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The Circumcision Decision: When a Mama Changes Her Mind

Taylor Hengen Newman

When I was pregnant with Kaspar and we found out he was going to be a boy, one of the doctors at my OB practice -- I had a few appointments with each doctor throughout my pregnancy so we’d be familiar if my regular doc happened not to be available when I went into labor -- asked if we had any opinions about circumcision. I hadn’t given it much thought yet, and said so, which launched the doctor into a pretty hard sell in the procedure’s favor. Circumcision reduces STD risk, he said, and while I can’t now remember the other details of his pitch, I definitely got the gist that he dismissed potential parental hesitations around the subject as essentially alarmist and uninformed. I hadn’t been aware that any debate existed around circumcision at all, and Aaron and I were yet to discuss it amongst ourselves; we let the doctor say his piece and then moved on. (I later told my regular doctor that I didn’t get a particularly great vibe from that other one and preferred, if possible, not to deliver with him.)

At home, Aaron and I discussed whether we’d circumcise our newborn son. I asked Aaron how he felt about it, and he shrugged, saying nonchalantly that since he himself is circumcised, and most boys are, he felt our baby probably should be, too. I recalled that all of the penises I’d, er, encountered, to date, had been circumcised (adding that I hadn’t met an unusual number of penises or anything like that) except for one, which belonged to a man who was not American by birth. I didn’t particularly want my own son to be the odd one out in the locker room after gym class, and I also wanted to provide my husband with as active a role in the whole pregnancy, birth and baby thing as possible. Our son’s penis seemed like suitable Dad territory. I also hadn’t encountered any real discussions around reasons not to circumcise, so I consented to it, and went with the line of thinking – which was echoed between my husband and my own doc, too – that circumcision is normal, and wouldn’t be a big deal. It’s something you either did or didn’t do, and then it would be done (or wouldn’t). This was also the basic sentiment presented in the standard collection of birth and baby books friends had leant me for my pregnancy.

When Kaspar was born, he was perfect, and exuded peace. (He still does.) He nursed in the first few minutes after his arrival, after having some extra fluid suctioned from his lungs. Our first hour together as a family was magical. Then, he was taken to the nursery (standard hospital procedure at Mt. Sinai in New York) and I to a maternity room. I’ve written about that prison-like post-delivery hospital experience; although I believed going with the flow for my first birth would make things easier (as opposed to having a plan), I have since learned that not only delivery itself, but also the events and tone set in its subsequent hours and days, have an enormous impact on mothers and babies alike. In the case of Kaspar’s birth, I found myself essentially abandoned (Aaron wasn’t permitted to spend the night) in a loud, rather unsanitary and, significantly, uncaring environment, while Kaspar was kept in the nursery for far longer than I’d expected. Hours upon hours upon hours. When he was finally brought to me – I’d clearly communicated that he was to be a breastfed baby, even though I had no idea how to go about doing that, practically – I was told he’d been kept there for monitoring, due to additional fluid in his lungs. This was disconcerting in itself. When he writhed and cried after eating, I sensed something was amiss, and worried. When I could hardly find a nurse to answer my questions – let alone a lactation consultant, who was promised but only appeared when I was signing my discharge papers several days later – I began to panic. Aaron returned the next day, and although I felt completely disoriented, I tried to get into the happy-new-family mode. I was afraid I’d seem paranoid if I said much about my real feelings at the time. Friends stopped by to visit. (One later told me she deliberately decided not to give birth at that hospital because of her brief visit with me there – she said there was an incessant buzzing and the atmosphere freaked her out. Damn right! I wasn’t just paranoid…) My doctor even came to say hi. Then he and Aaron took Kaspar off to be circumcised.

