Your umbilical cord was the vital link between you and your placenta, but as it grew, it changed. It began as a little stalk at about twenty days or so and contained your digestive tract, for at that time there was not enough room for it in your abdomen. By the time you had been alive for 50 days or so, your digestive tract began to migrate into your abdomen. After that, your cord grew thinner and longer until all that remained in the cord were three blood vessels: two arteries to bring blood in and one vein to send blood out.
By then, as a fully-functioning human being, growing very fast, you needed more and more room to grow and move about under your own volition. The cord became progressively longer until about 28 weeks of pregnancy, reaching a length of about 22 inches (50cms.) It was not smooth like a water pipe: it was corded like the trunk of a tree. As it grew, it twisted around itself and became coiled. It pulsed with the flow of blood and it had knots on it at various points. It floated about with you as you moved, moving with you and tethering you to the placenta. The cord was as much a part of your life as the amniotic fluid you swam in. If the cord was long enough, it may have coiled around you and been in your way as you swam about, exercising your developing muscles.
The cord may have been be a source of danger: some foetuses dance about so violently that they tie their umbilical cord in knots, a practice that can be fatal because it interferes with the flow of blood along the cord. The cord may grow so long and the foetus may move about so much that the cord may have become wrapped around the neck. That eventuality may have strangled your twin and nearly strangled you.
A very important moment in the process of birth is the severing of the umbilical cord. The small, knobbly scar that you now carry on your navel is all that remains of your cord and your life support system.
Your placenta was joined to the womb wall in a convoluted series of minute projections, which provided a large surface area in direct contact with the minute blood capillaries of your mother’s blood supply. The surface area, including all the tiny projections, increased from about one and a half square metres at 100 days gestation to about fourteen square meters in the later months of pregnancy. As the quality of ultrasound images improves, we can observe with increasing clarity the way that unborn babies use their own placenta like a trampoline as they dance and swim about. After delivery, it can be seen that the placenta is red, thick and circular, the size of a large dinner plate and covered with a soft, smooth surface.
By means of your placenta you had a direct link with your mother but you also had a relationship with your placenta as a separate object in your life. It provided a good supply of nutrients and oxygen but was also a source of toxins if your mother smoked or took drugs. In the last few weeks of pregnancy you were feeling very cramped, but to make matters worse you were beginning to outgrow the ability of your placenta to feed you, provide you with oxygen and clean your blood of carbon dioxide and waste. The placenta not only stopped growing during this period but it became less efficient. The increased toxicity of the womb would be an important factor in your being born: it was time to go, for the sake of your own health.
After birth, your umbilical cord and placenta were discarded as waste. The disposal of a placenta is a vexed question, for some people become very attached to the concept of their own placenta. In some traditions the mother buries it under a fruit tree, so that it will feed the tree that feeds those who eat the fruit. The most usual fate for a placenta is to be thrown into a bucket and incinerated. Some people have a problem with that, for in the back of their mind is a nurturing companion who was always there from the beginning but is now gone.
You never saw your placenta again, however hard you may have tried to get your mother to deputize for it since. Your relationship with your mother or primary carer is in many ways a straight re-enactment of the relationship you had with your placenta. Your placenta was an organ capable of multi-tasking, much like a busy working mother. Like Mother making mushy meals for you as a baby, it broke down food for you into a form that you could digest. Like Mother, your placenta kept you clean inside and out, removing waste from your body and breaking down any toxins into harmless substances that could be eliminated safely. Like Mother giving you continuous liquid feeds, only to change your wet nappy six times a day, your placenta kept your fluid balance right by bringing fluids in and removing them in equal measure.
To be fully born, you had to be separate from everything in the womb. That meant jettisoning your own, self-made, life-support system. From then on, you had to hope that your carers would support you until you built another life support system of your own in born life.