Published on October 2nd, 2013 | by Sarah Maria Medina2
SARAH MARIA MEDINA Wants Her Magical Placenta Pills Back
It has been so rainy, indefinitely rainy, since the hurricanes have begun passing through our mountain town that I often find myself wishing I still had a stash of my placenta pills. Those small little pills had scooped me back up from the faltering downward slide of hormonal postpartum tears in the weeks following the birth of my daughter. Now, I wonder why I didn’t know I could also have had a homeopathic mother tincture made from my placenta, in addition to the pills. Maybe I had simply overlooked this important detail when I was making plans for my afterbirth. If I had known how genius it could have been, I would have knocked back the bottle the required hundred times. I would have remixed myself tincture drops during hurricane season, when the light falters just enough that people with Caribbean ancestry like myself often hear the Blues sisters singing.
Summertime, I would see pictures of friends and notifications on my news feed about their activities in New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle. They were swimming at the lake, and beaming Instagram faces while wearing new bikinis. Their kids slept outdoors beneath the Milky Way stars. Meanwhile, I was buying new gumboots, and troubleshooting the leaks in my rented old Mexican house. My bed is now in the middle of the room, between two buckets to catch the drips. It kind of makes a Zen-like sound, if I can just get into it. The rain keeps coming, and I find myself craving those magical little pills. Wondering, where can I get some more?
Chinese Medicine has been using the placenta to support mothers during postpartum for thousands of years. The fancy term is placentophagy, which is the consumption of the placenta. The placenta consists of amino acids, proteins, hormones, and high levels of vitamin B, among other important nutrients. The traditional Chinese method of preparing the placenta involves steaming it with fresh ginger, hot green pepper, and lemon. Later, it is baked for many hours at a low temperature until it is dried. Then it is ground, encapsulated, and blessed. My own pills were kept inside a small mason jar, sometimes placed by my bedside, sometimes on the kitchen counter by an old chipped Chinese tea pot with the scene of a house, and pine trees. And a small moon.
My pregnancy was during a vivid winter. A great snow fall. Loneliness became my sanctuary. I often talked to my baby about what our lives together would be like, how I wanted her to play in the snow one day, to catch snow flakes. I spent a lot of time swimming laps at the local indoor pool, and reading stacks of books from the library. I would even rent old movies from their shelves. When I went to my midwifery appointments, I was immersed in wintertime.
In my midwife’s house with the windows that looked out to tall snow covered trees, she talked with me about being a single mother. My lover at the time was in Havana, but we knew he would not be there for the birth. She encouraged me to make a postpartum plan. She said I would need to have someone stay with me after the birth. She leaned back in her high backed chair across from me, the bookshelf behind her filled with books on birthing and children. An electric tea kettle was placed next to the shelf, with a selection of teas.
I listened to her, rebraiding my hair to give my hands something to do. I was taken aback. I had imagined it would just be me and my daughter in our small cabin, once spring finally arrived. I kind of begrudgingly began to piece together a plan, which was interrupting my dreamy version of what I thought my recovery would look like: my baby, me with slightly tired eyes, but extremely, beamingly happy. It was like that, but also really emotional, and really tired eyes. Black, half-moon tired.
After the snowfall, I flew back to Havana for a few weeks. When I returned, I met another midwife who was into herbs, and spiritual midwifery. She had a smile that made me feel I would be supported through my pregnancy. A traditional midwife, she had been friends with Ina May. The trees in her yard were witchy, in a good way. Strangely, she lived on the same road that I had grown up on as a child. Every week leading up to my birth, I would make the long drive out to her house, and back, crossing a floating bridge with the salt tide running beneath it. There were owls and coyotes, different nights, heard from my cabin.
After a five day labor, my daughter was born. I was really determined not to have any interventions, and really lucky that my midwife and care providers trusted in my process, in my ability to birth her naturally. Part of my birth was spent in this lonely antique hotel, built by a sea captain waiting for his fiancée who never came. By the time my daughter finally did come, I was euphoric that she was in my arms. Then I took her back to the forest, where I had originally planned to birth her.
Back in the cabin, my mother slept on the extra bed. Her braided long blond hair had turned silver. The wood stove kept the cabin heated. During the day, my mother cooked for me, and I stayed in bed with my daughter. A quilt given by my friend Nann covered us. After the first days of pure bliss, I began to notice my body had this incredible ache, as though I had just done a triathlon. I was really hurting. We had a difficult time with the latch. This all exhausted me. And I felt extreme love for my baby whose tiny bottom fit into the palm of my hand like a teacup. When my placenta pills finally arrived, I took them immediately. Then, I felt this lift. I felt better. I felt like I was going to be great. That everything was harmonizing, and that maybe I could finally decide on a name for my daughter.
