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February 15, 2006

dishing on the knife

A new article on circumcision brought up some old anxieties for us. We both have boys, but took opposite routes below the belt: Rebecca's son is circumcised, Ceridwen's son is uncircumcised. Though we generally feel good about our choices (at this admittedly early stage in the game) it's not hard to wonder sometimes if the grass is greener on the other side of the knife. The article (and further discussion on daddytypes) inspired us to dig up this old transcribed conversation in which we explained to each other what we were thinking, before (during) and after the snip:

Well, when I was coming up on Ezra’s bris—which I had not really thought about at all until basically two days before it was happening and everyone was invited and the whole thing was set—I felt that as a progressive person, I was misrepresenting myself by participating in the brutality of circumcision.It was a total “What kind of mother am I?” moment… like, how can I be so cruel to my new baby? That’s what it felt like to me when we got there and the old guy started taping his asshole shut (which was his way of keeping the baby from shitting during the trauma.) It was horrible.

My doctor said she was really glad I wasn’t doing it, because she hates doing them… but she circumcised her own kid!

What was kind of cool for me about the bris was that it was the first moment for me of really realizing that I had love for this baby. I was so shell-shocked and out of it and not consciously understanding my relationship to him. Then at the moment that they took him away to do this thing that I knew was going to cause him pain, I felt, Ohmigod, I’m this kid’s mother, and I need to protect him, and I felt a rush of relationship to the whole history of women before me with sons who had been hurt…and it was just a real feeling of tribal connection to the human race.

The decision was hard for my husband. He's Jewish but he's never been observant, nor has his family. But he started thinking a lot about his Jewish identity. He'd married a non-Jewish woman, now he’s going to have a half-Australian, non-circumcised son, is he a total sellout? But then, the kid’s not Jewish anyway if we’re playing by those rules. And he reasoned that Jews are also "people of Science," and every pediatric association said it was not medically necessary.

Right, there are things about it that are better, and things about it that are worse. It’s an unnecessary surgery. That said, there are risks it lessens, like the risk of cervical cancer in women. That was my mom’s big defense when I was freaking out about circumcising… “Think of it as a feminist choice.” For us because we are Jewish in an active way, and we come from families who are strongly identified that way, it would have been a major, major thing to not do it. And I just didn’t feel strongly enough about it to make that choice, even though I felt bad about the act and about causing him pain. And I felt bad about the supposed sensation loss, too, although I did have that dream about guys who are circumcised getting more blow jobs which I found strangely reassuring.

I'd had sex with uncircumcised men when I went to college in Melbourne and recall being far more concerned with what to do with a penis in general than what to do with a foreskin in particular. They certainly never skeezed me out, or smelled bad or anything. I do think in this country it’s a really, really difficult choice to make, though, because 80% of people do circumcise.

A lot of people are like, how are you going to explain it? Like it’s so impossible to explain. And my answer to that is: there are so many complicated things we’re going to have to explain to this kid about the world, it’s unbelievable the kinds of contradictions that are out there and the hypocrisy, and all these things that don’t really add up or make sense. And just to say, look, when your Daddy was a little baby this is what they did, when you were born we made the decision to do it this way. The question of whether a boy should "look like" his daddy runs pretty deep—the real issue seems to be less about "matching outfits" and more about acknowledging the father's penis as the "model"—the ideal. So then I thought, will we be saving the baby from a primal wound but opening one in the father?

Since I'm English/Australian all the men in my family have foreskins so I was sort of used to the idea. And we both shared an impulse to just NOT DO things. It felt like more of an effort for us to justify doing it than not doing it.

There are people who are 100% on one side or the other, but neither of us seemed to be in that place. For us the religion thing definitely tipped the scales, but it still left us with some angst.

We debated it for the entire time I was pregnant. And we still think about it. When I read in Slate about a new study showing that risk of AIDS can be significantly reduced if a man is circumcised I got that familiar sinking feeling. You make a choice based on science thinking that's the rational way to go, but science just ain't that certain. Study refutes study... and we're left in the dust. As a parent you put in all this effort, and you think about the research, your values, your beliefs but it just seems there are just some decisions you can never be that certain about.

Meanwhile, we just really need to find a pediatrician who knows more about toddler foreskin care than we do.

by thenewmoms at 10:59 AM
in baby | baby | birth


Hi, I'm writing from Australia so I will have a slightly different perspective. In our rural community by my estimate only about 30% of male babies have a circumcision. I know that not because I go around pulling down little boys diapers but because I'm a rural doctor (a rural family practitioner) and I deliver babies and I know how many I refer off to a colleague for circumcision.

The way I present the information I have to parents considering whether they will have their baby boy circumcised is that there are no compelling medical reasons to have a circumcision done and that in my experience parents who choose to have their son circcumcised usually use the reasoning that they want their little boy to be happy that his penis looks like his father's penis. When I write it down like that I think that's a pretty weird argument, what little three year old looks at his peanut sized organ with or without a foreskin and thinks " Hey look mine's just like Daddy's" ? I mean... .

However there are some good reasons to have circumcisions and Ceridwen has mentioned the compelling evidence coming out of Africa that circumcision offers protection against contracting AIDS. There is also the question of hygiene. Skin and secretions can gather under the foreskin and if you are exposed to carcinogens in your environment ( like the chimney sweeps of old were with soot getting I mean just EVERYWHERE) this can get smelly and even increase the risk of cancer of the penis (extremely, extremely rare in non chimney sweeps) Hygiene for men and boys with a foreskin is quite simple really in the shower they should pull back the forekin and rinse the penis with water. The foreskin will retract in little boys when they are developmentally ready for that to happen (usually some time between 2and 4 years of age) and should be allowed to retract in its own good time. Parental intervention in that is neither necessary nor advised. Leave it to the little lad to take care of himself.

The argements against circumcision are that babies can have trouble with clotting when they are newborn and there may be serious haemorrhaging; an exposed glans (the very sensitive head of the penis) becomes less sensitive and this presumably has an impact on a man's sexual experience in the long term and in the short term very sensitive skin is exposed to the pretty harsh environment of the diaper (urine and faeces are not kind to any skin) and then there is the pain issue... babies do feel pain they just can't put it into words. The final argument is that the foreskin if left in place can be used as tissue if there are congenital abnormalities of the penis and urethra which need to be surgically repaired. The last one seems to me to be pretty lame, I mean a very cursory examination down there would let you know if there was an abnormality requiring repair.

So then the million dollar question: Would I have my baby boy circumcised? Well I've got three sons and they all have their foreskins even though their father is circumcised like most men over 30 in Australia.

comment by Ruth at February 16, 2006 1:43 AM

Thank you for the foreskin advice! I will leave it to the lad. And be sure he does not pursue a career in chimneys.

comment by ceridwen at February 16, 2006 9:17 AM

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