Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A Private Matter

Welcome to the November Carnival of Natural Parenting: What is natural parenting?

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama. This month our Carnival coincides with the launch of Natural Parents Network, a community of parents and parents-to-be who practice or are interested in attachment parenting and natural family living. Join us at Natural Parents Network to be informed, empowered, and inspired!

Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.

I've been so reluctant to write about this since my son's birth, but I feel like it's time. I keep asking myself why I'm feeling apprehensive about it, because I'm generally very good at expressing my opinion.

I think I've figured out the reason for my hesitation: I don't want to write about it because it's private. It's not about me, so I feel like maybe I shouldn't discuss it. But it was (half) my decision, and about half of all new parents have to make this decision, so it's worth discussing.

What am I talking about? Circumcision.

Before very recently, I wouldn't have called myself an "intactivist," but I think perhaps it fits me better than I'd like to admit. For now, maybe I'll call myself a "hesitant intactivist" instead. Here's a little about how I've come to feel the way I do today about circumcision:

Part One: Class
I'm a Registered Nurse. Four years at a liberal arts college and one ridiculously hard licensing exam and I can call myself that. Prior to entering nursing school and beginning my clinical rotations (or getting my job as a nurse's aide), I hadn't seen many naked people, certainly not males. Of course, I understood the difference between circumcised and uncircumcised (intact) penises from my textbooks. I didn't really have an opinion on the subject; in fact, I hadn't given it much thought at all.

One day in a reproductive anatomy and physiology lecture, my professor (who was a medical doctor and also a Catholic priest) started talking about circumcision. I remember feeling awkward as he stood in front of a room full of young women and scoffed about how, "There are women out there who are trying to save the foreskins! Like that's a worthy cause." As I think back on it now, I wish I could look around the room and read the other women's faces around me. There we were, future child-bearers, listening to this wise educator tell us how positively ridiculous it is to leave a baby boy intact.

I remember a couple of other professors bringing the topic up in a different context: providing hygiene to uncircumcised elderly men. The over-arching lesson there was that we should all circumcise our babies so that the nurses who take care of them when they're old men won't have to pull back the foreskin during a bed bath. The fear of finding someone who was unclean was the motivating factor. I realize now that this is a symptom of the gross lack of respect for our elders in this country. We fail to provide many of them (dare I say most?) with the kind of consistent, affordable, loving care that they need to keep their daily needs met.

Part Two: Clinical Rotation
Later that year, I was in my "Mother/Baby" clinical (labor and delivery, postpartum, lactation consulting, postpartum home health). I had always been fascinated with birth, and I have seriously considered continuing my schooling to become a Nurse-Midwife. I remember seeing birth for the first time in person. I was literally holding on to another nursing student as we watched this beautiful baby boy come into the world. I still remember his name. To this day, I feel overwhelmed thinking about how his mother gave us such a huge gift by allowing us to be there to witness that moment.

The next week, I was in the post-partum unit working with a different nursing student, and our clinical instructor told us we'd be watching a circumcision. We helped the nurse bring four precious, tiny baby boys back to the "Circ Room" in the nursery. This room was a small enclosure with windows on all sides within the larger nursery (which was now mostly used for storage since rooming-in had become the norm). The nurse strapped each of the four babies down to individual plastic boards, securing their arms and legs with velcro straps. A couple of them were already crying. The other student nurse and I watched from the nursery, outside the little room. I understood the procedure from a textbook perspective, but still, I didn't know what to expect.

The doctor swept into the tiny room in a hurry, and got right to business. He worked his way in a circle, quickly injecting each boy's penis with Lidocaine: one, two, three, four. All of the babies were screaming by that point. Then, he started over at the beginning—hardly giving the anesthetic any time to take effect—and began to cut. I was horrified. Then, what happened next was what really made the experience stick in my head forever: He finished with the last baby, propped up the board the little one was strapped to so we could see more clearly, and gestured to his bleeding penis. He looked at us, two young women and said, "Now that looks more familiar to ya, doesn't it?" and he winked. What a pig! My mouth fell open and I blushed, not knowing what to do. He laughed and left the room so the nurse could clean up his mess. I could never make eye-contact with him again after that day.

I went back to my dorm that afternoon having decided that if I ever had the opportunity to see a circumcision again, I would refuse. Furthermore, I decided that if I ever found myself in a capacity to be performing the surgery, I would refuse to do it for personal, ethical reasons. It just seemed so wrong. In that moment, I didn't think much about what would happen if I someday gave birth to a baby boy. I'm sure somewhere in the back of my mind I knew that if it felt wrong to do that to someone else's baby, I certainly would not allow someone to do it to mine.