When they returned, Kaspar was asleep, but he didn’t look peaceful anymore. His face was red and seemed scrunched up, almost as if he were grimacing. He was swaddled tightly, and he remained asleep like that for most of our remaining stay. I breastfed twice more, to the same crying, writhing result, until Kaspar fell asleep, grimacing, again. Most of the nurses were outright hostile, and did not welcome questions about my body or baby. (I was meanwhile bleeding and leaking and ached – I’d had an episiotomy and an epidural during delivery, and everything hurt.) One nurse was more kind, and clearly took pity on me. She watched Kaspar nurse; his ears wiggled, and he was gulping milk, so everything seemed to be working. She had to move on with her rounds, and by the time she’d returned, the writhing and crying had happened, and subsided, and my baby was asleep once again. I told her I’d seen white fluid in his mouth when he cried, and she asked if reflux ran in my family at all. I said “Why? What? Does he have reflux?” and she became flustered, explaining that she couldn’t possibly diagnose him, and that it’d be hard to tell what was going on right now because he’d just been circumcised, and thus would mostly sleep in the way that he was. “It knocks them out for a little while,” she explained. “He’ll perk up in a few days.”

It turned out Kaspar did have reflux. Then terrible eczema, and food allergies. I’ve written extensively about all of this, too, here on – many of you have followed along with our family’s journey. And while his circumcision did not in any way cause or contribute to these other conditions, it did make an already difficult in-hospital situation that much more challenging. It made an already mysterious baby-health situation even harder to decipher. It impeded Kaspar’s and my ability to get to know each other and nurse after he was born, because he was asleep; between that and the reflux, my confidence in breastfeeding’s viability for us was eroded to the extent that I bought formula during our first ride home, supplemented from the beginning, and soon lost my milk supply. We never got our breastfeeding groove on; there were a number of factors involved in that, and circumcision was one of them.

Perhaps most significantly, when I look back at our first photographs, I know which were taken before Kaspar’s penis was cut and which were taken after. And I can see a difference in his face. I don’t think he is traumatized in the slightest by that experience. And while I wouldn’t say it traumatized me, either – hardly – I can say that having seen my child suffer for reasons that have been truly out of my control in the years since, I regret that I signed off on an unnecessary, within-my-control moment of pain, however short-lived, in his first precious days of life.

This isn’t to say I’ve thought about it a lot. I don’t really believe in regretting things to whatever extent we can help it. What good would that do? Our family’s life is joyful and whole. Kaspar is a super happy guy. And I’ve not written about my own feelings on his circumcision before because I don’t want to fan the flames of judgment that rage in what I later learned is an active and fiercely emotional debate around circumcision, among parents. (I have a friend who heard an audible gasp when she changed her son’s diaper during a playdate once, followed by a “How could you?” and a half-hour interrogation by four of her ‘friends’…) While some men may feel, later in life, that their circumcisions were life-altering traumas that affected their bonding ability henceforth (I’ve heard tell of these accounts), I think most men probably don’t feel that way. I know Aaron certainly doesn’t. But I also know that many parents are now choosing not to circumcise their sons, for whatever reasons. Kaspar and his friends, when running naked through our sprinklers, represent a pretty even mix of intact and circumcised boy parts. Had we chosen not to circumcise him, he would not have been the odd one out in the locker room after all.

I have been thinking about this lately, though, because, well, I’m pregnant again. (Duh.) And I felt from the get-go that this birth and post-delivery experience will be different in lots of ways from my first. I do have to give birth in a hospital, because I’m high risk, but I don’t have to be induced (as my first-baby doctor said I did); I plan to have an all-natural birth. I know I’ll get my own room here in Austin. I’ve heard the hospital’s nurses and staff (lactation consultants aplenty) are kind, attentive and respectful of families’ wishes. And I am not letting anyone, for any length of time, take this baby from me while we’re there. I also do not want my baby circumcised.

Our business in the hospital is going to be all about bonding and breastfeeding; guidelines for success in this department frequently include mention of minimizing physical trauma to an infant, and the AAP’s recently-revised stance on circumcision says that although there are medical benefits to the procedure, they are not great enough to recommend it as routine for all newborn boys.. My feeling is that since circumcision is unnecessary, and does affect newborn babies (which can interrupt breastfeeding progress at an important time for mom and baby both to establish breastfeeding skills), we don’t have any reason to do it.

I have another friend whose first son is circumcised, and so is her second. But her second son went into actual shock during the procedure, and had to spend three days in the NICU. Her third son is not circumcised. (They’ve simply told their kids that the guidelines changed and thus the their penises look a little different amongst themselves.) As unusual as shock (or death, which also happens, but is also extremely rare) as a result of circumcision may be, I don’t see the purpose in taking an unnecessary risk along those lines. At heart, though, my feelings on this are emotional. I am already a mother. I feel my child’s pain like it’s my own. And I happened to recently – accidentally -- see a photograph online of a baby being circumcised. Cultural shifts, potential risks and negligible benefits aside, my decision was made then and there.

