The scariest thing about being a parent, so far, is making choices that will have a permanent and lasting impact on our kid. We’ve never even met him… how are we supposed to make these decisions for him? One of the downsides of our current world is an over abundance of information. There are strong supporters of completely opposite views for almost any choice we have to make in life. Parenting is no different. Already, my husband and I have had to make some significant choices for our son’s future. Some were easy to make. Some took us months to decide.
For the next five weeks, I will be publishing an extra post each Friday. This series of “bonus” posts will focus on our first five important parenting decisions. Each of these will reflect the personal choices that Kenny and I have made for our son and our family. They’re not all popular choices. In fact, one or both of our mothers disagrees with each one of these decisions. Many of you will have made the opposite decision. Whether you and I have made the same decision or not, we can agree that we love our children and only want what’s best for them based on our beliefs, research, and perspective. This is a five-part story, not about why our choices are “right,” but about the journey my husband and I have taken over the past six months or so to learn to make decisions as part of a parental unit.
Part 1 of 5- Decision: Circumcision
When my husband and I found out we were having a boy, my mind immediately went to selecting a name for our son. I imagined how sweet it would be to have a little boy who looks just like Kenny. I wondered whether he would be tame and sweet like Kenny and his brother or more domineering like me and my brothers. It didn’t occur to me for quite some time that having a son rather than a daughter meant that we would have to make an extra decision, one that was really important. The first time I was asked if we planned to circumcise, I felt like a deer in headlights. “Yeah, probably, right? I mean, I think like everybody does that. Isn’t that a Jewish thing, though? Kenny’s not Jewish but… wait actually I think most guys are circumcised even though they aren’t all Jewish.” That was my response. It’s a pretty good indication of what was going on in my mind…. I had no idea how to answer. I hadn’t made a choice, I didn’t have enough information to make a choice. In fact, it felt to me like it wasn’t even really a choice- everybody just did it. I hadn’t been a mom before and I hadn’t heard anybody ever grapple over the decision, so it felt like circumcision was almost automatic occurrence. I was caught off guard, so I did what any good twenty-something would do. I went home and googled.
-If you’re still reading and you’re a little squeamish or uncomfortable, feel free to stop here. This is a post based on, well, genitalia. The reality is, moms and dads make these choices and they’re really important, even though they’re a bit awkward to discuss publicly.-
I knew very well that most guys around my age were circumcised because I had heard my friends make remarks when they had encountered uncircumcised penises. It was definitely a rarity. My friends didn’t seem to think there were any downsides to an uncircumcised penis, they didn’t have a negative reaction, but they did feel it was unusual. The words “so weird” were used often.
I found in my internet exploring that I had some ideas right- circumcision was really a religious tradition but it had become common place in the US for all baby boys. This wasn’t necessarily true of other countries. There was also an increase in recent years of US parents choosing not to circumcise. The arguments on either side of the aisle – to circumcise or not to circumcise- were fairly consistent. They related to pain, trauma, religious beliefs, cleanliness, free will, and necessity.
The one thing that both sides agreed on was that older boys should not be circumcised. Occasionally, somebody who is not circumcised at birth chooses to undergo the procedure later in life, usually during puberty or within about 10 years of it. The gist of my research showed that this, basically, sucks. It’s traumatic and incredibly painful. My takeaway: circumcision is a now or never procedure- either we have our son circumcised at birth or he will always be uncircumcised; deciding to “wait until he is old enough to decide for himself” is the same as making the decision for him.
Oh good. So, I either take my tiny little newborn baby boy and hand him over to have part of his penis cut off, or I decide for him that he will be different from his peers and from his father, I decide that even though I’ve never met him, I know that the right choice is for him to be a part of a “growing trend” in America rather than part of the majority. If I decided not to have him circumcised… Would this hurt his self esteem? Would he avoid locker rooms because he was worried he was different? Would he be teased by his peers? Would his penis appear smaller and make him self-conscious? Would he have trouble with girls? Would he have trouble with hygiene? Would he resent us for making this decision for him?
I breached the subject with Kenny. His response was less conflicted. “I am. So, I think I want my son to be like me. And I think he would want to be like me.”
This answer was simple and logical. Typical Kenny. None of my overthinking. No overly-emotional confusion because both sides of the issue have strong points. Just an answer from his daddy intuition.
“Let’s think about it.” I said. But really, even though his answer made sense, it didn’t feel immediately right to me. The only thought I had was “Is that a good enough reason”? I didn’t want to start a debate with Kenny before I even knew what I was thinking so I dropped the topic for a while. I talked to some family members and got all the same responses- everybody in both our families was circumcised and felt that it was the more hygienic and/ or popular option. Most people were uncomfortable, as some of you might be, with how boldly I asked about their opinions on this penis procedure. I can’t help it! I needed information. I think I kept asking more people because I was looking for a different response.
I had one person whom I could talk to who had chosen not to circumcise her son. She and her husband said nothing earth-shattering. They basically said that circumcision is really an “American” thing and not necessary so they chose not to. Of course, their choice made more sense since their son had an uncircumcised father. But my son’s father IS circumcised. Is that the key to my internal debate on whether to do it or not? Whether the father is? Can’t be…
I thought a lot about this choice on and off. I finally realized that I felt there was decent research and information for either choice, but that I felt better about the reasons that non-circumcising parents gave. Nothing more… it just felt right for me. I had decided that I felt that we should not circumcise. I was actually sort of surprised. This is my typical decision-making process. I gather as much information as I can and then I just go with my gut. Here’s the problem with being a parent, though, it’s a two person job (at least in our family). And Kenny’s gut was telling him something different
If you know me and my husband, you know that Kenny tends to go-with-the-flow and I tend to make really strong decisions. In this case, I didn’t feel strongly enough that my decision was the only option that would work with our family to try and convince Kenny of my side. I’m a lawyer. I’m literally trained in presenting my ideas in an articulate and convincing way. Unless Kenny feels strongly, I can always bring him over to my side. I didn’t want to do that here. For one, I didn’t want the blame if this turned out to be our first and worst parenting decision ever. I also didn’t want to start our parenthood relationship off with me trying to bring Kenny to my side of the issue rather than working through it with him.