Part Three: My Turn
When I got pregnant, my husband and I had a brief discussion that went something like this: I said, "If we have a boy, we're not going to circumcise him." Then Jaymz said, "Yeah, I know, why would we do that? It's wrong to cut on babies for no reason." End of discussion.

Many months later, our baby was born, and—surprise—he was a boy! He was incredibly beautiful and perfectly made just exactly the way he grew inside me.

We had chosen to have a home birth with midwives so that I could have autonomy, so that I could feel safe and comfortable and never have to fight for the kind of birth we wanted to have. I know what happens in the hospital. I didn't want anyone cutting into my reproductive organs without very good reason. In the same way, I wasn't going to let anyone cut on my amazing little child. It ended up being a non-issue, a non-decision. We did nothing, but sometimes doing nothing can be very important.

Our baby boys deserve genital integrity just as much as our baby girls do. And I've decided, I don't care who makes fun of me or thinks my cause is ridiculous: it's definitely worth fighting for.

Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaStop by Natural Parents Network today to see excerpts from everyone's posts, and please visit a few to read more! Visit Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!

Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants. Three of the participants below will instead be featured on Natural Parents Network throughout the month, so check back at NPN!

This list will be updated by afternoon November 9 with all the carnival links. We've arranged it this month according to the categories of our NPN resource pages on "What Is Natural Parenting?"

Attachment/Responsive Parenting

Attachment/responsive parenting is generally considered to include the following (descriptions/lists are not exhaustive; please follow each link to learn more):
    • "Attachment Parenting Chose Us" — For a child who is born "sensitive," attachment parenting is more a way of life than a parenting "choice." Dionna at Code Name: Mama shares her experiences. (@CodeNameMama)
    • "Parenting in the Present" — Acacia at Be Present Mama parents naturally by being fully present.
    • "Parenting With Heart" — Kat at Loving {Almost} Every Moment parents naturally because healthy attachments early in life help our little ones grow into healthy, functioning adults.
    • "Sometimes I Wish We Coslept" — Sheila at A Gift Universe has started to add cosleeping into her sleep routines and has found frequently unspoken benefits. Watch for her post, which will be featured on Natural Parents Network on Tuesday, November 30. (@agiftuniverse)
    • "Unconditional Parenting" — The philosophy of Alfie Kohn resonates with Erin at Multiple Musings, who does not want to parent (or teach) using rewards and punishment. (@ErinLittle)

Ecological Responsibility and Love of Nature

Holistic Health Practices

  • "Supporting Natural Immunity" — If you have decided against the traditional vaccination schedule, Starr at Earth Mama has some helpful tips for strengthening your children's immune systems naturally.

Natural Learning

  • "Acceptance as a Key to Natural Parenting" — Because Mrs. Green at Little Green Blog values accepting and responding to her daughter's needs, she was able to unravel the mystery of her daughter's learning "challenges." (@myzerowaste)
  • "Let Them Look" — Betsy at Honest 2 Betsy makes time to look at, to touch, and to drool on the pinecones.
  • "Why I Love Unschooling" — Unschooling isn't just about learning for Darcel at The Mahogany Way — it is a way of life. (@MahoganyWayMama)
  • "Is He Already Behind?"Ever worry that your baby or toddler is behind the curve? Danielle at born.in.japan will reassure you about the many ways your little one is learning — naturally — every day. Watch for her post, which will be featured on Natural Parents Network on Tuesday, November 16. (@borninjp)
  • "How to Help Your Child through Natural Learning" — Deb Chitwood at Living Montessori Now offers tips on how to understand and nurture your child's natural learning style. (@DebChitwood)

Healthy Living

Parenting Philosophies

Political and Social Activism


  1. Beautiful post that gave me goosebumps. I've never considered circ at all, and would definitely not do it. You've written so compellingly about it though. Thank you.

  2. Seeing circumcisions of firsthand like that --- wow, mama; I don't think I'd have been able to. Good for you for staying strong for your son. Wonderful post.

  3. Amy I read your post alternately appalled by your professors' and doctor's attitudes, and deeply saddened by the flippant, uneducated beliefs many of the people in our medical community have. I've had several nurses comment on my own blog with remarks very similar to the ones you've spotlighted here. It's just disgusting that medical professionals would justify removing a functioning part of a child's anatomy, simply to make *the medical professionals'* lives easier for a few months/years at the end of the child's life.

  4. That is a very powerful post. I have watched videos of the procedure, and they were honestly horrific. Seeing a circumcision being performed live must be very difficult indeed. As someone who has spent most of my life in Europe, the "need" for routine infant circumcision is quite incomprehensible.


  5. This makes me want to cry, especially the part about that horrible doctor. We are finding out next week if we're having a boy or a girl, but already know we're definitely not circing. I have this paranoia that if we have to go to the hospital it might be done by mistake.

