This is the third installation in a series about circumcision. Click here to read the introductory post about my perspective and experience on this topic as a midwife and mother.
Now grab a cup of tea, or whatever you like, and settle in with this interview with the mother of a 10-year-old son. It was a rich discussion that brought up a lot of interesting points about the challenges of bicultural marriage, the mind-body connection, memory and trauma, and unresolved inner conflicts.
Tracy (names changed for privacy) is an American educator from a self-described “hippie family.” She married Lamine, a Muslim man from Mali, Africa (now amicably divorced). Islam is one of the two major religions that has male circumcision as one of its tenets (the other, of course, is Judaism). They had a son together. Lamine wanted him circumcised, Tracy didn’t. Here’s what happened:
CW: Before you were pregnant, did you have any opinions about circumcision and what you might do?
Tracy: Yeah, I had opinions about everything! I come from a hippie family and have three uncircumcised brothers so I’d been exposed to the idea…I don’t think formally, but I was the oldest and I have a mother who has even more opinions about things than I have. So yes, I came in with the idea that circumcision didn’t make sense to me. I didn’t see a reason to do it, and I saw a lot of reasons not to do it.
CW: When you became involved with the man who would become your husband and your child’s father, knowing his Muslim faith and traditions, did you anticipate that this might be an issue if you had a male child together?
Tracy: Yeah, I did indeed. I thought, “Oh, shit.”
CW: Did you talk about it beforehand?
Tracy: No, I don’t think we did. We thought that we might have kids, but our son was not a planned baby, so we hadn’t had very specific conversations about kids, other than we both loved kids. And I think, like so many things in relationships, there are areas of potential conflict and challenge that we sort of say to ourselves, “I’ll figure it out at the time.” However foolhardy that approach may be. I think it was definitely at the level of thinking, “All right, this is going to be quite a conversation. Maybe it’s best left for when we actually have to deal with it.” Especially coming from a culture where for him to talk about his genitals at all was a big deal, like even with me.
CW: You mean because it’s taboo to discuss the body in his culture?
Tracy: Women discuss it with women and I don’t know what men do, but there’s not a lot of discussion between men and women, at least in my experience.
CW: So how did it come up?
Tracy: We knew we were going to be having a boy, so I thought, “OK, now we have to deal with this.” I don’t have a totally clear memory, but my guess just based on our relationship was that I said, “So, we have to talk about this,” while I was still pregnant. I don’t remember chronologically how exactly things happened in our conversation. I am somebody who thinks a lot about different cultures and is very aware of trying to be respectful and open to different perspectives and I approached this that way while at the same time, knowing that I felt really strongly about not circumcising our son. And I am a reader, so in terms of studies and reasons to do it, and what happens to the infant when you do this and watching videos, I did all of that. I probably started by asking him questions—was it important to him, and what did it mean to him? And how was it done nowadays in the country where he’s from? And how was it done when he was a child?
CW: Were you living here (in the U.S.)?
Tracy: We were living here. Our son was born here.
CW: How old was your husband when he was circumcised?
Tracy: So today, in his country, most babies are circumcised as they are here, in the few days after birth. But traditionally it’s between 8 and 16, and there’s a whole…you go away from your home for two weeks and it’s something like a two-week long ceremony and process. In talking with my then husband about it, it was kind of a fascinating conversation because he was simultaneoulsy holding the cultural piece and the religious piece of how incredibly important this is and wanting to fight for that for his son, but then when we would talk about his personal experience and his history, he would describe it as one of his most traumatic memories.
It was like talking to two different people who were struggling to be in the same room together. What he talks about being so traumatic for him was actually that it was his first separation from his mother and for such a long duration. In terms of the actual circumcision itself, he remembers having a lot of pain, he remembers days of pain, but what came up over and over for him was the separation from his mother. I think, though this is my guess and not what he told me, that a lot of things were tied together for him. Anyway, that’s when he was circumcised.
CW: So given that, that the cultural and religious piece is so important to him and yet his personal experience was so traumatic, did he see the American way of doing this as the ideal? You know, you could still have this culturally, religiously important thing done but without at least the traumatic memory—the traumatic experience still, but not the traumatic memory that he had, because you’re doing it on an infant. How did he see that?
Tracy: I think both because it is now practiced that way in his country and he comes from a country where what community does, what society does, is what you do—that is where security and safety is found. So I think yeah, it was a double benefit to him—like, “this is what my country is doing now, and it doesn’t have to be like it was for me, or as traumatic.”
And this is where we have very, very different ideas of what it actually is. And this is where, depending on how you look at it, you can say I was manipulative or I just argued my side of the case well. This is a man who is very, very tender and comes from a culture where he’s supposed to be manly and the boss of things but actually is a very gentle, not fragile person, but he’s a very sensitive person. On two fronts I felt, if he really wanted to push this and if this was something that felt incredibly important to him, then I needed him to know what he was actually asking us to do with our baby just as I felt like I needed to know that.
