The 1st pill:
Lena’s body curls against Jason’s chest. She looks less like the chubby, wrinkled baby I pictured when I was pregnant and more like a grocery store rotisserie chicken, legs and arms held tight to her body, skin golden. She squawks and bobs her head in search of the dark target of my areola, but there’s only Jason’s chest hair to greet her. My breasts leak. I move the breakfast tray off the bed and onto the nightstand, unsnap my nursing tank, and reach for her.
“Take your pills first,” Jason says, holding onto Lena. He points to three pills on the tray, clear capsules filled with my pulverized placenta. I roll my eyes at him but pop the pills anyway. I swallow them with a swig of water, expecting sweetness on my tongue because the powder looks deceptively like brown sugar, but they’re tasteless. A flash of myself as a zombie, pale and crouching over another me, pops into my head. Zombie Me’s hands are bloodied, mouth full of Other Me’s flesh and meat.
Jason hands me Lena and says, “You have to take three of these, twice a day for two weeks and then you drop down to one or two a day after that.”
When I first saw the placenta in the delivery room I gagged, bursting the bubble of joy to be holding my baby outside of my body. My midwife — I love her, but she is a long-dreaded, tie-dye and floral maxi skirts hippie type ― asked, “Are you ready to see your tree of life?” She held up a silver bowl with a flattened blood-soaked hunk of roadkill. She pointed out its network of branch-like vessels, but I kept staring at the umbilical cord slithering around the placenta like an albino snake. I shuddered. The miracle of life was a horror show.
It was Jason’s idea to do placenta encapsulation after our doula suggested it when we were writing our birth plan. I joked, “It’s ’cause you used to date all them crunchy white girls.” But I trusted him. He was the family researcher, he spent hours figuring out vacation destinations, which neighborhood we should live in, best hospitals to give birth in NYC, and even changed to loose boxers once he read how they could boost sperm production. When he told me the pills could help milk production and keep postpartum hormones in check, I was in. Still, the idea of it was repulsive. I tried to read about the encapsulation process but stopped when I saw the words “placenta jerky,” not wanting to see my bloody baby house every time I snapped into a Slim Jim. Luckily, Jason handled everything, whisking the placenta out of the delivery room in a Styrofoam cooler like it was an organ for transplant. Last night, while Lena and I slept, the placenta lady delivered 186 pills in a blue container with a handwritten label, “handmade with love” to our apartment. Strange to not have met the woman so intimately involved with a piece of my body. I imagine her as a witch in a midnight cloak, whisking out of our apartment on a broomstick and off to the next crunchy Brooklyn family.
We argue about posting a video of Lena’s first bath on social media. Lena’s asleep, so we stand in the kitchen, whisper-yelling at each other. I say, “Some things need to stay private.” He says, “It’s just a cute thing to share with friends and family, her privates won’t even be in the video. Why are you suddenly so uptight about social media?” His whispers sound like booms. The volume of everything dials up: Lena’s sighs from behind our closed bedroom door, cars stopping at the red light outside. Our upstairs neighbors are listening to jazz, the downstairs neighbors are watching the news, that anchor sounds familiar. The sounds jumble into an avalanche of noise. Jason’s voice is car honks. Lena’s sighs are quick bursts of a jazz trumpet. I sit on the couch to rub my temples. Must be sleep deprivation.
“Are you ok?” Jason asks.
“I’m fine, just tired. Too tired to argue,” I say. To myself I whisper, “Nothing’s wrong, nothing’s wrong. Everything’s ok.” The words melt into the noise. Nothing’s news. Everything’s jazz.
The noise machine in our bedroom is a beating heart to mimic what babies hear in the womb, loud but soothing. I fall asleep inside a heart. It’s a hot bath that doesn’t grow cold, with candlelight and a glass of wine. When the heart contracts, my body is squeezed like I’m wrapped in a giant blood pressure cuff. When the blood pumps out of the heart I’m the whoosh of being shot out of a rocket. I sleep like I haven’t in months. Jason wakes me when Lena cries for milk.
Jason’s back at work and I’m alone with Lena. We camp out on the couch all day, curled into each other. I memorize every spot on her body, a splotch of darker skin on her inner right thigh, the blue-gray Mongolian spot on her lower back. She clings to my breasts, wanting to nurse non-stop, crying every time I unlatch. I’m broken-record-mom, repeating, “Don’t cry, my love” and “Shh, it’s okay,” singing “twinkle, twinkle little star” and “you are my sunshine, my only sunshine.” At one point, milk flows too fast, Lena unlatches to cough, and gets squirted in an eye and in her hair. She screams in a cry I don’t yet understand. I don’t know what to do. I have to pee. I’m hungry. My phone—the only outside world connection—is on the kitchen counter but I know she’ll scream louder if I try to get up. I lay my head back and cry with her. I don’t want to be this sleep deprived thing sinking into a swampy mix of no sleep, hormones, milk, and obsessive love.
A noise interrupts our crying. It takes a minute for me to understand that it’s a muffled voice. I can’t make out what the voice is saying.
“Just a minute,” I yell at the door.
I stand with the breastfeeding pillow still clipped to my waist, holding it and Lena. I look in the peephole but no one’s there. Maybe it was the delivery guy with the diapers? When I open the door, there’s nothing outside besides our welcome mat. Cool air hits me, I opened the door with my boob exposed, dripping milk. I sit back on the couch and put Lena back to my breast, this time the milk isn’t forceful, and she suckles until she falls asleep. I hear the voice again, like I’m eavesdropping on a conversation with a glass pressed to the wall. Other moms had warned me about losing it postpartum, that the mood swings might be even worse than during pregnancy, but I wasn’t prepared for this. Were the pills even working? The voice becomes soothing white noise and I sleep when my baby sleeps.