    1. Jenny,use a birth center that does not do circs or any other surgery, or stay at home with a qualified, licensed midwife if you can swing it financially.

  6. OMG. It's the stories from the professionals that always do it for me. Thank you for sharing your experience with us. I was on friendly terms with a resident care attendant (RCA) once who used to complain about the uncircumcised elderly men she had to bathe and how she complained about it so much to another girlfriend of hers that she got her uncircumcised husband to go and have the procedure done. And then they made fun of him post surgery. I thought she was sick. I completely lost respect for her after that. I even asked her, "do you really think mothers should circumcise their baby boys so in 80 years time they can receive better treatment from nurses at the old folks home?" People who think like that shouldn't work in health care or helping professions period. Makes me ill.

  7. I don't even know what to say. Dionna's words seem about right to me: appalled, saddened. Our own decision was probably even more of what you call a "non-decision" -- not based on any experiences like yours or very much research. Just based on a sense of, why mess with things as they are? Reading your post, I feel a greater urgency to the question.

  8. Hi Amy, I'm hesitant to take a 'side' strongly also because I believe in the power of choice, but this is also one area where I believe in -fully informed- choice. NO infant can make the choice so it does not need to be done, period. It's his penis, his body, his integrity, his sensual organ slaughtered... goodness. I obviously agree. And we wonder why some men have issues... seriously! Thank you for beautifully outlining your experience. I hope it allows other mothers to do what their heart calls them to do also.

  9. Well written post! I've left comments before but this time I'm anonymous this time for the privacy of my husband. (Like you said, it's a private matter). After reading this, I really agree that circumcision is an unnecessary procedure and that it's unfair to make that decision for an infant. My husband and I have a daughter and one day we would like to have another baby. We've talked about it when we were to find out the gender of our baby. My husband seemed a bit relieved when we found out it was a girl because of the circumcision issue. He did not have one when he was an infant; however, he needed one when he was 9. It was a painful experience for him. I think that we both agree that circumcision doesn't need to be done, but he wouldn't want a future [hypothetical] son to need that to be done as an older child. The convenience factor (cleanliness) of circumcision is appealing although that's not a reason that it should be done. It's a personal decision for every family to make; however, I'm glad that I have read some literature about the pros and cons of circumcision and not just listen to the "match daddy" sentiment.

    1. Just as an fyi, circumcisions are VERY rarely actually needed later in life. In the past, parents were adviced to pull back the foreskin at every diaper change and clean underneath. We now know that thats horrible advice. The foreskin is fused to the head of the penis in an infant and sometimes all the way through puberty (this is normal), and when you force it back and clean under, you cause damage and infections. The very thing they were trying to avoid, they cause. Its quite likely your husband had been forcefully retracted-or overly cleaned-and that resulted in infection that was then touted as a reason to circ. Alternately he may not have been retractable yet-again, perfectly normal (my 12.5 year old doesn't even retract yet), but again a reason given for circing.

      As long as you avoid doctors who don't understand up to date info, you shouldn't have a problem. You simply clean the outside, once they retract you can have them retract and swish in water, but no soap. If they still don't retract after puberty you can use a steroid cream to help. If they happen to get an infection, you treat it like you would a girl. There's very few legit medical reasons to circ and they're pretty extreme (gangrene, frost bite, cancer).

      I'd also add for arguments sake-being an infant doesn't make it less painful. Its more painful, infants feel things more acutely, they aren't put to sleep, and they only get tylenol after. Just because they can't remember, doesn't make it right.

  10. Thank you so much for this beautiful post. I know it can be intense to write about such a painful and controversial subject, but I'm so glad you put your voice out there. Thanks for sharing your stories of the insensitive attitudes you witnessed from some in the healthcare professions. As others have said, it's appalling and sad.

    I was fortunate in that my husband is intact, so he was able to gently introduce the idea of not circumcising to me before I'd even started to think about kids or research the issue. By then, I knew the foreskin had a purpose and there was no reason to remove it indiscriminately. But I did the research anyway, and it only backed up my newfound respect for intact genitals. Seriously, why does anyone even have to argue for that?

    Thanks again, Amy. Such an important message, and sensitively given.

  11. This is an excellent post. My son was circ'ed because although I knew there were people who didn't do it, I didn't know much about the reasons to do or not do it. And nobody at the hospital really asked if I wanted it done, or if they did it was asked as a formality not as an issue for discussion. I am going to refer friends to this post when they have baby boys.

  12. Thank you again for this post. I shared it with a friend who is due to have a baby boy at any point. Early on in the pregnancy she told me she wanted to leave him intact but in sharing this I have found out her husband and family have convinced her otherwise. I appreciate this because it nudged me to say what needs to be said to help someone see that they still have decision making ability up to the actual circumcision. I care about my friend, and her baby. Of course the decision is up to her :)

    This is a big one I feel strongly about also and didn't realize how strongly again until reading. Thanks and love!

