This letter is therapy for a mother who feels an enormous amount of guilt. It is many years in the making, and required a great deal of courage to put on paper. The subject matter is painful for me to think about, talk about, or write about.
In nursing school at the age of 17 I saw my first birth, a boy. As I looked at him I wondered if he was deformed as I had never seen an intact male. It took a few minutes before I realized why his penis looked different. The next day I observed the circumcision of that boy. It never occurred to me to question what was being done.
Pregnant with my first child at the age of 22, I remembered the births I had seen in nursing school and knew I wanted mine to be different. It was. I was well read about avoiding routine interventions by the time my son was born and I delivered him without using medication, in an upright position, without the use of episiotomy or interference of any kind. I was asked to sign the consent form for circumcision during labor. Risks of the procedure were never discussed, nor did anyone ever suggest to me that it not be done. My husband is circumcised, and I had literally never known anyone who wasn't. My son was born at midnight, and when he was brought to me at 7:00 the next morning he had already been circumcised. I was shown how to keep his raw little penis covered with vaseline on a gauze pad until it healed. He now looked like all the other little boys I'd ever been around.
By the time my second son was born 3 1/2 years later I had been exposed to people who had left their sons intact. I knew it wasn't necessary for medical reasons, but thought that the social reasons were worth considering. I remember a conversation I had with a male friend during my pregnancy in which he told me about his nephews who weren't circumcised. He claimed that these boys begged their mother to let them get their "skin" cut off so they would look like all their friends. That conversation left quite an impression on me.
Unlike his older brother, my second son was born at home. The next day I made an appointment with our family doctor to have him circumcised when he was five days old. I was aware of this doctor's position in support of circumcision. I considered him to be a friend, especially after his willingness to attend our homebirth. Something unexpected happened in this baby's first five days of life. I changed many diapers on my still intact son, and thought how nice he looked. For the first time I entertained the idea of not having him circumcised. At the suggestion of this my husband started calling his brother and sister to ask what they had done with their sons. Of course he found no support for what I was suggesting. He also told me locker room stories from his childhood about how "strange" the uncircumcised boys looked.
When we took our son in at five days, I requested that the doctor do a "mini-circ" so that my son wouldn't have trouble with too little shaft skin like I had heard some men do. The doctor responded to my request by saying "get your order in now while you can". I also insisted on staying in the room while Ethan was circumcised. The doctor seemed uncomfortable with this, and remarked that I shouldn't put myself through anything I didn't need to, but I felt that if Ethan had to go through it, I should too. During the circumcision I tried to comfort him by trying to get him to suck on my finger. The doctor remarked to me that "nothing helps". At a certain point during the procedure I had the closest thing I have ever had to an out-of-body experience. I had to emotionally disconnect from what was going on in that room in order to get through it. I couldn't take his struggling and the soundless cry that soon changed to listlessness. I felt that I was observing myself watching the whole thing. I wanted to stop the circumcision soon after it started, but felt that the harm had already been done (and besides, I didn't want to embarrass myself in front of the doctor I respected). On my way out of the procedure room I looked at my sons severed foreskin in the trash can and wondered if it was too late to put it back on.
Ethan slept the rest of the day. I am convinced he was responding to the trauma by this deepest of sleep. When I changed his first diaper after the circ I was repulsed by what I saw! My perfect little boy had changed. He looked wounded!! The next day I observed that the whole body of his penis seemed to be retracted into his body. It looked like he didn't even have a penis. He was 18 months old before his penis was not retracted into the base of his abdomen the majority of the time.
I was depressed. My depression only deepened when a friend stopped by with a meal and told me that she hadn't had either of her boys circumcised. This was a fact I hadn't known. My husband also reacted to my regret by telling me that his dad hadn't been circumcised, and one of his closest friends was also intact. I felt angry at him for denying me the information that could have given me the strength to stand up against Ethan's circumcision. I tried to defend my actions to myself in order to feel like I wasn't a monster. To a certain extent I succeeded.
When my son was four months old my good friend Jody McLaughlin was involved in bringing Marilyn Milos to my hometown for a presentation about genital integrity. She invited me, and I remember feeling that I really didn't want to attend. But in the end, I went as a favor to a friend. While there I saw the movie "Fire Eyes" about female circumcision. I witnessed a baby girl held down while her genitals were cut, and I wanted to grab her and protect her! I experienced a cringing feeling that started in my genitals and worked its way up to my throat! I felt sick to my stomach and had to leave the room. I told Jody "Oh my god! It's the same thing!", (meaning male circumcision and female circumcision). I realized for the first time how desensitized I had become to the subject. That day marked a complete turn-around in my feelings. What had ever made me think that it was a decision I had a right to make? The thought of someone exerting that kind of control over a child's body moved me like little else has.
When I learned that our third child would be another boy, I have to admit that I was disappointed. Now I am thankful that God gave me another "Chance" because I have a stronger voice because of it. At age 5 years Jesse has had no problems with his uncircumcised penis. I have to admit that it took a little getting used to. It looked so different from what I was used to seeing, but time has changed my perception. I had never noticed the scar on my husband and my first two sons until I noticed the ABSENCE of a scar on Jesse. How I could have ever thought that a circumcised penis was cosmetically better is a mystery to me now. I see how perfect and natural Jesse looks, and I would give anything to go back 10+ years so that I could have 3 uncircumcised sons. Jesse is less inhibited about his genitals than his brothers are, and he is much better endowed. I wonder if the removal of the vast amount of tissue, nerve endings and the circulatory damage of circumcision somehow affects how the penis develops and matures. Jesse has a higher pain tolerance than either of his brothers, and he complains less when in cool water than they do. Both of my other sons hold their genitals and complain about the temperature of the swimming pool if it isn't warm that day, but Jesse's little "blanket" serves him well.
I urge any of you who can use my story to do so. If there is one consolation I can take to my grave it is this: The sacrifice of my first two sons' foreskins has saved countless more boys from this procedure than if I had left them intact. And it has taught me to always, always QUESTION.