“No, I didn’t eat the placenta,” I reply to my younger as we watch In the Womb: Dogs. It’s a reasonable question, given our video fare lately. We’ve eagerly viewed most of National Geographic’s In the Womb series, including the episodes on multiples, exotic animals, cats, and the original show (single human pregnancy). His interests in animals and, to a lesser extent, in anatomy, led us to this series and a host of interesting conversations.
My younger’s fascination with animals began about four years ago we acquired two guinea pigs. We read books on their diet, housing needs, behavior, and health. Many of the books included a chapter on mating and birth, which my son just incorporated as other interesting animal behaviors. He was fuzzy on the mechanics behind mating: he never asked for clarification, and I felt a don’t ask, don’t tell policy was appropriate for my four-year-old. He noted that our guinea pigs couldn’t mate and produce offspring, so I know some science made it through.
Then one day, I hear, “Mom, when people mate, is the boy on top?”
How to answer that? I think I managed a strangled, “Sometimes,” before changing the subject. I may have even offered the questioning child some chocolate to derail that line of questioning. My older son had also asked the questions around age four, soon after his younger brother was born. During pregnancy, he absorbed all the details about sperm, eggs, fetuses, umbilical cords, and the like, with the particulars of conception unmentioned (again, don’t ask, don’t tell). In the drop-off line to Montessori, he sprung the Big Question: “But how does the daddy get the sperm to the mom’s egg?”
We were two cars from the front of the drop-off line. I gave a quick one-liner of the mechanics to which my older exclaimed, “Gross,” and hopped out of the car and ran into school. The topic didn’t come up for two more years. Again, I gave the same one-liner and received the same reply. By the time he turned eight, his father and I’d discussed the process in more depth with him, and that was the questions stopped. Fast forward to age 12, mitosis and meiosis long since covered but the reproductive system waiting for study (no lab). The time had come for a refresher, so after assigning the reproduction chapter in Campbell’s Concepts and Connections and while I had him trapped (without his brother) on a long car ride, I reviewed the basics of conception and puberty. His visible interest was zilch, but I was determined to at least get the science end discussed.
My younger’s yet to endure an intentional facts of life lecture. His curiosity about the natural world leads us into many discussions about sexual and asexual reproduction, or, in the vernacular, who does what and how. Fostering cats brought more books into the house, meaning more chapters on reproduction and development. Inquiries about the fathers of the mother/kitten groupings we had were a bit uncomfortable, since they coincided with my divorce. That was my baggage and not his, but the absence of the father cat tripped me up more than the anatomy and physiology of cat mating.
Enter In the Womb: Animals. Never mind the birds and the bees. This video took us through mating, conception, in utero development, and birth of an elephant, dolphin, and dog. We were both riveted. While I knew that, as early embryos, we all look pretty much alike, I had no concept of the, ahem, procedural variations that led to the embryo. The timing of mating and ovulation, which I understand fully in the human, is entirely different in other animals, where mating can actually induce ovulation. (Those of you with years of furry pet experience and rural living background may be laughing at my naiveté. Go ahead, giggle at the city girl.) Birth, however, is remarkably similar across the mammals. Nesting behavior, visible discomfort (or, in my experience, pain), and, finally, new life. It amazes me every time.
And then there was the placenta. My younger guy knew mammal moms generally eat the membranes and placenta after the birth, an instinct that provides oxytocin to the mom. That oxytocin helps the uterus contract, which decreases bleeding, causes let-down in nursing mothers, and increases bonding. Any mom who remembers that relaxation associated with breastfeeding a baby can thank oxytocin. Although controversial in some circles, most moms giving birth in hospitals receive a dose of Pitocin (synthetic oxytocin) after delivery to increase uterine contractions and decrease bleeding. I received it after both births.
But, as I told my younger, I never ate my placenta. I was ready to launch into information about placental uses and disposal (we have friends who have planted them under trees, and a bit of internet research turns up other endpoints for this essential part), but he was done with placenta and back to the miracle of puppy birth. And since he didn’t ask more, I didn’t tell.