time ran out

By Tessa Tewksbury

I fell pregnant with my first child in late 2008. I was 19 years old. My mother was not shy or private on the matter of circumcision growing up. I often heard her use crude terms about intact penises and other derogatory descriptions we are used to hearing in our society: “turtle neck,” “pencil dick,” “gross,” “dirty,” “ugly,” and “smelly.” I was told that surely any boy who was intact was doomed to a lifetime of humiliation and embarrassment, as well as infections that would eventually lead to circumcision. I was led to believe it was “cruel” to leave a child intact. She also described to me how my grandfather “had to be” circumcised at an old age. I was told I had to circumcise my baby if it was a boy, to spare him from going through the pain as an adult, when he would remember it. I lived in an area with a high prevalence of circumcision, more than 80%. Text books in school all depicted circumcised penises. I knew literally nothing about the intact penis or the foreskin, and wrongfully believed that it was just a little bit of skin that was snipped off the tip.

Sometime in the middle of my pregnancy I was exposed to anti-circumcision information on the internet. The brainwashing I had received all growing up, the normalization of the circumcised penis, and my already having planned to circumcise my unborn child if it was a boy instantly left me feeling defensive and appalled at what I was reading. I defended circumcision angrily, felt attacked, and left the thread refusing to read any information. Back then, I’d say I was being treated rudely. Now, when I can look back at that actual conversation four years later, with a great more amount of perspective, humility, and knowledge surrounding the intactivist movement, I realize that I was angry at what I was reading, not at how I was being treated. I was given accurate information and was only met with angry tones when I lashed out first. I shamelessly mocked concerns over the pain the baby would feel as a newborn undergoing circumcision, using the common phrase “he won’t remember it,” as if not remembering it meant it did not happen or that the baby did not experience excruciating pain with no way to cognitively understand what was being done to it, or if it would even survive the attack. I didn’t want my baby to have to be circumcised at an old age like my grandfather, but refused to recognize that the chance he would actually need to be circumcised as an adult was minimal and that by doing it to him as an infant, I took it from a minimal chance that he might experience the pain of circumcision, to a sure thing.

The truth is, come time my oldest son was due, everything in my body was screaming at me not to do it. I didn’t want my son to have to be in pain. As hard as I tried to justify the procedure, as much as I ignored the arguments, it was eating away at me. My husband, like many circumcised men in the U.S., wanted it done for no real reason probably other than just that he didn’t want to admit he was missing anything or that it was done to him unnecessarily. He brought up concerns with cleanliness, and we considered the myth that being intact would make an intact son more likely to have a UTI. We were having a stressful time in our relationship and I sincerely thought that if I made waves, it could rock or end our relationship. My mother told me I had to and if insurance didn’t cover it, she’d pay for it. Everyone I talked to in real life told me I HAD to do it and mocked me for second-guessing it. Recently, my sister told me she would have supported me in leaving my son intact and didn’t think I should do it at the time, but she never spoke up.

Time ran out. My baby was born in September of 2009 by cesarean. I hardly left my bed and my husband changed his diapers. I literally never once saw my son’s natural penis. Come that awful day, I asked a nurse if it would hurt him. I desperately wanted just ONE person outside of the internet to tell me it didn’t need to be done. She lied to me and told me it would not hurt him and it was cleaner. He would sleep through it and they used anesthesia, she told me. I had not done enough research to know anything about the actual procedure or that she was lying about the anesthesia and pain he would feel. So I let them take him, even though every muscle in my body was telling me to run after her and take my son back. After a long labor in which I already felt like I had my rights stripped from me and told my concerns did not matter, I honestly did not feel like I had the power to say no, so I let her take him. That was the last time I saw my whole son.

After his circumcision, we couldn’t wake him to eat for hours upon hours. It rocked our breastfeeding relationship and we were warned if he didn’t start nursing, we’d have to supplement with formula. When I brought him home and changed his diaper for the first time, I was horrified. My son was screaming: he was in pain. My husband looked worried and said he never screamed like that before his circumcision. He was bloody and raw, and we had to use Vaseline to keep it from sticking to his diaper, though sometimes it still happened, and he’d scream bloody murder as we peeled his sore and painful glans away from the diaper. I think we both knew then what a mistake we had made, but we never discussed it. At the time I do not think either of us was willing or ready to accept that we had made the wrong decision, at least not to own that mistake out loud.

Weeks later after my son had already healed, someone in my online due date club had their son circumcised and he almost bled to death. Then… finally.. way too late to spare my oldest son… I was open to researching. Truth be told, I still wasn’t entirely open minded about it. I still tried to defend my choice, and it was months of reading before my irrational, myth-driven opinions gave way to facts and evidence. The truth was indisputable, and I finally acknowledged that I had made a very big mistake.

Since then, I’ve gained a wealth of information. I learned that the “anesthesia” that was used on my son was likely a dorsal penile nerve block, though the name is misleading, and it hardly blocked the pain. I also learned that his circumcision took far too little time for the lidocaine injection to have had actually had any real pain-relieving effect, because during circumcision, they hardly ever wait the needed 15-30minutes for the anesthesia to take effect before they start cutting. This was probably the fact that horrified me the most. My baby experienced excruciating pain, and I was still questioning, was it really necessary? The answer was no. I learned that the reasons I once supported circumcision and chose it for my son were hardly medically justifiable. I thought it’d protect my son from UTIs to learn that only 1% of boys in the first place get urinary tract infections, that there is only a slight increase of risk to intact boys, and those studies are questionable at best. I also finally had a “coming to light” moment when I realized, why in the world would a UTI warrant such an extremely invasive preventive measure, when I personally have had three UTIs in my lifetime that were all easily treated with oral antibiotics? I learned that we circumcise to prevent just 1% increased risk of developing a UTI, but that 9-11% of circumcised boys will go on to develop meatal stenosis, which can require a second surgery to correct the iatrogenic condition. Circumcision causes more problems than it prevents. The statistics were simply just NOT making sense. Although I do live in an area with still a very high circumcision rate, I learned more mothers are leaving boys intact, and only 32% of baby boys as reported in 2009 were circumcised. Circumcision is no longer the “norm” or the majority, and the “locker room” argument is no longer valid. I was literally protecting my son from nothing by circumcising him, but instead exposing him to unnecessary pain, harm, complications and infection.

