I was an expectant mother for the first time, in 1972. I was 25, college educated, but still incredibly naive about birth and babies. Maybe I was a little more motivated than others to educate myself about everything I possibly could. So I attended La Leche League meetings. I took Lamaze classes. I read everything I could, which was a paucity compared to what is available now. I thought I had educated myself about everything I could possibly know about having a baby. But circumcision was a blank spot.
The only thing I knew was that my husband was Jewish; I am not Jewish. Jewish males were “always circumcised”, so if our baby was a boy, he should be circumcised. A lot of people blame women for perpetuating it. But I know for a fact that the majority of American mothers, especially back then, don’t really know what circumcision and non-circumcision is. The word “circumcision” sounds good.
When I was in the hospital in labor I remember them handing me a circumcision form to sign, and all I can remember thinking was “Isn’t that strange that they are giving me this now when we don’t know if the baby is a boy or a girl?” I signed it.
The baby was born later that night and we named him Eric. I did not think about circumcision again until we went home two days later. The nurse pointed out his circumcision. I remember his penis was a little bit red and sore at the end. I was given a little tube of Vaseline and instructed in how to care for it.
After we got home, I did find that he screamed every time his diaper was changed. The rest of the time he was fine and he nursed well and he slept. I thought, “Well, maybe all babies do this. I wonder why he doesn’t like his diaper to be changed. He doesn’t like to be messed with.” Looking back on it, it was not as much a pain cry as it was a mad cry. It was “Waah, waah, waah!!” A very harsh, angry cry. And this persisted with every diaper change for about the first three weeks of his life - longer of course than it took the circumcision wound itself to heal up. But I went on with it. I did successfully breastfeed. I formed a happy relationship with my child. I never thought about the circumcision again. Maybe ignorance was bliss from my perspective back then.
I had our second son in 1974. I had a much better hospital birth experience. I had rooming in. I had the immediate contact with the baby that I had missed out on the first time. Our son’s name was Jason. The following morning after the baby was born the doctor came in to circumcise the baby. It was an interesting situation because it was a new hospital and Jason and I were the only patients there. The circumcision room was right across the hall, within earshot. So I was feeling very apprehensive thinking “Oh, no, I’m going to hear a lot of screaming and I’ll know that’s my baby because my baby’s the only one here.” It had never occurred to me not to have it done.
About 15 minutes later the doctor brought the baby back to me. Although I had been expecting to hear a lot of crying I didn’t hear much noise. The baby had spit up a little bit when it was over, so I didn’t think much about it until many years later. Last summer my son, who is now 14, slammed his finger in a car door. I did some observation of his reaction. I was watching how he reacted to this. Instead of yelling and screaming he was “uhhhh”, and going on and on like that for several minutes from the pain without crying out, perhaps just as he had done at his circumcision.
Two and a half years later we had another baby. During my pregnancy every time the subject of circumcision would come up I’d say, “Well, this baby’s going to be our girl and that won’t apply to me.” Then all of a sudden we had this beautiful little boy and, kind of, - the decision had been made. One day during my pregnancy I did bring up the idea to my husband that maybe it would be nice not to have a baby boy circumcised if we did have a boy. And he immediately said “Oh, no, they can get terrible infections.” I had always figured our sons were circumcised because Steve was Jewish. But we had never talked about it. He said, “Oh, being Jewish wasn’t important to me.” (in terms of circumcision.) It wasn’t a religious thing with him. It was like getting their immunization shots. “…They can get terrible infections if they are not circumcised.” So I backed down.
After the baby was born it seemed like we had a beautiful first seven days and then all of a sudden I found myself driving to this doctor’s office a week later. My husband had made the appointment. I met him there. It was for the baby’s circumcision. I remember sitting in the doctor’s office holding my sleeping, peaceful, beautiful newborn baby that had never been separated from me for the whole first week of his life. He had not been through any typical hospital traumatic procedures. My stomach just felt like a lump of lead as I was thinking, “I just don’t want to do this. This is wrong!” The next thing I knew we were relinquishing our baby to the doctor and then we were being shoved out of the building. I’d assumed we’d stay there. I want to stay with my children for the medical things that they have to go through, but we were being shoved out of the building and were kind of stunned and helpless and making silly jokes and small talk, until I could stand it no longer. I went back into the building and the whole doctor’s office was just filled with our baby’s screams. We walked into the room and our baby was lying there. There was blood on the diaper, - he was screaming. The end of his penis was raw and bloody. With my first two sons it had seemed as if they had been born that way, with all the awareness I gave it. But this baby had not been born that way. I felt that we had something very beautiful and very special and very rare in a home born baby, and we ruined it. That was destroyed.
I attempted to nurse the baby, and soon, mercifully he fell asleep, which we now know is a very deep, abnormal type of sleep, a common response to the stress of circumcision. I brought the baby home, he was wailing again. But I was able to put him down and he slept for two or three hours. He screamed again upon waking up, but then to be honest after he got up and after I nursed him, from then on he did not seem to be in any more stress. By that night he seemed to be back to normal. But these kind of things come crashing back and weeks later I was starting to have nightmares about it. I felt like something very beautiful had been shattered. I was going a little bit crazy. The baby was 3 and 4 months old and I was imagining that he was still in pain from it. I was not dealing with this well as a mother.
If you had come over the next day and asked me how the circumcision had gone, I probably would have said, “Oh yes, fine, the baby is fine.”
Why had I been so highly, unusually motivated to have this out of the hospital, at home birth, making everything non-traumatic for the baby? It was so important to me to not put any drops in the baby’s eyes. It was so important to me that the lights be dim and that we speak softly. And then I turn around and do this. It made no sense. Finally, after five months of this I woke up and said “I’m going to write a book!” It was not until I was a good 7 or 8 months into my research that I was fully convinced that circumcision was wrong and that there was no way that I could ever do this to another son.
Once again I was pregnant and the ultrasound confirmed I was carrying was a boy. And I’ve got to admit, even in my position - I’d spent seven and a half years writing this book, I was everybody’s resource person on circumcision, and well known throughout the world by this time as an opponent to routine circumcision, and yet there was this gut feeling inside of me of “uh-oh!” Like “This is it!” Theory was one thing. I’ve written a book. I’ve got all these papers and everything. But now I was going to have another little boy. Obviously I’d be the hypocrite of the century if I had my son circumcised after what I’ve been through, and no way could I ever put another baby through that. But there was still an unexplainable, maybe a little bit of panic that I’m going to be faced with - I will have an intact child, a child that is different from all the males on both my husband’s and my side of the family. After Kevin’s birth, it was very healing for me to have the eighth day of his life go by with nothing happening and the baby was still peaceful, and then he was nine days old, and nothing damaging had happened to him. That was a healing, turning point for me.
Excerpted from my speech at the 1st NOCIRC Symposium in 1989