While growing Stanley in my body / while my body was growing Stanley, I learned that the placenta is actually classified as an organ. The body grows it for the purposes of gestation and then gets rid of it once the baby is born. The midwife at the birth course we attended was so enamoured with the organ that she retrieved a recently birthed placenta from the birthing unit, complete with umbilical cord and amniotic sac. She plonked it on the ground in the middle of the class for us all to look at. It was hard to believe that my body was growing a similarly thick and meaty thing and it was sustaining the life of a baby human. While some pulled horrified faces at the bloody organ, others grabbed the regulation blue gloves and got up close and personal with this slab of biological magic.
At that point we decided to keep the placenta and plant it in the ground after the baby was born.
At around the same time as this class, my pregnancy began to get difficult. What began as a happy surprise with no morning sickness and a strange mix of excitement and fear, developed into a series of potentially life threatening complications known as Pre-eclampsia. The placenta is believed to be the source of the problem. Drawing intensely on my body for the purposes of sustaining the baby’s life and health, the placenta was working to protect the baby, at the expense of my own organs and, if left unchecked, my life.
Due to these complications the birth did not go as planned. I imagined a warm afternoon of pre-labour in the garden with friends and family, ending up at the hospital where I would gently breathe out the baby in a pool of warm water holding my partner’s hand with music playing in the background. Instead, I was admitted three weeks early, induced at 11am, by 5pm my contractions were fairly regular, by 8pm they were every few minutes and my partner was sent home. I spent the next seven hours of labour alone in a dark ward constantly buzzing to ask when I was actually going to be allowed to have my partner back. When I was eventually moved to the birthing unit at 3am I was allowed to call my partner and he came back to the hospital. Things got a bit better in the birthing unit because I was not alone, although I was stuck on a wired monitor and unable to go into the bath or shower and labour stalled when I was fully dilated. The doctors didn’t want to risk it going pear shaped and the final stage ended in a crazy intervention. At the end of which, both my baby and I were alive and well. And, with a little red and slimy human on my chest, I just had enough will to insist the doctors let me keep the placenta. “We just have to send it to pathology”, they said, “you can come and get it in a few weeks.”
Several weeks passed, Stanley was growing quickly and we returned to the hospital to collect the placenta. The reclamation of the placenta and planting it at the Farm was the way I had planned to process what happened, because although the interventions life saving for both me and Stanley, they were quite traumatising. So, I showed up at pathology and the man brought out a white plastic tub, in a plastic bag and several pairs of regulation blue gloves. “I just have to take you through the formalities relating to your placenta’s release, and then you can have it”. “So. The placenta has been treated with formalin”, he said, “do not touch the placenta with your hands, bury the placenta at least one metre deep, do not plant the placenta within one metre of your property boundary, do not plant your placenta under things you plan to eat”. “If you decide you do not want the placenta, please return it to pathology for safe disposal”. “Please sign here to indicate you understand these instructions and that you have received some gloves”.
I returned to the car confused. I didn’t know what formalin was, I was unsure as to why the package I received was not cold and did not understand why I had been given information on how to handle toxic chemicals. Craig informed me that formalin is actually formaldehyde, that my placenta was effectively embalmed with a toxic, carcinogenic and flammable chemical that can cause skin corrosion or death, hence the gloves. We returned the placenta to pathology.
Grieving the loss of the placenta was one thing. What was more difficult to grapple with, however, was the notion that the hospital dispersed these now-toxic organs, with instructions on how to plant them in the ground. What wildly anthropocentric, myopic and cynical bureaucrat devised this policy? Could any plant even grow on top of such a chemical cocktail? What about the microbes, fungi and worms in the soil, do they want formaldehyde babies? What if a dog digs it up and chows down? The tragic irony of instructions on how to plant the formalin-treated placenta is that what once gave life now potentially has the capacity to take it away from many more critters. I wonder how many people have planted these things in their yards, following the hospital’s instructions? Needless to say, we didn’t plant the placenta but we planted a Gymea Lily instead. It was a fun and sunny afternoon where we put Stanley’s feet in the soil for the first time. Not planting the placenta turned out to function as both a way of processing the complicated birth and the loss of the placenta, and now we have a new plant in the garden as well.