In 2011 we learned we were expecting our second child. The topic of circumcision weighed heavily on my mind. I knew I would never circumcise again, but had a way to go in convincing my husband to be completely on board. He seemed reluctant to do any research of his own, and sometimes even seemed angry at the things I was saying, especially if it was concerning the negative effects circumcision has on sex. One day, I finally became frustrated, looked him straight in the eye and said “I will protect my baby from whoever I need to, a doctor, or even you.” A bold approach, but one that finally let him know just how serious I was. Once I stopped being wishy-washy and he understood how strongly I felt, his response was “Okay, we don’t need to do it.” I think in some sense, he was relieved as well, remembering the pain our oldest endured in the healing process. There began HIS journey into intactivism. He finally started to do some reading on his own. By the time I was 30 weeks along and touring our hospital, he actually stopped a couple who stated they were pregnant with a boy to tell them all about the harms of circumcision.

I also frequently discussed circumcision with my mother, who still was very much in favor of it. I partly resented her for pressuring me into circumcising my oldest and fervently wanted her to understand why she was wrong. She tried to argue that the boys both should match their father and that my youngest would feel different. I asked her how often she sat around as a teenager comparing her genitalia with her mother’s. I pointed out how my breast size did not match hers, and that I had never seen her vagina to know if mine “matched” hers either. I certainly never remember my brothers comparing their penis with our father. Friends and others had remarks to say about how my son would be dirty, but quickly dropped the subject. My sister was hugely supportive and actually vocal about that support this time around, and I had even made some new friendships with other mothers that felt similarly and had chosen to leave their sons intact as well.

The biggest concern with them not matching was not that my youngest may feel “different” but that one day I would have to broach the talk with my oldest, confess to him about the mistake we made and the truth about circumcision, and ask for forgiveness. Still, if my youngest noticed, I just knew that I’d always be honest in an age appropriate way. Once I knew the truth surrounding circumcision, repeating the mistake was simply not an option, not even to spare my oldest from realizing he lost an important, functional part of his penis. Even if we had not been exposed to the information that led us to leave our second son intact, circumcision rates are at an all time low of 32% in the U.S. He would certainly be exposed to intact males, whether it was his brother or a friend. In addition, there is a wealth of easily accessible information about circumcision on the internet that our son would most certainly see some day. Choosing to circumcise a second son to be “fair” to our first child was just not rational, and certainly not fair, or moral, with the knowledge we now possessed. We made that mistake, we cannot change that, but we can choose not to repeat it. While certainly my oldest will have his own emotional struggles with our not protecting him the way we did his little brother, I hope in time he is able to understand and come to respect the courage it takes to say “I’m wrong.”

Our second baby was born in April of 2012. We brought our WHOLE, PERFECT baby home. He was so easy to clean and care for. My sister pointed out he did not scream bloody murder during his diaper changes like my oldest had. I could not imagine ever wanting to change anything about his body. When he was born, I said he was perfect, and I meant it! He didn’t need cosmetic surgery, and being left intact did not cloud any family member’s love for him. It quickly became a non-issue. They didn’t love my second son any different, and especially anyone that had no responsibility in diaper changes, sometimes even forget that my second son is intact!

Leaving my second son intact was actually quite healing. I felt such tremendous guilt from not sparing my oldest from the incredible pain he felt during his circumcision. I wish I could pretend I was never a proponent of circumcision and that I never forced my son to endure such torture, and worse, that I was presented with information that tried to persuade me it was all unnecessary, but quite simply refused to consider that what I had been taught to believe was wrong. I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to come around to the truth. Not only did I make the wrong choice, but it was also a choice that was excruciatingly painful, one that I can never take back, and one that will effect him for the rest of his life. That is a devastating reality as a mother. No mother wants to hurt their child, and the realization that they did, is a hard pill to swallow. After not feeling like I had the power to say “No” in the hospital with my first, it was entirely empowering to take back that control and protect my second son. I was asked three times while in the hospital if we wanted him circumcised, and I proudly said “No!” every time. It still never changes what happened to my first, and I will always hold some amount of guilt, but I’m also learning to forgive myself. I made a mistake, but I was also courageous enough to say “I was wrong” and do better in the future. If nothing else, that is a powerful lesson my children can learn from when they are old enough and the circumcision talk can be broached on a more serious level. In addition to leaving my second son intact, I feel morally obligated to spread awareness. I am incredibly grateful to intactivists that helped me to gain access to information that ultimately made me change my mind, and it is a way to pay it forward. I talk to expectant parents, I card, I educate. I try to help as many baby boys as I can to spare them from what I did not spare my oldest from, and try to help spare other mothers from the guilt I experienced upon accepting the truth too late. I feel terrible that in advocating for the genital integrity of baby boys, I might stir up feelings of guilt and pain in parents over a decision that they may have made with the information they had at the time. Mistakes do not define us, but we do have a choice to repeat them, or to learn from them. I don’t try to make people feel bad about the decisions that they made in the past. I am focused on helping people make better decisions in the future.