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A Quiet Ritual for Burying the Baby’s Placenta

If this isn't prayer, what is?

The ground was hard and my progress was slow. The metal edge of my shovel only chipped away at the cold clay. I worked harder, and my breathing grew heavy. A wedge shaped piece came loose and I set it next to the hole. My placenta wasn’t that large, but I wanted a hole at least two feet deep.

I was alone under the weeping willow tree on top of the hill behind our house. My husband and I were living in upstate New York where five counties were named after the five tribes that made up the Iroquois Nation: the Onondaga, the Oneida, the Cayuga, the Mohawk and the Seneca. From where I stood  could see the rooftops of houses in the village and the cooling towers of a nuclear power plant on Lake Ontario—40 miles away. The earth rolled out flat like a great Persian carpet and stopped at the rocky shores of Lake Ontario. Our little hill was Just the beginning of a trend, a group of little hills that hung together as if they knew there was strength in numbers. They traveled south and grew with each mile into the Allegheny mountains of Pennsylvania.

I was often aware of how far our homestead was from the sea and its rhythmic pounding of the surf and the cyclic rise and fall of the tides that remind us of the presence of the moon. When you’re landlocked, you have to listen carefully to the pulse of the salty blood in your own veins to know how the cycles turn. Though identified as a Jew, I had felt a growing kinship with Native peoples since moving to this area. I had put dream catchers above both my babies’ cribs, and I celebrated Jewish holidays by first symbolically cleansing myself with smoke from a combination of lavender, sweet grass and sage. Somehow, standing at the top of the hill, shovel in hand, I felt quietly in touch with all of this.

My mother, who had had six children, never mentioned placentas to us when we were little. It was not the type of organ that got much discussion. We talked stomachs and hearts, lungs and sometimes kidneys. When I was pubescent my mother told me about uteruses, ovaries and fallopian tubes. Later, about breasts and prostates, as in cancer—but never placentas.

When I got pregnant myself, made an effort to learn about them. A placenta grows in a womb from the baby’s own cells and it attaches to the uterine wall, becoming an essential life-support. In terms of size alone, it is easily larger than any of the major organs except, perhaps, the liver. Like a waste-water treatment plant, the placenta acts as a sieve and filter for the fetus. It is essential; without it, a baby would die. Since, in biological terms, the placenta belongs to the baby, it seemed to me that it was the baby who was doing the initial work of connecting to the mother. That alone, I thought, made the placenta deserving of respect.

All of this was academic, though, when I actually saw my children’s placentas in their stainless steel delivery bowls. They were huge—they can be between six and 12 inches in diameter—and they looked like large slabs of seitan (a high protein, Firm-textured food derived from wheat gluten). A placenta, though, is only a temporary organ, and not only that, but a hidden, behind-the-scenes one. Even in feminist circles, it has not gotten much attention.

I missed the generation of feminist women who once gathered in living rooms, sat in circles, distributed mirrors and gazed with awe at the details of their pudenda. They wanted to know their bodies, love their bodies, celebrate the female body and wrest it away from critical judgments of “too fat,” “too thin,” “too unresponsive,” “too seductive.” These feminist inroads reverberated through my family, and although I missed the ramparts years, they informed my childbirth choices.

My first child, Anna, was born at home, but by the time I was pregnant with my second we had moved to upstate New York where home births are illegal. I met with my midwife in the birthing center in Ithaca—two hours from my home— once a month. She reviewed with me how I was supposed to take care of myself, and gave me a list of the things I needed to have on hand for the birth. I felt like a French voyageur getting ready to .explore inland rivers. Among my supplies was the stainless steel bowl for the placenta. Nobody told me I had to save my placenta and bury it. but I had done it before, I had read about other women who had. and while I was not sure exactly why I wanted to, I knew that I did.

Since the center was so far away, it required more planning on my part, including remembering to bring a cooler along so we could take the placenta home. It would keep until I was ready to bury it. I had a rebellious feeling knowing that my placenta sat in the freezer, frozen hard. Like receiving reparations from an offending government, I had something that was mine that many people thought I ought not to have. In any case. I moved it around for months as I rummaged through the freezer looking for corn tortillas, frozen spinach pies and tofu dogs.

After two months, I still had not buried it. The leaves were foreshadowing the six-month winter of central New York. I was still waiting for a reason to bury it. I assumed the Native American women before me had all buried their placentas, i imagined that it was a milestone for each woman, but what kind of milestone? I needed to wait until I understood what I was doing. I was burying what had been vital to my child. So how did that affect me?

I was three months postpartum when the autumn equinox neared and I was more rested. My newborn had learned the difference between night and day; our family routines had finally adapted to her presence and to the absence of our many visitors who had returned to their own homes. I felt more capable of taking over. I started to feel that the placenta represented all the help the baby had had thus far, I wanted to bury it as a demarcation between those lazy baby days of endless nursing, of endless hours of visiting and of the meals and laundry on the automatic pilot of friends and family who had helped to weave an invisible protective cocoon—a cocoon, it struck me, that was indeed also a ‘placenta’—from which the baby and I were now moving on. Family and friends were gone. I was supposed to resume my duties; return to work, make the meals and do the laundry.

Burying my placenta. I also started to think, would represent as well my promises to my daughter—though I knew that even as I made these promises, as I do during the Kol Nidre service on Yom Kippur, I would be anticipating breaking them and forgiving myself for doing so. May these vows not he vows. I vow to use cloth diapers—but I forgive myself if I don’t, I vow not to give her any solid food until at least six months—but maybe I will want a few extra hours of sleep at night. I needed to let go of the placenta and of the friends and family who had come to help and were now gone. By burying it. I was marking my own commitment to sustain and support my baby daughter, Maya,

Finally, one evening late in September, I pulled the cold, hard package from the freezer, grabbed a shovel and walked to the top of the hill. The old willow tree stood alone on the crest of the top terrace. I dug past the sod in the hard clay. The ground did not give way easily and I was glad. I wanted and needed some of my muscle groups to work, to feel in my body the significance of this new beginning.

The last time my muscles had worked so hard was to bring the baby into this world, and digging felt like an acknowledgment of that, a way to bring this time of my life to a close. Another wedge of moist, gray clay came loose and I laid it on the pile next to the hole. I was not as strong as I thought; still postpartum, I tired easily. As I dug the clay out of the deepening hole, I sensed the presence of Native American women before me. Perhaps they had stood on this same hill; surely we had all participated in this solitary act with the selfsame heart.

When the hole looked right, I leaned the shovel against the tree and gathered my thoughts: Maya made the first connection to me. This placenta is hers; she generated it from her own cells. It is my turn to make the second connection to her, a kapparah of solidarity with the Jewish spiritual season that I also felt stirring in the autumn air. a whiff of promises and reconnections and fresh beginnings: This for that: for your offering, my offering

I placed the placenta in my two foot hole and covered with soil. And then i prayed:

I agree to be your mother: After I give you all that I agree to be your mother After I give you all that I can. and you walk away to claim your own homeland, may you always, through you. Amen

Catherine Grossman lives with her husband and two children, Anna and Maya, in West Lafayette, Indiana, where she is a member of the Women’s Creative Writing Group.