The Circumcision Decision: my story as a mom of boys
by Heather Hilton, LM
My first sticky little baby was plopped into my arms the month before I turned 20 years old. I was a baby myself, by all accounts. Oh, of course I thought I had the world at my fingers and I had the answers to all the questions. I married my highschool sweetheart at the ripe age of 18 and at this point we were living on the opposite side of the country from our parents, and feeling so wordly as we learned how to survive as a military family. It was 1997, and AOL had just started booming. Jewel was on the radio, and Hilary Clinton was our First Lady, rather than a presidential nominee.
Back to my sticky new baby. A boy! We knew he was a boy and every ultrasound had confirmed it. I’ll never forget the day we could see his testicles on the sonogram screen and my husband named them “thunder, and steel”. We named the actual baby Michael, which means “who is like the Lord?” and I couldn’t believe it was up to us, practically children, to raise this tiny little human thing.
The day after his birth, a sweet nurse poked her head in and said “you’re circumcising him, right?” and I absentmindedly nodded my head yes. I mean, duh. My husband was circumcised and it’s the “normal” thing to do and here we are in the hospital where they can just “take care” of such a thing so why not? YES. By all means, please whisk my baby away and slice off a piece of the most sensitive part of his body and return him to me. K, thanks.
We weren’t given the offer to go with our sweet swaddled little bundle as they wheeled his little see-through hospital gurney away. I don’t know that we would have gone anyway. My husband and I exchanged one tiny fearful glance, and then nothing. It was as if it was the most normal thing in the world.
About 10 minutes later, our babe was returned to us. He was tightly swaddled and sleeping like…well, sleeping like a baby. And he slept. And he slept. And he slept for 10 hours straight. (This is a shock response, by the way) Nothing would wake him. He missed several feedings. When he finally woke, I called the nurse in as I had been instructed so she could walk me through the care of the circumcised penis during the diaper change.
She pulled the diaper gently back and I jumped. I’m not sure what I was expecting to see. I think I was anticipating a perfect little circumcised penis with maybe a small, neatly healed, cut. Naïve. So naïve. Instead, what I saw looked more like a bright red maraschino cherry covered in pus. The nurse realized I was completely grossed out and she attempted to comfort me by telling me that it was “normal” and “that’s how it’s supposed to look”. No, lady, that is not normal and it is definitely not supposed to look like that! But I shook my head and had faith that she knew better than I did. I hoped, at least.
We followed the prescribed care schedule, squeezing copious amounts of Vaseline on the flaming red glans of his very newborn penis, and covering the whole thing with gauze, at every diaper change. Eventually red turned to pink, and pink returned to flesh colored, and it healed. Actually, it looked pretty great. In fact, they did an excellent job as far as circumcisions go. (I’m sure he’ll appreciate reading this).
As time went on, the circumcision decision felt like such a little blip in the grand scheme of things and it looked great, and “normal”, and Michael didn’t seem traumatized in any way by the experience. So if I’m being honest, I don’t think I would have said that I regretted the decision. It felt like it was just one in the long line of difficult decisions to be made as a parent. The ugliness of the recovery was just part of it, but we all lived through it.
Fast forward 3 years. My beautiful brown eyed boy came into the world two weeks late. His birth was beautiful and painless and all the things a birth should be. He had been shy during ultrasound, always crossing his legs, so we weren’t quite sure if he was going to be a boy or a girl until he was actually earthside. But he looked exactly like his brother and he was perfect…perfectly perfect from head to toe. And hairy.
Surprisingly, when asked about circumcision at the hospital, we told the pediatrician we were planning to go ahead. Our thoughts were that it would be strange to have one boy circ’d and not the other, and besides that my husband is still circumcised and a boy should look like his father! Right? I mean….right?
The next day, the pediatrician was performing his rounds and informed us that due to an overwhelming number of cesareans that day (rolling my eyes here), there was no additional staff to assist in the circumcision procedure. The mutilation of my son’s genitals would have to wait until we could travel to the pedi’s office.