CW: Do you mean in terms of watching videos of the procedure, that kind of thing?
Tracy: Reading up on it, watching videos, seeing what a newly circumcised penis looks like, I mean really “getting it,” not cloaking it in mystery and “Oh, it happens to everyone so it must be fine,” I felt, no, we’re actually going to look at what this is. And if you still feel it’s incredibly important, then I will look at it anew, but until that point, we’re not having the discussion of yes or no. Like, I’m not going to bend on my place until I know that you’ve actually looked at it. There’s a part of that that I just truly believe is what is right for me as a parent. And there was the knowledge that this was my partner in parenting.
There’s another piece of that knowing the kind of man he is, it wasn’t going to be easy for him to watch this, and I have a better shot at winning this argument or difference…it wasn’t an argument in that…I didn’t say 100% “this will never happen” and screw the marriage and screw his culture and screw those things. I really was willing to look at things in a different way, and I really was willing, at some level, to reconsider. But only if he called me in to that fully. I wasn’t going to just say, “Whatever you want.”
So I guess that was my challenge, to say, “I understand that you come from a culture where it’s so important to stay within the cultural norm, that it’s very, very different than American culture to have a system based on family and community and society. There are benefits to that and there are losses in that. Having lived in both countries, there are really beautiful aspects, and there are aspects where they give away individuality that I think is important. I come from a culture that values individuality over everything else and we sacrifice a lot in that, as well. Anyway he ended up watching something like 30 seconds or 40 seconds of the first video I gave him and was just like, “We’re not doing that to our baby.”
Tracy: Yeah. As we were talking about it before he saw anything, one of my strong pushes was feeling that if our son got to a point that it felt important to him to be circumcised, either because of connection to his tradition and his heritage or because of religion or any of those things, I felt that he could make that choice and we could support him. And I did research that at that point, however many years ago, it’s more painful for a man at that age and it’s harder to heal, so I did have that information and I did bring those things up.
I personally, from my own life history and studies feel that we hugely, hugely—because babies can’t communicate with us cognitively, through language—we discount their experience. And as adults, we discount the trauma that happens in our bodies through surgeries and all kinds of different procedures that we have to have done. We think that if we’re knocked out, or if we’re infants and we can’t speak, that somehow there isn’t a trauma because the cognitive self doesn’t remember it in the same way we remember other things.
CW: It might even be worse in a way, because you don’t have the opportunity to process it.
Tracy: Right. My whole adult life has been spent studying the body-mind connection, and just what you said, I feel like there’s a kind of trauma that can be much harder to heal from when it’s either pre-verbal in a child, or pre-individuation in a child or when we have drugs acting on us such that we can’t feel it. So that maybe as a teenager, the healing would have taken longer and there would have been more physical pain, but I also feel like developmentally, psychologically, emotionally, there would be a whole different set of tools, especially if this had been a decision that he was making for himself, to deal with that healing process, that were tools of choice and self-power versus what I feel happens to an infant where they do not have the tools. They have the experience of the process. I said to my husband, you didn’t do this until you were eight, and in your culture it was often done at 16. I had that support for him to reach to and hold from his own heritage.
CW: So for him, unlike most American fathers-to-be, it’s actually not unheard of to say, “Well, he could do it later if he wanted to.” Most Americans don’t really accept that.
Tracy: Not only not unheard of, but held in hundreds of years tradition.
CW: It sounds kind of anticlimactic how the two of you finally made the decision, him watching 30 seconds of a video and saying, “OK, fine, we’re not doing it,” so I would imagine he had some explaining to do with his family. Was that an issue?
Tracy: So the first thing is that I did present it as sort of anticlimactic, except that this was a months-long process for us where these conversations were happening and where we were talking about different parts and he was talking about his experience, and I was talking about my beliefs, and I was researching. So in the end, him seeing it and being like, “I’m not going to do this to a baby,” was fast, but the actual process was not. And honestly, I would say that he still sits in discomfort that we chose not to. That decision didn’t just resolve and it’s come back at different times in our relationship, in arguments and upset. I think he genuinely has two very different parts inside of him—one that feels the whole historical, cultural, religious push and importance of it, and the other part that feels his own personal experience, and they don’t match up, and that, even years later, comes up. So these things don’t sit easily in him—he’s torn inside himself as far as what he wants.
As for the family, I don’t know. Our son hasn’t been in settings where it would be noticed or seen and I don’t think, based on what I understand about the culture that this is something his father would have brought up or shared with his family. So my guess is that they don’t know…wait! Actually, they were here, so his aunt and grandmother would have seen him…definitely naked as a baby and little boy, so I don’t know! Good question, I’ll ask him.
CW: So what about your boy? Has he, now that he’s getting older, he’s 10, yeah? Does he have any sense that…and of course it’s not as “different” as it used to be (to have an intact penis), only about 60% of boys are circumcised now, but that’s still almost half and half, right? So has he ever noticed anything, and how have you approached it with him? Does he know this is something that most people in his father’s religion would have had done? Does he know it’s something that even in the U.S. some boys have done? Does he even know that it’s a point of discussion or difference?
