My Needs As a Premature Baby
I was born two months early prior to the formation of intensive care units and antibiotics. The doctor – it was a home birth – pronounced me dead, threw my body to one side on the bed, and said, “Let’s look after the mother.”
At that time childbirth was surrounded by very different attitudes than exist today. The shadow of enormous mortality still fell over mothers and babies, and it influenced doctors. So the doctor was implying all of this. He was telling my mother and grandmother a straightforward and accepted truth of the times – ‘Why attempt to give life to this premature and tiny baby? It will be difficult to rear, more prone to illness, and it will be harder for it to cope with life. It isn’t breathing at the moment, so forget it and try again for a healthy baby.’
My grandmother took no notice of this, carried my jaundiced body away and started me breathing by dipping my tiny form in hot and cold water.
We are all the sum total of what we experience and what we make of that experience. I slowly learned the truth of that as I was gradually confronted by the influences left deep in my being by my premature birth. For one thing, as an adult I felt as if it was a continuous struggle just to exist. I know life sometimes is a struggle, but the power of this feeling seemed to dominate me more than others. Also, I have a more than average tendency toward introspection. But other more pressing problems led me to undertake years of intensive and deep psychotherapy. During those years I arrived at a form of remembrance enabling me to experience life from the perspective of my newborn self. These remembrances sometimes arose accompanied by emotional pain, and sometimes by a sense of wonder. I discovered that to be a baby is an extraordinarily rich and wonderful experience, even though sometimes fraught with misery because of circumstances, and I cannot help but wish to share something of what I found. I do this hoping it will help mothers of undersized miracles like myself to understand something of their baby’s world.
Words from the baby I was
Speaking as the tiny premature babe I once was, you have to understand that I cannot think I can only feel. But I feel intensely. I feel without any of the filters given by the concerns adults have about how others will judge or respond to their behaviour. Also, I have no focused sense of myself as an individual being. Without language I cannot say or think, “Me”, “I” or “You”. However, my feelings handle all these equations of relationship. And my feelings are not haphazard. They have been finely tuned by millions of years of survival. So I know without thinking exactly what I need. In the same way I know my response to what is happening. Being here is not a good feeling. It is difficult to breathe, difficult to take in what I need. If I had the power of self-reflection and the words to express what I feel, I would say that I do not feel ready to be here. Everything is a struggle, as if I do not have the right equipment, as if I am not suited to this environment. I should be back in the water where I do not have to breathe or take in food.
Because I feel so vulnerable, everything frightens me. Everything seems dangerous. Even the birds I can hear singing scare me. I don’t want to be here. I want to crawl back into the egg.
Looking back on those remembered baby feelings, I can see those powerful early feeling responses to life outside the womb built a foundation from which my personal inclinations in later life developed. So, without attempting to describe my baby view of life directly, let me summarise as follows.
The premature baby is unprepared for life outside the womb. It really does want to crawl back to the place where it doesn’t have to struggle to exist. So it can be given great comfort by producing as much as possible a quiet undemanding environment. Flesh to flesh would be perfect.
Every baby has a major instinctive directive. Namely, to intimately bond with its mother. This directive has arisen because for millions of years if this bond were not established the child would die. There would be no milk to feed upon, and it might be abandonment. Everything in the baby struggles against that possibility. Some of its earliest crying is an attempt to make sure this bond is secure. It needs to know it is wanted as desperately as it wants its mother. This is its safeguard against death. It has no rational mind to think otherwise.
Your baby is not an unfeeling lump of flesh, and should not be treated as such. Until recent times no anaesthetic was given during some operations because babies were seen as without feelings or sensation.
I know from personal experience, because my own mother was young and frightened at producing such a vulnerable baby, that it is not always easy to feel confident and warmly loving if you are the mother of a premature child. But this is what your baby needs. If you recognise that you cannot give it the warmth and confidence it so desperately needs, the situation can be saved by someone else giving the baby that sort of warm love. In my own case, my grandmother was the delivering angel who helped me face my own fears and sense of dying.
Because your baby is so tiny, it doesn’t mean she or he will not become a usefully contributing member of society. But it’s unusual beginnings may give it a different perspective on life and relationships than someone born full term. This difference can be the source of great creativity. So enable your child to explore its own experience, even if that experience was an early struggle in life. Such struggles are not crosses but sources of unusual strength.
Life is precious, and I feel grateful love to my grandmother for securing me in this lifetime. Pass on to your own child the sense that life is a wonder, and that its own unique experience is a treasure to be explored.