  13. Wow, that was such a well-written and powerful post. Thank you!

    I have two intact boys. :)


  14. Thanks so much for writing this post.

    My husband and I had a similar conversation when I brought up circumcision. I was so glad it was a non-issue since we both saw no need for it.

    I'm the same as you and have never really talked or blogged about it even though it's something I wish people were more educated about. Thanks again for speaking up!

  15. I like your story. I am also an RN, and seeing a circumcision during school is what was my deciding factor, long before I had really given any thought to actually having kids of my own. I love how people always mention that they use an anesthetic. I've had lidocaine injected into my skin, and that stuff HURTS. Imagine having it poked into such a sensitive area on a tiny new baby. And in my experience the doctor also didn't wait for the anesthetic to kick in, either. Just started cutting.
    I gave birth in the hospital I work at, and I'm very lucky that it is an academic institution that gives out recommendations according to current research, not traditions. They actually encourage VBAC and intact boys rather than pushing for the opposite.
    If parents do decide to circ, please have the doctor do it at your bedside. Your baby will be treated much nicer, and if you're deciding to do that to your child, you should be nearby to comfort them afterward.

  16. Thank you for sharing your story. Your little one is beautiful.

  17. I really appreciate your decision and your inactivism. I am (bassathound) on babycenter community,,, If you are not signed up there already, please accept my invitation. At babycenter community we have a (Choosing Not To Circumcise) and a (Circumcision Debate) threads. There are really great parents there! I was blessed to find your blog (this one here)by a link that was posted at babycenter community.
    here is the address:

  18. Oh! I feel sick. I hate reading about circing. I try not to because there are these images that last in my brain for days and weeks. I am an "intactivist" and I get a lot of negative reactions. I don't see how anyone that is educated about circing could possibly encourage it. I don't know what is happening in these doctor's head. I just don't know. It is so sad. I am happy that I am blessed with a wonderful intact husband and two beautiful whole boys. I feel so sorry for all of those beautiful baby boys who are tortured at the expense of "medicine"

  19. Wow. I, also, chose not to circumcise my precious baby boy's genitals. My husband likes to ask "did you circumcise your daughter?" when people ask because that is how ludicrous the procedure is to us. He, being a circumcised male, likes to think that we are ending the cycle of uneducation, and unneeded abuse, with our little one. Daddy is circumcised, but we chose to respect your little body, so you can do the same when you have sons.

  20. It's months later, but I'm finally reading this post and I want to thank you for its eloquence.

    I wouldn't say that I personally have strong feelings about the decisions that other people make, but I was not comfortable having my baby boy circumcised. So I didn't. Reading your description of the procedure just reinforces my decision.

    Interestingly, my mother-in-law, who is also a nurse, expresses some regret at the circumcision of her sons. In the 1970s it was just a matter of course, almost viewed as necessary, but I don't think she was happy about it. I'm glad that the tide is turning.

  21. I find it hard not to get worked up just reading about babies being circumcised. The table where they do them at our birthing center was in the same tiny room where my son had his newborn hearing test - it hardly even looked medical.

    What bothers me the most is that the foreskin doesn't even retract at the time they cut it. Just that plus the infection risk makes the whole thing seem insane.

  22. Hi there! I found your blog as I was stumbling tonight and felt compelled to comment. Your post is beautifully written and compelling. My hope is that it reaches other women who may not have even considered that they have a choice in the matter. We also had a homebirth and left our son intact. I love knowing that his beautiful little body has been left 100% the way nature intended it to be. And yes, it was a non-decision for us as well. It just seemed so, well...natural. :)

  23. I remember reading parts of this on the Peaceful Parenting website and feeling horrified because of what the "doctor" said when he was done. Thanks so much for sharing your story.

  24. Wow. Thank you for sharing this! When I was preparing to fight for Spencer's rights, I knew that videos of the procedure were available. I kept such a weapon up my sleeve, prepared to insist my husband watch a video of the procedure. I have never watched one myself. I absolutely do not want to watch such a thing. I think it would disturb me for a long time.

    And to add to that the crass attitude? That is horrible. Honestly, that is worth reporting a doctor to the hospital!

  25. question to the author: what year(s) were you doing your nursing clinical training?

    1. Thanks so much for your question. The circumcisions I witnessed were during a clinical rotation in the 2004-2005 school year, and I graduated from nursing school in 2007.

      I have never encountered any (even quietly) vocal opponents to circumcision in my professional life—neither during my time at the university (and in clinical rotations) nor since then while working as a nurse at a hospital...but there's still time!

  26. Wonderful post. Thank you for speaking out for the rights of children.

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