The Incubator: A Premature Paradox


I wonder, now, why I have such conflicting thoughts about this place. A place I knew as my own sacred space before I was ready for the world or before the world was ready for me.

Warm, radiant, transparent plastic encloses the precious gap between me and life outside the box.  It is, by design, both protective and isolating.   A womb-like shelter to promote healing while simultaneously separating a fragile newborn from the nurturing limbs of life.  I imagine this is one of life’s earliest, if not most acute, experiences of ambivalence.  Has this newborn been prematurely seized from her mother’s secure haven only to be shuffled to a temporary incandescent chamber?  Or, has this infant been rescued from an insufficient breeding ground to be nurtured and shielded from harm’s way until she can move forward as expected? Was it merely an interim therapeutic residence or was it, in fact, a sanctuary?

I try now, with the wisdom of adult retrospection, to see if from both sides. How scary, it must be, to be whisked out-of-womb with seven vital weeks of development remaining.  Wait!  I’m not ready. (Though my mother insists it were she who was not ready and I who was so hasty and impatient– so true to my nature – with my arrival).  I’m tiny, I’m crying, I’m red with the tension of copious blood vessels bursting with disappointment.  I’m cold and alone, even confused, perhaps.  I suspect when babies of any species are separated from their mothers, there is a flood of panic. Where are you taking me?  Why?  In those days, mothers were knocked out, as they euphemistically referred to it, anesthetized to oblivion, so even if my mother were able to hold me, she wasn’t aware of it, which takes all the pleasure away from me.

Scooped out of this unfriendly transition, I’m then ever-so-gently wrapped in a very pink and very tiny blanket that was, I am certain, not a fair substitute for my mother’s loving arms and hungry heart. She missed me, I know for a fact now.

I’m sure I knew that then, too.

But let’s face it. This was over 60 years ago. What if, the medical community of that time was right?  What if, that instrument that embraced my feeble self was, indeed, the optimal environment within which I could thrive? What if, without that intervention, however detached it may seem or be, preemies would die?  Without which, I would have died?  What if, as frightened as I might have been, I knew I was safe and free from the assault of unkind forces that were way beyond my control? What if, nothing could hurt me as long as I was secure within the confines of this clear plastic home?

Or, what if, I spent the rest of my life trying to free myself from this box so I could step into the world while trying my best to stay within its protective walls at the same time?  What if this primal ambivalence persisted and shadowed every step I took?  What if, I were to spend much of my adult life trying desperately to grow up despite a profound desire to stay put or go back, perhaps, to put closure on that which was left undone. A raw, unfinished innocence. Organic anxiety.

Premature intrauterine development. Eager, I dare say anxious, and at such an unripe age, to embark upon the challenges that lay ahead. I suspect I had little choice in the matter and consequence of prematurity, though primal therapists (who may believe that any early trauma could cause repressed pain and subsequent neurosis) would claim I knew exactly what was happening, on some level.

So many risks. Low birthweight. Thermal shock. Cyanosis. My mother recalls the day her  nurse reported that overnight I had experienced a cyanotic attack. Apparently I turned an alarming shade of blue, and then, everything was fine.

“Wow. That’s scary. Were you worried?” I asked, as I gasped for a deeper breath, doing my best to resemble that same shade of blue.

“No.  I wasn’t worried at all.”  My mother claimed, with a smile I could actually feel through our long-distance phone connection.  “By the time she told me about it, it was over, and I knew you were fine.”

“But I stopped breathing. Weren’t you afraid that could happen again?”

“Truly, no, I wasn’t. I knew everything was fine.  Really.”

And it was. To be sure. So why did my chest feel so tight and my breath feel so shallow while we recreated this 60 year old story?

Respiratory distress syndrome.

I think I had that then.

Or is it now?

Sometimes, I wonder what the difference is.


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