I asked Kenny if he had thought any more about circumcision and to my surprise, he had waivered a little. He said he had thought about it and he wasn’t really sure. He asked my opinion. I truthfully said there were good arguments on both sides. I gave him a run down of the facts. I made sure to emphasize the stories I had read by boys who were circumcised later in life and how negatively this affected them. I wanted Kenny to know that we were making a permanent and really serious choice. Of course, Kenny’s a guy, so he knows even better than I do that a penis decision is important in a guy’s life. He was unsure of how he felt we should proceed.
Again, I decided to table the issue.
I had a distant relative tell me once that she and her husband were considering adopting a child with special needs. She decided one day that this little girl was meant to be theirs, but she really wanted her husband to decide the same thing on his own and in his own time rather than being influenced by her opinion. In the end, her husband had decided exactly as she had and they were both more confident in the choice knowing that their spouse had also made the same choice independently. I tried to remember this as I waited for Kenny to think on the issue.
When Kenny came to me and said he thought circumcision might be the wrong choice for our son, I felt nervous. I thought I would feel relief that he agreed with me. Instead, I felt that we should really think through this option before settling on it for good. This is not the norm. Going against the norm is challenging. It means more scrutiny for us, disappointing our families, having to constantly defend our parenting choice to people whose opinions we really respect, and choosing something potentially challenging for our child. I told him, hesitantly, that I had been thinking the same thing.
One evening we were having dinner with the couple we knew whose son was uncircumcised. I mentioned that we were thinking about doing the same. We had talked with them a lot about birth preferences and options. They, like us, lean towards more natural approaches to many things and their experiences has been really helpful for us to learn what options are available for pregnancy, labor, and delivery. When I brought it up, the husband said something like, “I wouldn’t tell you my view because it is a really personal choice, but since you are asking, I’ll tell you why I am really strongly against circumcision.” (I’m paraphrasing slightly because I can’t remember the exact words.) I was surprised to hear this person who was often soft-spoken taking such a strong stance. When he voice a strong opinion, it’s usually for reasons that really resonate with me, so I was all ears. “We worked so hard to create a birth atmosphere that was calm and peaceful and would be an easy transition for our son into this world. We planned the lighting, the sounds, the people, everything. I could not imagine, after all that, handing my child off to somebody who I knew was going to cause him pain.”
That was all I needed to hear. I have thought about how bright lights would hurt our poor baby’s eyes and how familiar sounds would soothe him when he’s born. I’ve tried to imagine what a difficult and overwhelming experience it must be for a baby to be born. They go from a warm “tub” of water with no light and only muffled noises to a bright and noisy world that is cold and textured and uncushioned. All the sudden, their entire body is expected to function differently. They immediately must breathe, on their own, their lungs taking in chilly air. Their source of all life for 9 months is cut away and their body has to function, or fail. Their digestive tract, their muscle reflexes, their lungs, everything, must kick into gear all at once. It happens so quickly and so often that I think we overlook what an incredible experience this is for them. Sure, every baby does it, and most do it just fine. No fanfare. Nobody remembers this worldly initiation we go through as babies. But it is pretty profound. I had spent months planning with Kenny how to make this transition as graceful as possible for our baby. Let’s make sure he recognizes our voices and is comforted by their sound. Let’s keep it quiet and dim in the room so his senses aren’t overloaded. Let’s discuss with our doctor how we don’t want him taken away unless he is in danger, but rather we want him to rest on me and be as close to those sounds and that warmth as possible. Let’s create as peaceful an environment as we can.
Now to imagine actually handing him to a nurse to perform a voluntary surgery on him because I was worried about the effect that being “different” might have on him seemed insane. That was the phrase I kept hearing in my head “voluntary surgery.” And the word from articles I read on properly caring for the circumcision wound… “wound” I wasn’t going to let my baby be wounded by voluntary surgery unless there was a really good reason. And with these thoughts in mind, no reason seemed good enough. Sure, circumcision can be done weeks after birth to avoid this issue of the womb-to-world transition period. But still, now, that didn’t seem good enough. It felt like circumcision was as cosmetic and unnecessary as a nose job or some tribal ritual that made native babies “beautiful” or “strong.” Suddenly, for me, the decision to circumcise felt much more like peer pressure than a medical choice. The truth is, if I had chosen to circumcise, it would have been so that my boy would be the same as other boys. That’s not good enough for me.
Kenny had already decided the same thing. I never tried to convince him of my side or explain to him why circumcision is sort of a bizarre thing when you get down to it. I let him make his choice. We both feel that for our son the right choice is not to have him circumcised. This was our first, and most challenging, parenting decision. We really struggled, mentally, to decide what’s right for our family. I don’t know how it will affect us in the future. I’m sure there will be days where I doubt this choice and my mommy guilt with soar if I ever hear of him having a negative experience because of a decision I made. But we made a decision; and we made it based on all the information available to us and based on our gut feelings as parents and based on our love for our son and our desire to do what’s best for him. And we made the decision together, neither one of us asserting his own opinion or views over the other. That’s something that I’m really proud of.
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