The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2022

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FEB 2022 Issue

Placenta in my Freezer: A New Mother’s Unexpected Case for Craft

Photo: Mayur Deshmukh.
Photo: Mayur Deshmukh.

My placenta has been in the freezer for seven months. And with that, I wanted to honor the life it gave to my baby. It miraculously grew itself, nourished a whole life for 41 weeks and a day, and is so often relegated to "afterbirth," discarded and forgotten.

Some folx encapsulate it and digest it. And perhaps, if I have another baby, I will do this. Theoretically, it has properties to help with hormone changes sweeping some of us into a postpartum disorder (depression, anxiety, psychosis).

Some make art or jewelry with it.

Some bury it.

I thought the idea of it decomposing in the earth under a tree my husband and I planted for our son before he was born would be poetic in some way. But, it's still on the top shelf of our freezer door in a Ziploc bag. Frankly, it’s unpoetic. Pretty much a bag of gross. Looking supremely akin to the Thanksgiving turkey innards forgotten in the back of the fridge.

I can't bring myself to just throw out my placenta.

Let me take you back. In August of 2020, I learned I was pregnant. My partner and I had just arrived in Atlanta, from Brooklyn, for my new job as a theater professor. It’s always been my dream to have a family and a theater career at the same time. As impossible as that often felt, it finally happened.

Fast forward to 41 weeks, one day, and 62 hours into prodromal labor. I had not slept for three days, and was worried for this baby's health and safety. Our doula came over to help us with some positioning work, suspecting the baby's head was lodged in my pelvis. My devoted husband stood behind me lifting my uterus up and in as I tucked my pelvis. Every contraction. 10 times. Pain: 15 on a scale of 1 to 10. But then I started to progress, and two minutes later, while I was peeing, my water broke. We called our midwife and said, “We'll meet you at the birth center.” I gave birth to my son an hour and a half later.

I teach Acting at a Bachelor of Arts (BA) theater program, and also an alum from one of our country's most prestigious acting MFA programs that recently closed its training doors. As a result, I am thrust into deep rumination on the value of actor training. With our theaters struggling to survive and so many jobs lost in the pandemic, I often find myself thinking, “why on earth should anyone go to school for this?”

The day I returned to the classroom from unpaid maternity leave, a student in my Actor’s Voice class shyly asked me, “Did you have a natural birth?” I was arrested by her perception. She inadvertently named something I didn’t know I needed to be seen. Her question coalesced an axis I didn’t know existed. The next time I opened my freezer and saw my placenta I had a chilling thought: my actor training prepared me for childbirth.

As many of us do, I became a scholar on birth as a second full-time job. I couldn’t research or read enough. When I was pregnant, I began reading the esteemed midwife Ina May Gaskin's books. She includes birth stories told by the women she aided in giving birth. The stories shared are authentically expressed and visceral. I'm not acquainted with a piece of theater that is akin to The Vagina Monologues in the form of birth stories, but I’d watch it. In digesting these stories, I felt a part of that collective. Community washed over me in a way that I have only experienced in my theater life.

If I were to characterize childbirth as an art form, I would call it theater. It is a story—the embodiment of collective support. A friend of my husband said to him, “Get ready for the best show you've ever seen.” I can only imagine what it would've been to behold, having never been in a birthing room myself before this experience.

Indeed, childbirth was the coherence of all my actor training: connecting to sensation in my body and breath; committing to presence; imagined collaboration in drama. The cast and crew were my baby, partner, doula, midwife, and nurses. It was all theater.

Photo: Mayur Deshmukh.
Photo: Mayur Deshmukh.

On the way to the birthing center, I entered a different reality of so-called “laborland.” Body hijacking thoughts, I began moaning through contractions, feeling, and channeling wild animals. I was a wild horse, mama bear, and lioness during birth. The bucking and pushing; digging and roaring—keeping me in and propelling through the most intense physical experience of my life. So much of that imagination and ability to connect to something outside of myself comes from my actor training.

In our childbirth classes, we talked about breathwork during contractions. I roared my son into this world. My voice teacher emphasized a guiding principle of embodiment: “I am my body/I am not my body.” I don't know how to describe the experience of my voice being my pelvic floor—my voice being my feet and cervix, being the push, the stretch, the contraction. During childbirth, I did not have a body: I was my body.

That revelation was short-lived. My baby had to spend time in the NICU following birth. I'd take contraction pain a thousand times over this kind of hurting. His breathing was fast, and I was a group B strep carrier (a bacteria that can transmit to the baby in the birth canal). Although I was administered the routine antibiotics for this, it was not in the recommended amount of time pre-birth, so he needed extra care. That is a part of the drama. And a plot point I get caught on often in my postpartum anxiety. It was drama and trauma.

He's healthy, and we're so grateful.

Being postpartum in a pandemic can be a solitary experience, and I spiraled down intrusive thoughts and hormone hurricanes, overcome by fear. In service to anybody who needs to hear it, I was told there are three circles of perinatal care: self-care, social connections, and clinical support. Postpartum health is barely a blip on new-parenting roadmaps. I count myself lucky I got help when I did. Riding waves of emotions is familiar actor territory, and I wonder if it’s partially why I identified what I was feeling was not in the range of purported “normal.”

The late and beloved conservatory director at American Conservatory Theater, Melissa Smith, once addressed our cohort about the rigors of training by saying, “We want your blood.” Certainly, my time in grad school was a tremendous commitment of blood, sweat and tears. As many are, I was willing to use myself in extremes and work harder than I ever have because I love what I do.

I love my baby. I loved him when he was the faint whisper: “I’m coming.” I loved him when he was rolling and kicking, pressing alien footprints into my belly. I loved him through childbirth and newborn wilderness. I love him more and more every day. I look at my frozen placenta and through the blood, sinews, and mess, I see beauty, ephemera, and craft. I see a literal labor of love.

If I were to characterize theater as an organ, it’s the placenta. Designed to be finite. Theater at its best. It served its purpose. It will be released. And I get to move onto new and different kinds of love as a mother.

I didn’t know I would be writing a love letter to actor training. Sure, I hope some of my students go on to pursue work in theater, and it is laughable to think one would spend years, effort, and money studying acting to give birth or likewise that you need actor training to give birth. But I guess my takeaway is this: the application of the craft is wide-reaching, often surprising, and (I suspect) lifelong.


Emily Kitchens

Emily Kitchens (she/her) is a professional theater artist based out of New York City and Atlanta. She is currently assistant professor of acting and artist-in-residence at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. She is mother to Ramrao.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2022

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