Every day, I would take a few more pills. Outside the window of my bed, there was a bright red holly hock tree. I slept as often as I could, my baby next to me in our bed. One early daybreak, I asked my mother for my usual dose of the little black pills. She had to break it to me: I had finished them all. I was really upset. I mean, like jonseing for them. They were what had made everything good! How could they be gone? It was a weak moment, as I lay there in bed, my hair unbrushed, an untouched book that I kept thinking I would get to read. Really? Gone. The pills had seemed to make everything alright, until I ran out. As the sun began to fight the darkness, I sulked.Then I noticed a difference. It wasn’t like before. They had gotten me through the worst of the aches and pains. That is how magical and essential to our well being our placentas are.
After a time, I left the cabin in the forest, and moved to Mexico with my daughter. Periodically, we fly home to spend time with our family. Our last trip, I decided to take a placenta encapsulation class in Seattle, offered by a woman with long dreads who has been a doula for many years. The placenta pills had been so necessary to my own recovery, I wanted to be able to prepare them for other moms. There, I met a mother who had suffered from disabling postpartum depression. The story went that she had not kept her own placenta, but one was later donated to her from within the birthing community. She said that once she took the pills, they were able to help her finally move out of the all encompassing depression she had experienced.
Although placenta encapsulation has been used for generations, it is only now being studied within the occidental medical field. What we know about its benefits is mostly gathered from what moms report back about their experiences: they notice an immediate change in their sense of well being, it helps with lactation, and increases energy. Homeopathic tinctures, placenta humanum, are used to support newborn immune systems. Some women save their pills for menopause, because it helps balance hormone levels. And it is used to induce labor. The placenta can be cooked, or consumed raw in a smoothie shake. For me, though, there was something specific to having them as pills. They were tiny, in the palm of my hand. My little saviors swallowed with a glass of water in the early morning, during a time I was surviving on very few hours of sleep.
Today, my daughter was spinning circles inside the house, as the rain came. We poured over books, and I drank coffee. It’s that kind of Seattle-gray melancholia I knew well in my twenties. When the rain paused, we gathered ourselves, slipped into our gumboots and sweaters, layered on our jackets (hers with the fake fur hood, which she said makes her look like a wolf, followed by wolf howls) and fled to the puddled streets. We stopped in at the local health food store, and I took a moment to comment on the rain, still feeling the heavy pull of the gray skies. The man who sold me the goods replied that the rain “es una bendición.” A blessing. I refrained myself from complaining further about the depressing lack of sunlight. Secretly, I knew he was right. There are farming communities throughout these mountains who depend on the rain. They work hard, and we are filled by the seeds planted before the rain begins.
After saying goodbye, we found our way back out beneath a sky that was barely holding back. We walked down the stone street that leads to the stairs of Guadalupe church, which sits on a hill. My daughter suggested we walk to the end so we could climb the seventy steps. We let our boots trod along the wet ancient sidewalks, raised above the streets that become rivers. And then the sky shouted. Before we could reach the stairs it had begun to rain. We turned around, and following a random urge, crossed the street. A Mexican woman in her seventies was standing at the wrought iron gate of her house. There was a handwritten chalk board, which advertised odd pieces of furniture. We needed a kitchen table, and she had a small wooden table in her foire.
We stepped inside the old colonial house to the loud noise of squawking parrots. There were hundreds of potted plants inside. I decided to buy the table, and my daughter made friends with the two bright colored parrots, who immediately began intoning, introducing their names to her. She was amazed. She began speaking with them in Spanish, and they began dancing for her. The rain continued to pour. We lingered, talking with the woman who was once a nurse, but now works from her home selling plants: green tropical mountain flowers. She said she has been trying to rid herself of clutter. I imagined that she was widowed in her big elegant house, that all of her pieces of furniture had begun to overwhelm her. The rain still wetting the earth, my daughter made her goodbyes to the magical talking parrots. I hailed a taxi, and we climbed inside. Both rain soaked, the table hanging precariously from the trunk of the taxi, I realized that my melancholia had been lifted. Not by the small placenta pills I had been craving earlier in the morning, which I would still readily take if they were offered to me. Rather, my spirits had been raised by the rain itself, and a chance encounter with a woman who grows tropical plants and her talking green birds.