Five days following his birth, we nervously drove our sweet new baby to the pediatrician. On the way I was thinking “No big deal…we’ve done this. We’re experienced parents now. We got this.” Serious butterflies in the waiting room. In my stomach, that is. Our name was called and we were ushered down a long hallway to the room where the procedure would take place. Our babe was weighed and measured and generally given the once over. Yep, still perfect.
Then the pediatrician sat down and looked us straight in the eyes. “Mr. and Mrs. Hilton….I want to make sure you understand that this is a cosmetic procedure. This is not a medical necessity.” We both nodded in agreement, but I was shocked. No one had ever even suggested that we had a choice, much less that the better choice might be to leave our son’s penis intact! Nonetheless, we signed the waivers to get on with it. This was the decision we had made for our son.
Then the board was brought in. Well, I’m sure that’s not what it’s called but for lack of a better term…a board. It had a depression in the center, generally the shape of a baby. There were straps designed to restrain the head, arms and legs. My brand new, perfect, bright eyed baby was about to be strapped to the board. Be strong. Hold it together. “Would you like to stay in the room?” Hell no. Get me out of here. “Um, no thank you. I don’t want him to see me while it’s happening” is what tumbled out of my mouth. I handed my warm little squishy bundle over to the nurse who began strapping him down. He immediately began crying and my husband and I hurriedly left the room.
Quickly, we walked down the hallway, in the futile attempt to escape his screams. Out the door into the lobby…we still hear him. We look at each other and agree to walk outside for some air. Once outside in the cool February mist, we can still hear our sweet boy wailing. Both of us were in tears. We hugged each other tight and made promises of “never again.”
One of the techs came to let us know it was finished and we followed the screaming, back to our son. I immediately scooped him up and started cooing to him the way mothers so naturally do. I opened my shirt and latched him on, hoping to give him some kind of relief from the pain. He nursed between sobs but still wasn’t able to stop crying. After a few minutes of nursing, he vomited everything he had nursed. He absolutely could not calm himself. I felt like I had broken my perfect boy.
Again, with the Vaseline. Again, with the pus covered maraschino cherry. Again, with the gauze. However, the recovery was not so smooth this time. Our baby boy screamed every time he urinated for over a week. It was so obviously terribly painful. I felt tremendous guilt for his suffering. A thousand times I begged his mercy. After a couple of weeks it eventually healed, and his urination was normal, but I would never look at circumcision the same light again.
We planned a homebirth with a midwife for our third son, two years later. Things did not quite go as planned, as things sometimes have a way of doing, and he was born at the hospital. As it were, he spent 4 days in the NICU. If you’ve ever had a child in the NICU, you know that 4 days might as well be 40 years. Time absolutely stands still there. During those 4 days, we were approached several times regarding circumcision. First by the nurse “no thank you”. Then by the pediatrician “no thank you”. No one was pushing it, simply asking. We thought that was it. However, a well-meaning family member continued to call and harass us about “going ahead and getting it done” while we were in the hospital. See…here’s the thing. My poor baby is already being poked and prodded in the NICU. The very last thing he needs is a piece of his penis chopped off!! But thanks for looking out.
I think my husband had some misgivings about leaving our third son intact. No, I’m lying. I know for sure he had misgivings. He thought we were making a mistake. Moreover, he thought I was making a mistake. But I just kept going back to that moment standing outside the pediatrician’s office, holding each other, crying, and promising “never again.” I meant it. I know at the time we both meant it. So, I was willing to just be strong enough for both of us, and eventually he would come around to things. And he did. As he so often does.
However, we did have to address a few things he was initially concerned about:
- His penis won’t look the same as dad’s.
- If you’re standing around staring at each other’s penises, we have bigger problems than circumcision.
- He has blonde hair and you have dark brown hair. Should we dye his hair to match yours? It’s more obvious than penis shape.
