Dad wants to cut. Mom’s not so sure.
The impact of a mother’s role in the circumcision decision
By Katie Ward
Director, Your Whole Baby of NY
Though this article describes scenarios between a mom-and-dad couple, Your Whole Baby recognizes, celebrates, and serves families of all different structures, including LGBTQ+ and single parents.
Let’s say, because it’s a scenario we encounter frequently, that you're an American woman with a partner who wants to have your baby boy circumcised.
Perhaps you aren’t too keen on the idea of cutting your baby. Or you might not be terribly interested in playing a part in the decision . . . it feels too complicated. So you’re thinking of passing it off your partner, who happens to have a penis (usually circumcised), and a stronger desire to cut.
It’s natural to want to involve your partner in decisions relating to the baby. Of course you’d also like to keep things peaceful between the two of you, and it seems he might be gearing up for a fight if you suggest leaving the baby's penis as-is. Furthermore, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to shield your child from future teasing, or wanting him and his father to feel a shared connection, or wanting him to feel connected to his faith, or wanting him to have a satisfying sex life when he's an adult, or wanting to protect him from infections. None of these desires demonstrate ill intent on your part.
Sometimes, when a heavy decision like this one will intimately affect another person long-term, it becomes necessary to explore beyond your own feelings and intentions. More important is the actual impact your decision will have on the person with the penis in question.
To be clear, the purpose of this article is not to condemn parents whose sons have been circumcised already. Sometimes it isn’t possible to see the reality of such a culturally ingrained practice until it is thrust upon us in a new light; so it often goes with infant circumcision. Plus, information is becoming more and more readily available — it hasn’t always been that way, and it’s still not a given that someone is going to come across Your Whole Baby or a similar resource before they have a child.
Circumcision regret often sinks in when a parent sees the fresh wound and the pain their baby is experiencing, or when they discover they didn't have all the information beforehand, or when their baby experiences a serious complication. Parents who regret circumcising have powerful voices in the movement to protect future families from the same experiences. It is important to prevent pain and regret when we can. That’s the intent of this article, too.
Let’s continue looking at potential parent motivations behind “the circumcision decision,” and how these motivations do or don’t align with the outcomes a son will experience.
“If you want it done so badly…”
This tension plays out in expectant households across the U.S. every day. Some moms take the following route with dads who are adamant about circumcising: “Then you go in there with him and watch, and you handle every diaper change for the next few weeks.” Or, “You schedule the appointment and take him. I won’t have anything to do with it.”
For some dads, such threats do the trick and they drop the issue (begrudgingly at first). But plenty of others are still as insistent as ever about cutting off part of their son's penis, and they follow through. There are a few problems with a mom’s decision not to intervene further in such cases. The father ends up re-exposed to his own unacknowledged trauma as he watches an unnecessary surgery he once had and changes painful post-op diapers. Their innocent baby suffers through the same pain and trauma, continuing the cycle. Passing the buck doesn’t relieve mom of her responsibility here: for the penis owner, the outcome is exactly the same as if she had been really excited to have him circumcised.
Is it fair for a mom to have to fight an angry dad about cutting off part of their kid’s penis? No! It’s straight-up theater of the absurd. But there may be no other choice.
“Dad has the penis so I let him decide”
As much as this might sound like a good way to involve a father in decision-making, it ultimately permits a mother to sidestep her parental obligation of protecting her child from danger. Partners can share or split responsibility for picking a name, a pediatrician, first foods, a babysitter, a parenting style, an education plan, and so many other decisions that don’t involve permanently injuring the baby.
Many dads are eager to play active roles in all aspects of their children’s development and well-being. If the choice a father is most passionate about involves unnecessary surgery on someone else’s penis, both partners need to think critically about why that is.
It's absolutely understandable that a mom might feel like handing this decision over. The procedure is offered by doctors . . . it can’t be THAT bad, right? Unfortunately, the consequences of circumcision are far more harmful than any trouble a mother may hope to avoid by giving in to a father’s desire to cut. Attempting to appease a partner in this way forces a helpless child into the position of relationship pawn.
Adjusting her beliefs to match dad’s
Since dad wants to circumcise, maybe mom is working to convince herself that it’s beneficial. She’s giving a lot of weight to the Mayo Clinic article from her Google search and opting to ignore sources more critical of circumcision, including the voices of angry circumcised men. This is a good time to remember that we’re talking about her son’s penis here. She won’t be using it for the rest of his life — he will. It’s crucial for a mother to challenge herself to consider other resources, and encourage her partner to do so as well, instead of seeking only to confirm what she wants to believe.
Maybe a mother already has one or more circumcised sons, and her partner is still pushing, but she’d rather not go through with the procedure again after this new baby arrives. All of the above advice applies!
The impact of circumcision on your son
The consequences of your own circumcision decision rest squarely on your son’s shoulders, and no one else’s — from the immediate and intense pain, to the short- and long-term risks (including death), to the results that remain with him his entire life.
Ultimately, it won’t matter one bit to your cut son (if you have him cut) whether his mother “didn’t really want to” but let it happen anyway, or “left it up to dad.”
When he finds out what was done to him and what he’s missing, it won’t make much difference to him whether you almost protected him or you signed the circumcision consent form with gusto. The choice to relinquish responsibility is every bit as much of a choice as making the circumcision decision yourself. That fact won’t get past him.
There is a moment of truth for every cut boy/man when they find out that a part of themselves has been taken and that no one protected them. The way to avoid the moment of truth is to PROTECT THE BABY. This needs to be a parent’s singular prerogative. You either keep your kid safe from harm, or you don’t. That may sound harsh, but again, the consequences of your choice all fall on your son’s shoulders.
In the end, anything besides a firm NO from you enables a fully grown man to avoid consciously confronting his own difficult emotions, while throwing the actual baby under the bus.
To tell your grown son that you did it for his physical, sexual, social, or emotional health, when he has already learned the readily available truth about genital cutting, will not make him feel better. You can’t say, “No, it’s like this,” because he’ll already be aware that it’s really like this. Even if you stick by the purported "benefits" of removing penis parts for your entire life and you disagree with this entire article, that doesn't mean he will ever feel the way you do. The truth will come to light — especially for a grown man capable of a Google search.
While there have been instances of court battles over circumcision, they’ve been few and far between and typically have involved unique circumstances. The overwhelming majority of dads who initially freak out at the idea of their kid having a normal penis do come around, and often begin sharing information about the harms and risks of circumcision with other people!
For now, the buck may stop with you as you await your new son’s arrival. This position for sure isn’t a fair one to find yourself in. This is not an appropriate burden for you to have to shoulder on top of normal pregnancy and parenting worries. But nothing about child circumcision has ever been fair. Standing your ground may wind up being one of the hardest things you’ve ever done . . . but the alternative is worse.
Thanks to this article by Jamie Utt at Everyday Feminism for introducing me to the concept of intent versus impact.
Published: July 18, 2018