Tracy: That’s a good question. I’m not sure how much he knows about it. I’m not sure what he and his dad have talked about. It’s such a private culture around sexuality. Whereas he’s seen everything in our house, and he walks around our house naked, I don’t know if he’s seen his dad naked. My guess is he’s seen other kids, like going swimming and changing and things like that. We haven’t talked about it directly until actually last week when we had a short conversation about it. So I think he’s largely unaware of all that, and his own penis is a little bit of a curiosity to him—in fact, I know it is (laughs). We had a hysterical conversation last week.
I’m just going to throw this in here—when I was doing my own research, I asked my father and all of my brothers their thoughts about it. My father is circumcised and neither of my brothers are, and I asked them and a couple other male friends. None of them were thrilled to have this conversation with me, but I wanted their take. The big, what I would call myths, that we hear are, it’s important for a boy to look like his father, or I don’t want him to feel different in the locker room… I wanted to know what the men in my life thought about this.
CW: And your brothers grew up at a time when it was much less common to be left intact….
Tracy: Much less common. So my dad said for him, that idea of his sons looking like him was never an issue and never made sense, and my brothers said, “We didn’t care,” and it wasn’t a household where people were running around naked all the time. We were not that kind of hippie family (laughs), but it also was a family where I’m sure my brothers saw my dad’s penis at some point in their childhood.
So when I asked my brothers, “OK, did you ever feel different from Dad, did that ever upset you?” They were like, “Um, no. Not at all, it was fine. And why are we talking about our penises with our sister?” (laughs). And then I said, “But what about with friends?” You know, they did play sports, and whatever. They were like, “No, it was never a problem, and this is the last time we’re having a conversation about our penises with you.” And I asked, “Is there any part of you that wishes you had been circumcised or has thought about it as an adult, and would like to be circumcised? Have you had experiences with women where they were down on an uncircumcised penis looking funny or anything like that?” And they were just like, “It has never been an issue, and if anybody suggests bringing a knife anywhere near our penis, they will be out of here very, very quickly!”
So what I got from the men who had been circumcised was, “I don’t need anybody else to be circumcised, nor would have done this for myself if I had a choice,” and I got really clearly from uncircumcised men, “I’m all good, thank you very much. And don’t even talk about touching my penis with a knife.” And I don’t think I knew this at the time, but now I know about the increase in sexual pleasure and health of the glans for uncircumcised men. Maybe I should go back and ask my brothers their thoughts in relation to this. . . I think I might get a swift kick in the pants, however.
CW: Did you ever have any health concerns about not having him circumcised?
Tracy: As for health of the penis, my son has had balanitis (infection of the foreskin and glans), so he has had infections. I think this probably has more to do with having a mother who should enforce more careful showering or bathing than she does (laughs). From what I understand there is some increase in the occurrence of this in uncircumcised boys. In our case, he just wasn’t cleaning enough. You use a topical antibiotic for that the infection. And when he’s bathing regularly and doing the gentle cleaning by pulling the foreskin back as much as it goes, not forcing it back, then it’s not an issue.
CW: Any regrets about how you approached it, how you handled it, how you and your ex-husband worked it out together?
Tracy: I don’t know if I’d call it a regret. I have sadness that I don’t think it necessarily ended in a resolved place for my ex-husband and I have sadness that he feels a sort of internal tear around it, and I have sadness that that has met our son in different comments and led to confusion for our son. There hasn’t been a lot, but there have been some statements that I think have scared or emotionally hurt our son.
I feel like I gave my ex-husband genuine space—I said to him very clearly that I had a strong feeling and opinion about this, but I was genuine in being willing to talk about it and consider other things. I gave him the space to sort of bring me his side and try to bring me around to that. So I don’t have regrets about how I did it. I feel like I was willing to listen to him and really open to… and I lived in his culture, and I have a lot of respect for his culture and also listening to other different cultures and questioning our own assumptions about what’s right and wrong.
So I think mostly just sadness for those pieces, but does any part of me say, so that my ex-husband didn’t have to deal with that space inside himself that sits in two very different places, would I have chosen to just do this to make it easier for him? Not on your life. I strongly believe this was the best decision for my child, and I would have been willing to, if convinced, create a compromise for the family as a whole organism-ecosystem knowing that I might have to do something I didn’t feel great about doing for our child if it was important to do it for our whole family system. But I never got to the point of being convinced.
The more time I’ve spent with newborns, the more strongly I feel about this. Whatever he has to face—say he gets to go to his father’s country at some point and live and he decides at one point he wants a circumcision, then he gets to decide that and grapple with that at a time when he’ll have tools to do that.
So no regrets as far as the decision. Some residual sadness, but no regrets.
CW: Thank you, Tracy, for your insights and for generously sharing your family’s story.
© Camille Williams and Wake Up, Mama! 2016