by MELISSA HUTTON
dir. Mia Wasikowska
Mia Wasikowska’s short film Afterbirth begins with a single woman and her bare shoulders in a bathtub filled with blood. A crying newborn is taken away just as soon as he is brought to her chest. She sits. She slides beneath the blood-water surface. What follows is Wasikowska’s quiet and sensory study on both maternal and self-love.
Igor Charkowsky, midwife and swimming instructor, had been experimenting with water births in Russia since the 1960s. It wasn’t until the 1980s that they came into widespread practice in the U.S., U.K. and Australia. After visiting and observing Charkowsky in practice, midwife Susanna Napierala writes in her book, Water Birth: A Midwife’s Perspective, “Charkowsky likens an ‘air’ birth to someone freefalling and then colliding with the solid ground.” Charkowksy considers the immense pressure and force of gravity on a newborn as she’s pushed out of her liquid environment and into the world. He encourages adults to relate to newborns on a deeper level; to understand that they feel everything because all they are is feeling. Charkowsky meditates on the sensitive, open nature of our biological and psychic energy fields at birth and during embodiment. Birth doesn’t have to be precious. Living is traumatic. It is a form of labor. Water can ease the difficulties of labor and serve as a gentle transition for both the parent and the newborn.
Slightly preceding the practice of water births in the U.S., Clair Lotus Day, a clairvoyant, nurse, and teacher in California, questioned the practice of cutting the umbilical cord. Although it seemed to distress most newborns, it remained a widespread standard. Letting the umbilical cord fall off on its own was something that had previously only been observed in chimpanzees by Jane Goodall. In 1974, Day got pregnant and planned for a lotus birth. Dr. Sarah J. Buckley defines it as, “the practice of leaving the umbilical cord uncut so that the baby remains attached to the placenta until the cord naturally separates at the navel—exactly as a cut cord does – at three to ten days after birth. This prolonged contact can be seen as a time of transition, allowing the baby to slowly and gently let go of the attachment to the mother’s body.” Day found an obstetrician sensitive to, although skeptical of, her desires and was able to bring her baby home, placenta intact. In a few days, the cord dried out and fell off on its own. Clair’s baby was lotus born. While every person is entitled to whatever birthing method makes her feel safe and happy, many accounts of lotus births advocate for the period of restful transition that the practice allows.
While Buckley emphasizes gentle detachment from the mother’s body in her definition of lotus birth, she doesn’t exactly emphasize the significance of the child’s attachment to the placenta itself. It is almost genetically identical to the newborn and sustains her life during gestation. The two and the mother can be considered a single unit with the placenta as an essential, external organ. Considering the placenta not an anatomical waste but as much a part of the baby as the heart or lungs can make cutting the umbilical cord prematurely seem unwarranted and cruel. The only difference is that once out of the womb, the placenta begins to die. Disrupting the connection, while life-threatening in utero, is not as physically threatening after birth. In recent years, delaying cord cutting three to ten minutes after birth has become a standard practice. Enough research has been done to suggest that nutrients are still being delivered to the newborn from the placenta during this window of time. Delaying cord cutting is necessary. Complete umbilical nonseverance serves no apparent physical purpose. But that doesn’t tell us anything about its necessity.
In the 2011 book Lotus Birth, midwife Alice Scholes imagines that any discomfort associated with the idea of preserving the placenta could arise from the discomfort we have in acknowledging death. Lotus birth involves preserving, salting and drying the placenta as it dies. According to Scholes, being born is death of life in the womb. But there is nothing immediate about it, as the word death and our experience with it might suggest.
Shivam Rachana, who compiled Lotus Birth, writes, “with the placenta still attached, the sense of being in the space between worlds is very apparent. The baby is here but is still there. The time of transition from the beyond into the physical plane of existence is obvious.” Lotus birth acknowledges the significance of coming into consciousness. It draws it out and emphasizes its nature as a transition. Birth doesn’t need to be a jolt, but an awakening, slower, resembling a tide or a wave. In Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, Bernard considers “into this crashed death—Percival’s. ‘Which is happiness?’ I said (our child had been born), ‘which pain?’ referring to the two sides of my body, as I came downstairs, making a purely physical statement.” Birth and death are not opposites but entry points; ways to cross through the porous boundaries of consciousness. Sometimes death comes on slow. Other times, it crashes. Birth might crash, but it doesn’t need to.
Birth is at once deeply personal and universal. It is a product of a community and research, no matter how a person decides to deliver. In Lotus Birth, authority resides not in one person, but in the collective voices of those invested in lotus birth, in those who have experienced lotus births, and even in those who are not voiced, who do not advocate for these particular birthing methods. Living in a techno-medical birthing culture instills skepticism for those who provide alternatives to the widespread practice of hospital births. I have long associated birth with fear and images of a woman in pain lying flat on her back and being told by a man wearing a green mask, to push. Even so, I don’t need to read an argument against gentle or lotus births to make me wary of these alternatives. I already am.
To get through the day or a pregnancy we collect information from our environment. Information that guides the choices that added together might resemble a lifestyle. We let our information take on a general direction that feels personalized but is not entirely unique to ourselves. It’s like how Maggie Nelson wonders in an interview, whether it really is a “great throbbing consciousness” that we all lean against and share, “even if that sharing is characterized by dissensus or mirage of separateness rather than a blurry unity.” Like Virginia Woolf in The Waves, she wonders about the boundaries of the individual and where culture starts. What separates us is not as solid as it seems. With faith that this idea has a way of slowly but surely finding its way to the surface, we can think about lotus birth and come closer to this understanding.
