I’m having one of those weeks where every new fact I learn about female embodiment, sex and reproduction blows my mind. If I had known this stuff as I came of age or when I became a mother, my attitude toward my body and birth would have been so different. The books we read (do you remember the classic What to Expect When You’re Expecting?) didn’t clue me in to the infinite, ingenious things that our bodies do without us even being aware of it.
Did you know, for example, that when a child nurses receptors in the mother’s nipples “read” the saliva in the infant’s mouth, and the milk self-modulates to adapt to the child’s nourishment needs? Or that suckling on a flexible, natural nipple aids optimal dental and structural jaw development?
Here’s another one: the miracle of the placenta.
Tell me, if you have had children or witnessed a birth, did you ever get a close look at the placenta? Even after birthing four children in the 80s and 90s (3 in the hospital and one at home), I never saw the placenta. In the hospital births, it was whisked away as medical waste, along with paper draping and those absorbent disposable sheets soaked in blood and mucous, and in the home birth, I was in a full on ecstatic, orgasmic haze and don’t remember ever having that conversation. It just wasn’t a thing. As I’ve learned more about female embodiment and the cycles of life, I wish that had gone down differently. And by the way, that’s changed: today, even western woman having a hospital birth can ask for the placenta to be preserved, and bring it home with here to conduct a placenta ritual (or even eat it.)
What is the the placenta, anyway?
The placenta is a disc-shaped organ that attaches to the top of the uterus and then to the baby through the umbilical cord. It’s the body’s only temporary organ: it co-arises with an embryo, and is pushed out of the body right after the baby, when it’s no longer needed. Sometimes it’s just simply called the afterbirth. The placenta “brokers the sharing of resources between mother and fetus, maintains the uterine environment, filters out toxins, and disposes of waste”. Today, many birth professionals advocate allowing the infant to stay connected to the birthed placenta for about 6 hours after birth, so that the exchange of nutrients and waste can complete its cycle before the umbilical cord is finally cut.
The Original Tree of Life
If you look at the placenta, it’s very beautiful, with the veins echoing the branching patterning in all of nature, forming the trunk and branches of the tree of life, and it appears as a fractal of all the root systems in nature. In many sacred women’s traditions, it’s called the original tree of life.
It’s part of the mother, part of the child and part of the mystery, and in many cultures around the world, it is treated with respect (and, in some cases superstition).
Placental Rituals: an honoring of the land we are born from.
As part of a larger exploration of ways women around the world stay connected to the web of life through their bodies, I looked at what land-based and indigenous cultures do with the placenta, and what it was meant to connote. A 2010 study by medical anthropologists Daniel Benyshek and Sharon Young of University of Nevada found that out of 179 land-based or indigenous cultures, 109 had rituals around the placenta- and that there were 169 ways it was handled, including “burial, incineration, intentional placement in a specific location, or hanging in a tree or structure.” The most common method was to bury it under a tree, or to plant it under a new tree. This mineral-rich organ feeds the tree’s roots.
The ritual of rerunning the placenta to the earth is a gesture of acknowledgement: giving back to the earth what came from it, giving thanks for the sun, soil and water that grew the plants, that formed the food that fed the mother, that fed the child as it grew inside of her. In the Australian Aboriginal language, the word for placenta is the same as the world for land.
In many burial rituals, the tree is also seen both a protector of the child, and also a marker of time passing, a growing version of marking the door jamb with a child’s height. Other placenta rituals (including in the west) include placentophagy- where the mother eats the placenta after giving birth to boost milk supply and her mood.
Female Embodiment Rituals
While these particular rituals aren’t for everyone, they are an invitation to consider the lack of many kinds of ritual practice for female embodiment in the west that are present elsewhere. Other cultures have ceremonies around the first period, and many have blessingways for becoming a mother. Many have moon cycle rituals to help remember how our bodies are earth itself, and to help us enter into more regular acknowledgment of that reality.
Ritual can help us become more intimate with our embodiment, feel ourselves more, and awaken us to our utter dependence on the planet, and ultimately, our love of it. Our love of ourselves as part of the planet.
And it raises another, deeper question….Do you want to cancel your biology, or work with it? Recently I saw a dozen headlines in short order that all spoke to female embodiment effectively as if it were a problem- a block to good capitalism. Headlines such as “the high cost of menopause in the workplace”, or articles on the annoyance of having to plan having a baby in your most fertile years when you should be working on your career… you know.
I believe that, as a culture, when we move into a new way of thinking about our bodies across the lifecycle, we will change the way we design work to be less linear. All genders will thrive, and we will all be in a more whole and complete expression of our unique life force.
Wishing you well, and wishing you a daily remembering that your body is an ingenious miracle.
Founder, Rosebud Woman