The muffled voice talks at the front door again. Talks when I’m on the toilet. Talks during early morning nursing sessions. No one else hears it. Sometimes Jason finds me standing in a room, listening. One day, a shift, the noise was a blurry black spot and click, click, click, the voice is suddenly an A.
“Mama loves you,” the voice says.
I look around the empty room. Again, “Mama loves you.” I recognize the voice. It’s a voice I normally cringe at but this time it’s different, pleasing. “Mama loves you.” It’s my recorded voice. “Mama loves you.” It’s me. It’s what I said to Lena while she was growing inside me. The voice of pregnancy past, frozen in the time capsule of my placenta. The me Lena heard through layers of skin, fat, muscle, the jostling of fluids backed up by my heartbeat and other rumbling organs. The me-in-the-placenta repeats herself and the love I shared with my unborn child is a hum in my body, every nerve ending buzzes with electricity.
I said I love you out loud to her when she kicked me for the first time at 16 weeks pregnant. Before that moment, pregnancy had been a body-snatching alien, sapping my energy, sickening me. I wasn’t connected to the baby growing inside me but to the idea of a baby. Then she started poking me, kicking me, and keeping me up at night. I responded in kind with “Mama loves you,” singing lullabies, and telling her my hopes and dreams for her. On the day she was born, the first thing I said to her after my midwife placed her on my chest, knees still pushed up to my ears, was, “Hi baby, Mama loves you” Wet and wailing, she looked for the sound of my voice.
Possible side effects of placenta pills: jitters, hot flashes, anxiety, bleeding, and bubble guts. I read a CDC warning about bacteria, mercury, or lead in the placenta. WebMD doesn’t have anything about experiencing your daughter’s time in utero. Did the placenta lady lace my pills with something stronger? Is that why she came so highly recommended? The pills did feel like a composite of some other drugs I tried in the past: the love burst and need for touch of ecstasy; the hallucinations, awe, and wonder of shrooms; the body relaxation on marijuana; but add in the emotional high of an orgasm with the confidence of a day when you have on an amazing outfit and feel like the most beautiful person in the world.
I want to know if the pills will work on someone else, so I slip two pills into Jason’s smoothie and wait. The next morning his chin pimple is gone.
Lena and I have our routine down now. We are blobs of color bouncing and dancing in a lava lamp. We are in space, weightless, floating, floating up. We are white light and double rainbows. When I watch her drink from my body I wonder if this is how the universe began.
If someone shined a light on my skin, they’d see colors from the veins, guts, and bones of me. I am so bright. “This motherhood thing looks good on you,” Jason says to me in bed.
We oversleep so I get to Lena’s pediatrician’s office 10 minutes late wearing leggings and a ratty t-shirt with a stretched-out collar. As usual, Lena is dressed better than me in a yellow sundress and matching hat. I snap at least ten photos of her while we sit in the waiting room, then remember that in my frantic race to get going, I forgot my pill. As I walk to the water cooler, I notice all the other moms look like they showered, applied lotion, and brushed or combed their hair. One even has on bright red lipstick. I wonder if they have little helpers to get them through the day: A pill, a drink, a nanny…something?
32 pills left. Back to work soon. I browse online mommy groups, thinking about hitting up another mama for her placenta pills. No, I can’t do that. This isn’t like using someone else’s prescription meds, more like taking communion.
A woman tries to get on the train while I’m getting off and plows right into me. I start crying. My right breast leaks through my blouse because I forgot to put a breast pad in. One pill isn’t enough for today, the first day away from Lena since she was born eight weeks ago. I take two more pills from my purse, swallow them dry, and wait to float above the other straphangers, to drown their chatter with my voice. At my desk, the state of my email inbox is overwhelming. I scroll through pictures of her on my phone instead, her gummy smile in a “Mommy Loves Me” onesie, her milk drunk at my breast, one hand curled around my boob, the other still clinging onto a patch of curly hair. Being her mother has taught me there are more ways to experience hunger than I knew. My colleagues ask, “Can I see pics of the baby?” “Who’s the baby with?” or “Wow! You look great!” “Do you miss her?” I take two more pills.
I save the last pill for Sunday because Jason’s going to hang with his boys. I want to be alone with Lena to experience the me stitched into my placenta for the last time. My body already misses being wrapped in a cocoon.
I’ve been consumed by a black hole. There’s no light here. My skin is gray. The lines on my stomach are grayer. My hair is falling out. Everyone keeps calling me Lena’s Mom but that’s not my name. I’m a bad mother for working and leaving her in the care of strangers. Strangers eye me when I breastfeed in public. I have so many clogged ducts from pumping at work. Everything will kill my sweet baby girl, the rising oceans, GMOs, the flu, peanuts. Why did we bring a child into this messed up world? According to my online mom friends, this is modern motherhood. I don’t understand how humans, how mothers have survived for generations. Jason wants me to see my doctor. He’s been talking about postpartum depression like he’s memorized bullet points from Wikipedia. I don’t tell him what I’m missing, that I know what would fix me.
Lena says “mewkeys” or taps her chubby fingers together to make the sign for more. She doesn’t like sharing my breasts with Cora. She’s more than twice her baby sister’s size and often tries to push her away. I now nurse with a pillow on my lap between them. I never thought I’d be nursing two at once. Jason and I had always talked about a two to three-year age gap between kids. But like he said, motherhood looks good on me. Who was I to deny this gift, made from love with my children? It reshaped me, wrapped me in a veil, and made the everyday darkness of the world fuzzy. The second time around, when my midwife showed me the placenta—my body, my blood—it was pleasing to my eyes. I saw that it was for good. I took from it, I ate it, and I was opened.