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Let’s Talk: Circumcision

October 8, 2010

Stranger/Family person/Co-worker/Anybody: What are you having?

Yeye: (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) A baby.

Anybody: I know it’s a baby, smart-ass. You know what I meant. Is it a boy or girl?

Yeye: I don’t know. We’re just gonna let the baby tell us when it comes out.

Anybody: Well, what do you want it to be?

Yeye: (sincere and naive) I just want a healthy baby.

How many of us have played out this conversation, pretty much verbatim. I really believed that the sex of my child didn’t matter until I got nearer to my due date.  In that last few weeks of realizing that I didn’t have any real name options, onesies, or diapers for the little one on its way, I had to admit that it did matter to me: I was afraid to have a son.

Not afraid because of my sincere belief that guys use way too much toilet paper, though.

I really didn’t want to have to make a decision about circumcision.

Especially since I was having a home birth, I would have to decide whether or not to circumcise and actively seek out a doctor to perform the procedure.  I began to research…strapped down limbs…anesthesia…clamps…cutting…pain.  I tried to watch this video of an actual procedure and literally felt sick to my stomach.  Big sigh.  Without any health imperative for it, what made so many parents decide that the procedure was worth it?

During that time and since, I’ve had three mommy friends give birth to boys and brought up the topic to them.  I wanted to hear their thoughts as mothers and co-parents.  What did their husbands have to say about it?

Mommy #1 feel that circumcision is unnecessary and that there is no difference between male and female circumcision.  However, she has a husband for whom circumcision is necessary for spiritual development in his religious tradition.  Though she feels personally against the procedure, she consented for the sake of the father.  She was mortified at witnessing the procedure and hearing the intense cries of her child.

Mommy #2 also had a husband for whom circumcision is necessary for spiritual development in his religious tradition.  Like Mommy #1, she too felt that if the decision were left to her, she wouldn’t  circumcise her son.

Mommy #3 felt neither a health or religious imperative to have her sons circumcised, but reassured me that the procedure was quick, healing would be quick, and that my son wouldn’t remember the pain.  Even though their cries are gut wrenching, she conveyed, they wouldn’t be scarred for life.

That last conversation really stuck with me.  Who can really assess the emotional impact of an event, especially a traumatic one, years down the line?  This immediately brought to mind arguments by staunch circumcision critics, like the radical anti-circumcision groups that believe it is child abuse and the Circumcision Information and Resource Pages, which compiles research related to the emotional and psychological effects of circumcision on boys months and years later….mutilation…disfigurement…severe stress.  Heavy sigh.

How poetic (not!) that around the same time, an acquaintance from high school joked on facebook about her disgust at men with intact penises, which elicited support from all corners of her facebook world.  While that alone wouldn’t be enough to sway my decision-making either way, I had to consider that the decision was not only a physical one, but a social question.  More specifically, to not circumcise might create a social question and ridicule that he would face for the rest of his life.

The whole head-heart exercise was a sobering realization of the emotional weights we balance as parents, in addition to our diligent research and thinking.

Even if you’ve never had to weigh in on the subject circumcision, what have been some difficult situations you’ve faced in parenting?

10 Comments leave one →
  1. October 9, 2010 2:43 pm

    The person who should be making a decision about circumcision is the person who owns the penis. There is no tattoo decision. All parents recognize that permanently marking a baby is not a good idea. Why cannot parents realize the same about the baby’s sex organ? His body, his choice.

    I am a son who was circumcised at birth. I really wish my parents had protected me and not let them cut off part of my sex organ. I was a healthy baby. I did not need circumcision to stay healthy. I would have preferred to keep my whole body intact.

  2. Queen T permalink
    October 9, 2010 3:13 pm

    I’m haven’t given birth to a baby yet, but I have had a hand in raising children and I do have some thoughts about this. First, I take issue with the implication that a circumcised penis is somehow not “intact.” It can still function quite normally and into old age without the foreskin so this is a bit of an issue for me. Second, I am sensitive to the fact that parents have to wrestle with these decisions and think that they should be entered into with research, discussion and serious thought as mentioned here. I personally know men who had issues of infection as a result of having difficulty cleaning under the foreskin and that this later had an impact on their lives with their partners. One could say, that “oh, those dudes were just grimy” but keeping oneself completely clean under there is certainly not the easiest thing in the world. At any rate, it’s a deeply personal decision that shouldn’t be entered into lightly or necessarily advocated just because of one’s religious upbringing, social pressures or personal aversions. I think the important thing is that it is a choice and to me, it’s a choice that should be entered into consciously, regardless of the outcome. Good post!