In Lotus Birth transpersonal psychologist Renuka Potter writes about placental consciousness, which is not unlike Nelson’s idea of a “great throbbing.” Potter writes, “It is quite likely that the trauma of birth causes the baby to lose its hold on the deep consciousness of itself as a being grounded in placental/earth consciousness, the unconscious wisdom of the body, the mammalian brain. If the cord is not cut, this familiar wisdom or sense of being that still resonates in the placenta can be accessed by the baby.” The placenta is both organ and circumstance. It anchors the newborn to the earth and reminds her from where she came. I It is dilation, concentration and a direction to look towards if you’re all right with its death. And if God is anything it’s that.
Potter’s mention of access lends itself to the idea that my ideas and my sense of being don’t come from me, but from my physical interactions with and across a bigger consciousness. I am born into consciousness, but it’s not my own. And just like anyone else, I’m intelligent at birth. Stephen Gaskin — husband of Ina May Gaskin, Mother of the Natural Birth Movement — writes in Spiritual Midwifery, “A newborn infant is just as intelligent as you are. When you’re relating with her, you should consider that you are relating to a very intelligent being who just doesn’t speak your language yet. And you shouldn’t do anything gross to her before she learns to speak with you.”
Not doing anything gross to each other is the dream. But that’s not enough because I want to be individual. I want there to be something that separates me from you. (A couldn’t-be-more-human motivation that changes color and tone as your point of view changes, as it runs the gamut between thoughts of a young emotional white woman to the underlying cause of every racial, gendered, classist, ableist and ageist form of oppression.) My sense of individuality and the expression of my intelligence relies, moment to moment, on the position, time, size and place of my body. Whether or not I can or want to communicate it to you depends on yours.
I continually drift, towards and away from assigning individual traits to you and myself. So does the woman in Afterbirth. She floats through the days in both playful and eerie ways. Her struggle to recognize her newborn is the same as her struggle to recognize herself.
My movements, as singular as they may or may not be, are what grant me access to different parts of a collective consciousness. Potter suggests that we have a greater connection to it around birth. And that’s because this consciousness potentially resides in the placenta.
Lotus birth addresses anxieties of embodiment and perceived separateness. Lotus birth stems from a desire for children to enter the world feeling alright in their bodies, a luxury we probably didn’t have, in order to more easily access a fulfilling mode of being. A lotus born child is not secure for life. But it’s not a bad way to start. With lotus birth, we are momentarily secure in knowing what is firm about the boundaries between ourselves and others. And in being so, we are less distracted, confused, or weighed down by our sense of being individual. It is like feeling the earth beneath your feet after searching, treading water. It is like in The Waves when Bernard thinks, “I have had one moment of enormous peace. This perhaps is happiness. Now I am drawn back by pricking sensations; by curiosity, greed (I am hungry) and the irresistible desire to be myself,” or when Rhoda thinks, “The still mood, the disembodied mood is on us, and we enjoy this momentary alleviation (it is not often that one has no anxiety) when the walls of the mind become transparent.” Lotus births are multiple and continuous. A lotus birth is not a single occasion that we’ve missed. We come up over and over again, experiencing lightness and alleviation just to be drawn back to the self and the everyday, knowing or at least hoping we’ll come up again.
I was born in air, in a hospital and without a midwife or drugs. A doctor cut my cord. My birth may have been more traumatic than it needed to be but I don’t remember and I will never know. In recognizing lotus birth and the placenta, though, it is easier for me to think about being and my body. Newborns are sentient beings at a vulnerable stage in their embodiment. Transitioning doesn’t have to be cut abruptly with the cord. Time can be manipulated. Birth can be elongated. With lotus birth we can realize our time between worlds and grant ourselves a period of grace and rest.
Afterbirth takes place between these worlds. We never encounter the placenta or see the cord cut in Mia Wasikowska’s film, and at first glance, the title seems synonymous with postpartum. But the themes and the tones are placental. The film spans the days that follow a birth. The woman, played by Kathryn Beck, is blonde with wide and calm eyes. There are no visitors. Her contact with anyone but her baby is limited. Their contact with each other is not void of emotion or care. It’s mechanical. Our focus is drawn in and lingers on the woman as she fastens a pair of lettuce leaves to her chest. She performs typical mothering responsibilities but imagines her baby born to a pair of wildly social caricature parents. When asked to watch another woman’s baby in a restroom, she picks him up out of his stroller and switches him with her own. The mother returns, horrified, and asks what she’s doing. Surprised by both herself and the other woman, she smiles and sputters gently, “It was a joke.” It feels like she’s experiencing a time lag, or time underwater. It’s both serene and melancholic. It’s without particular focus until she’s brought back to the surface and reminded that at some point she’s had a child; and that this is only the beginning. Birthed in water but having his cord cut, the baby hasn’t been wholly born and so it could be said that the woman hasn’t been wholly born into being his mother. At the end of the film, as the infant cries, his mother sees a strand of hair wound tightly around his finger. She unwraps it and he’s calmed. She picks him up and strokes him between his eyes, which he softly closes. It’s through this isolated moment that we sense the beginning of deep love and security between bodies. The two, for the moment at least, are lotus born.
Melissa Hutton is a writer from New York and this is her first appearance on This Recording.