When I brought it up with Aaron, as we climbed into bed one night a couple of months ago, I was surprised by his response. He was quite defensive; our conversation took on the tone of an argument almost immediately, and we shut it down, said we’d talk about it another time. I brought it up again about a month later. “I’d like us to have a conversation about this sometime,” I said. “One in which we really listen to each other, and try to come to a shared understanding and decision based on love.” (I don’t normally talk like this, really, so he could tell it was a big deal.) We agreed that the conversation needed to happen. Deep down, I kind of hoped we’d find out we were having a girl in the meantime so it’d be moot. I think we both waited to talk about it until we found out, for that reason, but then – last week – I learned (early!) that we’re having another boy.

We are so excited. Kaspar’s going to have a brother! But Aaron and I were going to have a conversation first. We revisited the circumcision topic earlier this week. We both spoke quietly and carefully, but the tension between us was tangible. Aaron felt I’d made a decision unilaterally, without consulting with him. I told him that’s what I was doing – consulting with him. His concerns were focused around our sons looking different from each other, and our second son looking different from him. I told him about my friend’s three sons, and my belief that if he, in particular, is matter-of-fact about the difference, our boys won’t think it’s a big deal. I reminded him of all the little boys we know who also aren’t circumcised; both of our kids will have seen both kinds of penises anyway. Aaron felt I was getting emotional about something that could otherwise be a fast and minor event. I reminded him of my experience with Kaspar – so asleep, so out of it, in the beginning – and about what I’ve read on breastfeeding. I expressed how important it is for me to feel this next baby’s birth AND what comes after are peaceful. I told him this means a lot to me, that the only way I’d allow my next baby to be circumcised is if it were to happen while he nurses. (Active nursing actually dulls babies’ experiences of pain – good to know for any actually-necessary medical procedures they might need). But circumcision isn’t necessary, I said, and if I allow this again it will be something I will regret. There is no context in which I could feel ‘good’ about it, as much as I want to include and embrace my husband’s feelings, too. (As a reminder, my own stance is based in my own experience, which is really personal and unique to me, my family, and our experiences… Every family has a right to their own decisions, and for some families circumcision may be the best one. No judgments.)

Aaron said this final statement pretty much closed the deal; he wasn’t feeling good about it, though -- he thought it unfair for me to ‘put him in the position’ of potentially opposing something I felt so strongly about that I’d regret it if I agreed to what he wanted. I told him I was simply being honest with him, and that I’d want him to tell me if he felt this strongly about something, too. “Do you feel this strongly in favor of circumcising our new son?” I asked. He said no, he didn’t. So it was decided.

I feel relieved and confident, as I look ahead to delivery and think about a birth plan, knowing our baby won’t be circumcised, knowing I won’t have that regret, knowing I now know what questions to ask in general and how I ideally want this delivery to go down. Being a mom, I’m also thinking ahead to how we’ll handle the topic, with both of our boys, as they grow and notice their anatomical differences. I hope my second son doesn’t resent me for choosing to keep his penis intact and thus causing him to appear differently from his dad and his brother. And I hope my first son doesn’t think I allowed a doctor to take a little off the top because I cared any less for his comfort or well-being than I do his little brother’s. I just didn’t know. I didn’t know how trying our first days, and our first year, would be. I didn’t know how our culture was changing. I didn’t know circumcision would make Kaspar sleep, looking noticeably less peaceful than he had, for days. And I didn’t know how I’d feel when it was done.

What I’ll tell my boys is that they’re both normal. They’re both perfect. And both of those things will be true.

What’s your take on circumcision? Are your sons circumcised? Anyone else switch your decision on this between baby boys? How do you talk about it with them? (I KNOW they’re gonna bring it up… Kaspar asked me, incredulously, what was up with my penis the other day -- “Where did it go?” -- which launched a whole different kind of conversation entirely, haha!) I look forward to reading your thoughts and experiences. Please be respectful of others’ in sharing your own; we're all different, and that's okay!