- If you lost your arm in a terrible accident, would we cut off one of his arms to match?
- What if he can’t keep it clean?
- The uncircumcised penis is a self-cleaning organ while the foreskin is still attached to the glans. There is NO REASON to forcibly pull the foreskin back. It will naturally retract sometime before or during puberty. After it retracts, he should clean it like any other part of his body.
- I guarantee my vagina and labial folds have many more, deep, dark recesses to clean than does an uncircumcised penis. Somehow, I’ve always kept it clean.
- What if girls think it’s gross?
- My dad is uncircumcised and he managed to get married TWICE.
- What if all the other kids are circumcised and he gets made fun of?
- Worldwide, the percentage of intact men far surpasses the percentage of cut men. In fact, worldwide 80% of men have intact penises.
- In the US, the tide has recently turned that there is a slightly larger percentage of uncircumcised males.
- See 1.a. (as in, stop looking at my kid’s penis)
- Isn’t it more hygienic to be circumcised?
- Actually, no. The American Academy of Pediatrics concluded that there is very little difference in the hygiene of the intact vs. circumcised penis.
- Speaking of the AAP, what do they recommend?
- Glad you asked! The AAP has stated that while there may be benefits to circumcision, there is not sufficient evidence to recommend routine infant circumcision.
- But we’re Christians, aren’t we supposed to circumcise? Wasn’t that the pact between God and Abraham? (Genesis 17:10)
- The law of circumcision was an agreement between God and the Jewish people.
- When Jesus came to save, He made it clear that a belief in Him is what saves our souls, not an act of the flesh.
- 1 Corinthians 7:18-20 “Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised. Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts. Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called ”
So,he’s intact. Our third boy is intact and other than him getting a clip-on tie stuck on his foreskin when he was 3, we’ve had absolutely no issues. The care of the uncircumcised penis was a breeze. Basically, I did nothing. I left it alone. I cleaned the poop off of it during diaper changes and left it alone. Lo and behold, it didn’t get infected or fall off! He’s 13 now. He has had no problems in the locker room. His brothers know that his penis looks different and it’s not really a topic of conversation. I mean, seriously. I’m short. You’re tall. He’s blonde. She’s a brunette. Since when do we have to look alike? And to that end, let’s be clear that kids are going to tease each other for any number of reasons. If it’s not a penis, it’ll be something else. Circumcising your kid will not keep him from being teased.
In addition, should our son choose to be circumcised later in life, I will gladly pay for it. But the point is, he gets to decide. If he feels like we didn’t make the best decision, he can take charge of his own body and have the surgery. But I can’t ever give my other boys their foreskin back. I chose an elective surgery for non-willing participants. I made choices for their bodies that weren’t mine to make. Obviously, as parents we step in and make the final decision in matters of medical urgency or even simply medical need. Cosmetically altering his body so it looks like his dad’s is certainly not a medical necessity. And it makes absolutely no physiologic sense that it doesn’t hurt babies like it hurts older kids. Yes it certainly does. They just don’t have the means to communicate the pain. The body, moreover, remembers everything at a cellular level. No one is spared pain by routine infant circumcision.
Oh, and a follow up to our second boy with his traumatic circ. He peed the bed until he was 11. He is the only child in our 5 children who have potty trained to ever have trouble with night time urination. At one point we took him to a pediatric urologist who confirmed there was no structural problem, but I’ll always mentally make the association. How could I not?
I specifically chose not to go into graphic, gory detail about the circumcision surgical procedure. You can google it, and I encourage you to watch a video. My goal here is to share my own experience as a mother of how I came to the conclusion to circumcise, if you can call it a conclusion, and why I currently don’t recommend routine circumcision. If I had 10 more boys, I would leave them all intact. Obviously, every parent has to make their own decisions, and circumcision is simply one of the many choices parents must make in the early baby days.
Thanks to Life In Motion Photography for the beautiful images.