The Unexpected

Mia Brownell, Still Life With Cell Signal, 2010. Courtesy the artist and J. Cacciola Gallery.

After Birth

A home birth begets a crash course in DIY medical waste disposal.

I planned to give birth to my second son at home in Oakland, and I did. Everything went smoothly. He was perfect.

In a matter of hours, the bed sheets had been changed and the baby was asleep on my chest. “What would you like to do with the placenta?” the midwife asked.

“You can take it,” I said, staring at my son’s perfect, perfect face.

“Oh, no, it’s yours,” she said.

How, in our many months of preparation, had we somehow neglected to discuss the matter of the placenta? The midwife explained that it would be unwise to throw it in the garbage—raccoons—and just as unwise to bury it in the garden. Raccoons again. Go up into the hills, she advised. Dig a deep, deep hole. Bury it there.

Hiking wasn’t in my near future. So, into the freezer the placenta went.

A few days later my boyfriend called our health care provider to schedule the circumcision and was told it would put us out $1,700. We gasped. We had no choice. Well, we had a choice. We could leave the baby’s foreskin intact. But a younger son with it and an older son without?

We hired a reputable mohel for $300. He arrived with a leather satchel. We said, “Please, no prayers. No Hebrew name. Nothing. Just the snip.”

He ignored us and began to pray. How could we argue? He was holding scissors very, very close to our second son’s penis. The baby was circumcised in the kitchen, about 40 feet from where he was born.

The foreskin seemed easy to dispose of. The placenta, on the other hand, was double-Ziploc bagged and looked like a Costco-sized steak coated in freezer frost.

Into the freezer the foreskin went.

Eight months later, I was staring down the barrel of a to-do list 30 items deep. We were moving to Napa the following day. I had to get cash for the movers. Pack the hose. Do something with the placenta and the foreskin.

The foreskin seemed easy to dispose of. It was small and wrapped inoffensively in white gauze. The placenta, on the other hand, was double-Ziploc bagged and looked like a Costco-sized steak coated in freezer frost. There was no way I was hiking into the hills, alone, to bury the placenta in a deep, deep hole with the to-do list tying a tighter and tighter knot around my esophagus.

I put the placenta and foreskin into a tote bag and drove to the Berkeley marina.

It was a classic how-did-I-end-up-here moment. I hadn’t always wanted children. Now I had two. I was born in a hospital and raised on a respectable suburban diet of Taco Bell and no religion. But my second son was born at home like a pioneer baby and circumcised in my kitchen by a real Jew, unlike me.

We had chosen to have the baby at home for a number of reasons, but none were radical. I simply wanted to be left alone. I wanted to be left alone to be the animal I am and have my baby.

There was no spiritual aspect to the birth. No chants. No burning sage. No pulsating umbilical cord. Like many people who are raised without ritual, I both mocked and craved it. Who needs it? Who wanders lost and cold without it?

It was the end of a heat wave, and the San Francisco Bay was choppy and unsettled and every shade of gray. The night before a strong wind had ushered in the fog to cool everything the hell down. The fog had burned off, but the wind remained.

The marina is a sketchy place where people go to sit in their cars with the windows rolled up, smoke, and get into long fights with relatives on their phones. I sat in my car, opened the freezer bags, and pulled loose the plastic that was stuck to the frozen placenta. I wanted to make sure that the organ would slide out easily.

I found as private of a spot as I could, opened my bag, and dropped the placenta and the gauze-wrapped foreskin into the bay.

My plan had been to walk the full 3,000 feet to the end of the pier and dump the placenta into the deepest part of the bay accessible to someone not on a boat. But of course, that Tuesday morning there were hordes of fishermen waiting patiently for flounder to bite. Many of them were accompanied by elderly relatives dozing in folding chairs. The end of the pier was no longer an option.

So I found as private of a spot as I could, opened my bag, and dropped the placenta and the gauze-wrapped foreskin into the bay.

Then the unbelievable happened: The placenta floated.

I stared at my medical waste bobbing below me, umbilical cord unraveling and frozen blood bleeding off, in plain sight of every fisherman in Berkeley and their mothers—literally. The foreskin bobbed faithfully alongside it, Sancho-style.

I looked around wildly to see who had seen. I prayed a shark would take care of the problem. But then I prayed that a shark would not take care of the problem. Would you want to see a fish with tooth-like scales devouring your defrosting placenta and your son’s dried foreskin? Would you want to see what had once been a part of you being eaten?

I ran. Or rather I walked away very, very quickly. I shoved the bloody freezer bags into the municipal garbage.

Back in the marina parking lot I felt a little sick. Here was yet another occasion in my life where I could have marked the passing of something. The placenta and its small friend could be seen as symbols of what I would never be again. I had no intention of being pregnant again. I would never again hold my own newborn. I could have acknowledged this with a simple thought and released the afterbirth into a properly dug hole in the hills and let my thoughts rest with it. That’s what someone ritually inclined would have done.

But I dumped them in the bay and ran like a godless criminal.

For the rest of the afternoon, between packing boxes and nursing the baby, I anxiously refreshed the local news sites to see if a story about a traumatized fisherman appeared. None did. Either the sharks got to the placenta or it uneventfully floated out to sea.

It seemed in that regard, I was off the hook.