meal and did not ask me to boil her up some polenta with gruyère, sea salt and a side of garlic-sauteed collard greens. She asked me to take her afterbirth into my kitchen and do all sorts of things to it in hopes of preventing postpartum depression. And I said yes. Not because processing her afterbirth was the best invitation I was offered at the time, but because I live in Sonoma County and that’s the kind of thing we do up here. Also, anything that keeps a lady friend from going ape shit crazy on her baby or herself is okay by me.
Now, many of us have sat patiently by while new parents share sweet tales of burying a firstborn child’s placenta under an apple tree in a backyard or driving it to a favorite wilderness destination to release it as an offering to the baby-loving gods. But most stories involving the consumption of this surprisingly large, kidney-looking organ include wild animals—not humans—who suck amniotic fluid from their freshly born offspring’s pelt before gobbling down the placenta and umbilical cord for nutrition.
Of course it sounds unappetizing. Absolutely. It’s a giant blood clot, after all. But think about it: If each person held within them a potential remedy for agonizing mental health issues, wouldn’t we all be getting all over it, bringing forth our insides like a glob of magical super blue-green algae from the fountain of youth, before stuffing it back down our gullets? I was mostly vegan at the time of my own wretched baby-accompanied lunacy, but if I was told that eating my own afterbirth would have prevented me from holing up behind shuttered windows, weeping all night with my colic-stricken baby and resorting to an emotional email affair based on a shared and shameful love of Temptation Island episodes, I would have popped a straw into that sucker like a fresh equatorial coconut and slurped until its bloody essence filled my weary soul.
Naturally, I offered my friend unwavering support.
With the anticipated arrival of her baby and accompanying giant natural mental health booster it was attached to, I found myself embarking on an exciting new research project. Though somewhat familiar with the idea that the hormones contained in the pulpy mass may assist in balancing the new mother’s hormones and assist in lactation and mood stabilization, I soon learned many facts about Placentophagy, or, eating afterbirth. The placenta contains protein, iron and hormones that also assist in post-birth contractions, which in turn help deliver that stretched out uterus to pre-baby size. But what was I supposed to do with it once I got it in my kitchen?
I consulted an acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist friend and received some recipes for processing the bloody mess into a palatable concoction; a dried herbal supplement, Ziheche. I often dabbled in herbal medicine making and spent my childhood peering into the family room while my brothers skinned raccoons, muskrats and foxes for fur trade shows. Surely drawing from these experiences would help me manifest the wisdom and appropriate cutlery skills needed to proceed with determination.
Months later, as I waited by the door, flip-flopping between confidence and uncertainty, I did my best to channel Angelica Houston’s made-for-tv priestess role as Lady of the Lake in HBO’s rendition of The Mists of Avalon. It was a Sunday evening in April and the door creaked open with a burst of spring air. The big day had arrived. My friend and her husband found themselves parents of a darling Kewpie Doll look-alike. I found myself opening the door to the baby’s aunt and a cooler packed with ice and a not-so-darling chunk of afterbirth.
“I feel like we’re doing a drug deal or black market kidney trade or something,” she said as she handed it over.
“We sort of are,” I replied with mixed feelings about the Igloo cooler’s freshly harvested contents.
I decided that if I filled the house with music from Loreena McKennitt the whole process would become spiritually fulfilling. Enlightening, even. But the songs just bothered me. I switched gears and threw on something more appropriate for the occasion, knowing that my friend would appreciate the infusion of Nick Cave’s energy into her Ancient Chinese Secret.
I draped myself in a flattering vintage apron, snapped on the rubber surgical gloves left over from my teenage daughter’s last bad hair dye job and went for it.
I opened the cooler, feeling brave and righteous and like the most supportive friend ever in the history of the entire universe. There it sat, a giant blob encased in a large freezer-sized Ziploc. My surgical-glove-covered hands dove in past the blue ice packs and in my mind the mass transitioned from uterine glob to a plastic-wrapped science experiment flopping into a copper colander.
As I unwrapped the baby steak, I found my gag reflex fighting against the DIY feminist healer inside and all instincts tugged at me to throw the thing out the window. Or feed it to my cat. Still, I resisted, blasting water from the faucet in order to rinse out excess blood before sawing at the amniotic sac and gristly umbilical cord. As I freed the organ from any non-placenta attachments, I mustered the will to halt any thoughts of this fleshy red object as “my friend’s giant period.”
After rinsing, the placenta was transported to a mechanism on the stovetop, where rice wine vinegar warmed, providing a slow, painfully long steaming session. During this step in the process, hormones released into the air like a whirling magic entity of pungent, odorous womanhood, serving as a dude repellant while simultaneously attracting sexually frustrated and hungry creatures, both wild and domestic.
After several hours, the partially cooked and now gray meat was carefully moved to a cutting board where I proceeded to chop it into stew-sized niblets before it retired to a food dehydrator for the evening.
The following morning, the house was aired out for fear that the thick hormone vapor that hung like sauna steam in a filthy happy ending spa would cause me to lactate, lose my libido, or worse. I brewed up some coffee, washed out the grinder and clunked the dried chunks of placenta in, one by one. After soliciting the help of my totally grossed out teenager, the cayenne-looking powder that resulted was packed into capsules.
ME: Honey, can you help me put this placenta into these capsules?
TEENAGER: Mom, that is gross. And I’m a vegetarian and this is, like, cannibalism or something.
ME: Come on! It’s hardcore! Besides, it’s not cannibalism if nobody died!
Our bodies are impossibly complex mechanical creatures with constantly evolving, phenomenal activity. Bodily functions are incredible. Giving birth is amazing. Miraculous, even. But pregnancy and childbirth certainly aren’t “beautiful” like so many woo-woos claim. There are rips and screams and tears and fountains of putrid juices including, on occasion, obscene amounts of blood, urine, vomit, slime colored amniotic fluid and even varying amounts of fecal matter. And the placenta, although fascinating when really seriously contemplated and appreciated for all it does to keep mom and baby connected for nine months is still inarguably one of the most unsightly specimens to cradle in one’s hands.
As far as the friend who ingested her own highly processed afterbirth, her milk gushed out in gallons.
FRIEND: Dude, Dani. I almost drown my baby every day because I am lactating so much. It’s crazy.
ME: At least you aren’t drowning her in the bathtub because a little postpartum voice told you to.
FRIEND: True that.