This is the second post in the series on circumcision. The first explores circumcision in general and tells the story of my first experience with it as a nursing student, and how I counsel expectant parents now as a midwife. To read it, click here.
Julie (name changed for privacy) is a 40-year-old mother of two boys, ages 11 and 7. Her older son was circumcised, and her younger son was not. She agreed to talk with me about her experience and how she and her husband made both decisions.
CW: Tell me about how you made the decision to have your first son circumcised.
Julie: To me it was kind of like, maybe cultures farther away don’t do it, but here in America we do it. My husband was circumcised. I do remember the doctor coming in and saying “It’s not a necessary procedure, are you sure you want to do it?” and I just said, “Yeah, we’ll do it.” I figured it’s just what you do and followed the trend. I just did what my culture and society did according to my knowledge base and what everyone in my family had done.
CW: What do you remember about the time before and after the procedure?
Julie: Well, the doctor just took him and I didn’t think much about it, and I don’t think I knew what was really going on. Afterward, I had major breastfeeding problems…looking back now on our struggles to breastfeed and how that piece of it didn’t go well, all I can think is, you’re belly to belly, and here’s my son who has a big open wound on his penis, and I’m holding him super tight to my body trying to do this breastfeeding thing. I can only think that it must have been excruciating for him because I’m holding him tight to me, putting pressure right where this wound is. So I feel as though that could have impacted our breastfeeding saga. I don’t know if it was the entire issue, but I certainly feel that contributed to it. And our inability to breastfeed really sent me into a spiral of postpartum depression. I’m this new mom with raging hormones, he wants to eat all the time, he’s crying, and I don’t know what to do about it because I’m a new mom. I certainly don’t think (the circumcision) was the whole reason for my postpartum depression, but I think it contributed to the breastfeeding part.
CW: What changed with your second child?
Julie: Well, first of all, when I looked at my second newborn lying beside me and he’s perfect and intact, I didn’t want to inflict that wound on him and maybe set us back with breastfeeding. I wanted to do everything I could to set us up for a positive experience this time.
But I already knew what I needed to do anyway by the time he was born. During my pregnancy, I started connecting with lots of different resources and information about birth. I got exposed to anti-circumcision websites and at first dismissed it as ‘Oh yeah, those are those activist people.’ Finally, I clicked the links and found out things I hadn’t known or thought to question. Then I clicked on a video of a baby being circumcised and I couldn’t finish it. It mortified me. I guess before…you send your baby off, you’re sitting in your room in a pretty little robe completely unaware of what’s really going on, and you get your baby back. You put a little gauze on and that’s all you know. Seeing the video and realizing that the baby who is curled up in a little ball has to get strapped down which I never even thought of and then has his perfect little penis cut, it was heartbreaking. I’ve learned that babies go one of two ways, either they scream the whole time, or they completely shut down out of shock. I am a person who through the years identifies with the baby, so now, to think of that baby being strapped down to the table and then having their penis pulled out and cut…it just destroyed me, the reality of what happens.
The other piece that was extremely profound to me was the piece on the sexual pleasure and the nerve endings that are in the foreskin and the actual purpose of it during intercourse to glide more easily, and the lubrication the foreskin provides. So when I realized that I could possibly be limiting my child’s sexual pleasure in his future life, I thought to myself, “I have absolutely no right to do that, just because his dad had it done based on the information they had at the time.”
CW: What about the medical benefits of circumcision the American Academy of Pediatrics cites, like decrease in risk of urinary tract infection in the first year of life, and decrease in the risk of penile cancer, and possibly sexually transmitted infections? Did you find any information about that when you researched this, and what did you think?
Julie: I just felt as though if I could educate my son on how to remain sanitary and to use safe sex practices, then that takes care of all of that. And honestly, I’m not really even sure I believe an inch of foreskin can create cancer, and we don’t cut off other body parts because they might get cancer anyway. A urinary tract infection…I would rather risk that, if it’s even true, than to go through a surgical procedure on my son’s genitalia for no reason.
CW: What did your husband think?
Julie: After our second son was born, my husband was still not on board (with leaving his penis intact). I had decided in my head what I needed to do. It was a beautiful birth, he was a beautiful and peaceful baby, and I could not bear the thought of sending him off to be strapped to a board, have his penis cut, and coming back with the wound my first son had. I told him I just couldn’t do it. He said he would support me. He said, “Once you cut it off, you can’t put it back, but if he decides to have it done later, he can do that.”
CW: What will you tell your children about the fact that this was done with one of them but not the other?
Julie: I will have to have that conversation with my first son when he wonders why this was done to him and not his brother. I will tell him, “I didn’t know. I did the best thing I knew to do for you at the time. I learned a few things during the time between when you and your brother were born, and I learned that it’s not necessary.”
I raise my children to embrace all differences—people have different skin colors, hair color, some are tall, short, round, or thin. Noses are different, eyes are different, and penises can be different, too.
I was particularly interested in Julie’s story first because it is unusual, and also because it speaks to one of the reasons I believe the practice of routine infant circumcision endures in our culture. As parents, and maybe mothers especially, it is common for us to swing between two extremes with regard to our parenting. Too often, either we beat ourselves up unmercifully for decisions we’ve made or things we’ve done, or we stick our fingers in our ears, saying “Lalalalalala” because we don’t want to look at it and potentially face the pain of having done something we wish we could take back, but can’t. Julie did neither of those things. Even though she would make a different decision with her first son if she could, she forgave herself and moved on, knowing she did the best she could from where she sat at the time and with the knowledge she had. With her second son, she wasn’t afraid to face the issue squarely and make the best decision she could with new information, even though that meant feeling the pain of regret.
Thank you for your story, Julie, and for your example of bravery and self-compassion.
© Camille Williams and Wake Up, Mama! 2015