I've thought of writing an article on circumcision many times over the last three years, since I started this blog. Something always stopped me. It was shame. I'm still deeply ashamed to confess that I made a big mistake. My sons are circumcised.
I apologised to them. The first time must have been about two years ago, when Dave was seven and Alex five. I said, 'There is something I need to tell you. When you were babies, your father and I took you to a doctor and he cut a bit of skin off your penis. I think that was a wrong thing to do and I am very sorry we did it. Please forgive me.' I don't remember Alex having any reaction to that, maybe he wasn't listening. Dave was surprised but not alarmed. He asked why.
I didn't want to do it. But when we knew we were having a son, the topic immediately came up between my then husband and me. I said no. He said yes, like father like son. I avoided the subject. We didn't talk about it again until the baby was born. He asked a nurse at the hospital; he wanted it done straight away. She told us that it's not normal procedure to do it at the hospital anymore; it's a private thing nowadays, and in fact lots of parents are choosing not to circumcise their sons. She said it was actually not easy to find a doctor who would do it, but she knew one and gave us his card. I felt guilty already, by the mere act of accepting the card. She also urged us to call him in the next couple of weeks; the younger the boy the better it is to circumcise him, also less painful.
I was still saying no. I couldn't bear the thought of anyone causing pain to my baby boy. Besides, the whole concept of circumcision was very foreign to me. In Spain, where I grew up, it has never been done right after a perfectly healthy male baby is born. I have two brothers who are not circumcised. One of my cousins was, when he was eight or nine, after he was diagnosed with phimosis. Growing up I remember hearing of another case, a boy who missed a few days of school because he needed an operation on his penis. So, some boys were circumcised, but it was extremely rare. In my early twenties, I had a boyfriend who grew up in Barcelona but had moved to the U.S. when he was not quite a teenager yet. There he found that all boys were circumcised, and even as an adult he told me he wished he had been too. It was a case of peer pressure. Then I was living in the U.S. myself, and later I had another boyfriend who was circumcised. All men were. I found it quite shocking. A Canadian told me that a girl had once felt quite repulsed because he wasn't! Then I met my Australian husband and found out that here in Australia circumcision at birth was also the norm forty years ago. And he was quite happy with that. In fact, I personally didn't know any circumcised man who wished he hadn't been (later a friend told me that her circumcised husband was totally against it and he suspected that being circumcised had negatively affected his sex life).
My husband's argument was that he didn't remember having been cut. So, as far as he knew, there was no pain, which was my main concern. On the other hand, being circumcised was cleaner, and he wanted his sons to be like him. I didn't have a penis, so I didn't know. I mentioned the matter to my parents and they said we were lucky to have the option in Australia. My father thought it was best to be circumcised. My mother said that back when my older brother was little, the doctor told her she had to retract the foreskin so that it would not adhere to the glans. When my younger brother was born that was not in fashion anymore. None of us ever touched his penis. We didn't tell him off either when he did. I always take doctors' advice with a huge pinch of salt. I have so many reasons to. I don't take my boys to the doctor anyway, not unless it's a matter of life or death.
I finally agreed to go and see the doctor, although I insisted that it was only for a consultation. He explained to us that for hygienic and medical reasons it was better to be circumcised. It was also advisable to do it in infancy, and it was not painful. He regretted the trend of recent decades to not circumcise but said it was already making a comeback and predicted the rates would keep rising. He told us about the procedure, which would only take ten minutes and could be scheduled for the following week. I was still not convinced, but I finally gave in, especially because he said he would feel no pain.
I wanted to be present, and I was until the doctor injected the local anesthetic. Then I started crying, and the nurse demanded that we leave the room. We heard our baby boy crying the whole time, but he had begun as soon as I had handed him to the nurse. He didn't stop until he was back at my breast. The nurse shocked me by stroking his head and saying, 'You'll be glad when you're older. Girls will like you better.' The doctor gave me a cream that I was to apply twice a day for a week. This turned out to be easier than I thought. Then we saw the doctor again. He was happy with the way the wound was healing. That was it. I never had to worry about my son's penis again, apart from reminding him to clean it, just like his ears, his bum, and the rest of his body. We did the same to our second son, who came soon after.
Since then, I've heard a lot about the circumcision debate. One of my friends was a pretty active intactivist and she confronted me several times. She was angry at me for having given in. I grew tired of it all. It was done and I couldn't change it. But I knew that I would talk to them about it. I wouldn't pretend that nothing had happened as if they had been born this way. I would bring it up before they asked.
The third time we talked about it, only a week ago, it came up when we were reading a book about the traditional life of the people of North East Arnhem Land. We learned that boys are circumcised as an initiation ritual before adolescence. I didn't know this and was surprised. My comment was, 'Aboriginals are circumcised too? Isn't any culture spared?'
Alex asked me what that meant. I told him and they both let out a scream of horror. I said, 'You too are circumcised.' Alex started crying and asked why. I explained again that it had been a tough decision for me and that I believe I had made a huge ethical mistake. If I could go back in time I would have insisted that we wait until the boys were old enough to decide for themselves.
Alex said, 'I've seen that my penis is different from my friend's, when we go to pee at the gym toilets. His is pointy. I thought my penis was normal, not his. But now I know I don't have a real penis!'
I assured him that his penis is still real and it looks like his father's. I could have said many other things that would have made him feel better, but it didn't feel authentic to keep justifying myself, so I didn't.
He said, 'Why did you listen to him? You've been on the planet for longer and you read more books, so you know more stuff than he does.' To which I apologised again and said, 'I made a mistake. You're right and I was wrong. You know better than I did even though you've been on the planet for only seven years and you don't read as much as I do. So age and books are no guarantee of wisdom.'
After a pause in which they seemed to have calmed down, I said, 'The good thing is that I never again let anyone make any decision concerning your lives. And luckily your father has been very supportive even when he's not totally convinced.'
I really stuck to that. I became a ferocious mama bear. It all started when another nurse at the hospital tried to push me to bottle-feed my first son. She said my milk was not good enough. I did not listen to her and she was soon proven wrong. Then I had people opposing me because I co-slept with my babies, or because I didn't punish them. They said my children were controlling my life. I did not listen to them either. And, obviously, I did not listen to those advocates for schooling who feel threatened by my choice to not school my boys. Each to their own.