    • October 9, 2010 5:33 pm

      Sorry, but a circumcised penis is not intact. It is missing erogenous tissue. The function of the male sex organ is altered by circumcision. Basic anatomical knowledge tells us this.

      I have a penis and I know how it works. I have also restored my foreskin and have lived on both sides. My sex organ, complete with restored foreskin, works much better than my circumcised penis ever did. I have no trouble practicing good hygiene – retract in the shower and rinse. No fuss, no trouble. And, there is not a guy in the world who minds playing with his favorite body part in the shower.

      Caring for an intact penis is simple for an infant: wipe like a finger and never retract. Unfortunately, many doctors do not know how to care for an intact penis and attempt to retract prematurely. Forcible retraction of an infant’s foreskin damages the penis and increases the risk of future infections and phimosis. Other countries that are primarily intact do not have these problems. Parents need to watch over their children and prevent anyone from harming them.

    • October 9, 2010 8:05 pm

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Queen T. From what I can tell and without valuing one over the other, a circumcised penis isn’t whole – though that clearly doesn’t render it useless. I think one might take issue because it positions the circumcised penis as missing something, which is the opposite of the common thinking for penises in the US. We usually say “uncircumcised,” which I think presents the same issue of “othering.” Anywho, I haven’t know many uncircumcised guys, but the couple that I do say that they haven’t had any trouble with keeping it clean. They make it sound as simple as Tally, but point out that they were taught what it meant to keep it clean, which may point to one of the reasons that fathers with circumcised penises prefer their sons to be as well. In addition to social stigma, perhaps they don’t know how to teach proper hygiene or think to seek information on it.

      Since learning that the male foreskin doesn’t begin to retract until close to puberty, I’ve come to view learning to care for it as a rites of passage, like a woman beginning her menses. I guess that’s why some cultures chose that time to circumcise rather than birth. Seems the perfect opportunity for boys to gather with men to learn and train for their transition to manhood – though it would be a much less painful transition if they were learning proper hygiene and not being circumcised.

  3. Queen T permalink
    October 10, 2010 5:49 pm

    Hmmmm. I agree with the notion of referring to uncircumcised penises as “othering” and that it can create a nasty and unnecessary social stigma. I actually think that it is social stigma plus a splash of religious practice and some “family tradition” (i.e. my father was circumcised so I was too) and the dialogue that happens in hospitals that usually does not clearly present an alternative that makes people choose this decision of circumcising their sons more than people being ignorant of (or even thinking about) the hygiene question. I know men who were circumcised as adults who would definitely take issue with the idea that their penises functioned better before the procedure. At any rate, I don’t think there should be a hard and fast rule on this. I think this decision should be well-advised, carefully considered and addressed with compassion for the infant who will one day become man. It may be better for parents to even leave the decision to the person whose body it belongs so that when the boy becomes man he can make his own choices about his body. Excellent conversation!

  4. October 12, 2010 2:57 am

    This is definitely a hot topic! I just have one little girl and don’t plan on having more so I likely won’t have to make this decision. I’m an RN and I’ve worked in OB. I’ve seen many, many circs and often thought that it would be hard to watch if it were my baby. The procedure is quick, but obviously doesn’t feel good to the babes. I think the people saying the child won’t be scarred for life are saying this based on the fact that most of us don’t have memories from childhood that date back before we are about 3 years old or so. This doesn’t mean that circumcision doesn’t hurt or that the procedure should be done without adequate thought. This is one of those issues that is so divisive, it’s difficult to ever get an actual consensus. Each family must decide what they are comfortable with. Great post!

    Visiting from Dory Tribe…again =]

  5. October 13, 2010 1:28 pm

    Great post. Makes me squirm thinking about how it must hurt. I remember 15 years ago making this decision, and I don’t know if I’d make the same one now. Good luck! #dorytribe

    • October 13, 2010 9:53 pm

      Thanks for dropping by and sharing, Pam. I’ve gotta catch up with the twitter names for the rest of the Dory ladies so I can keep up with the posts.

  6. October 31, 2010 5:24 am

    We didn’t circumcise Noah. It was a difficult decision. However, Kenneth and I has heard of too many horror stories(something going wrong with the procedure, babies fainting from the pain etc). We just couldn’t bring ourselves to do it. we couldn’t find a good reason for why it was so important either. Great post!

    • November 1, 2010 2:24 am

      Oh my! I’ve never heard a horror story from someone I met or knew. That would’ve scared me, too. The thought of a newborn fainting is terrifying. When SJ had bloood drawn for the newborn screening and to test his blood for bilirubin, I could have fainted.

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