By Adrienne DeAngelo
We had our son circumcised when he was five weeks old. It wasn’t what we’d planned.
My partner, Colleen, and I waited to find out the sex of our baby until the day he was born. But I can’t say I was surprised when I got my first glimpse of that tiny, finger-like appendage. I’d been secretly convinced all along that we were having a boy. Lesbians just had boys. I thought it was an order-of-the-universe kind of thing.
Not that I didn’t wish for a girl. After all, I understood girls. We were a household of girls. Even our cats are girls.
Our friends with children assured us that there’s little difference between the sexes for the first year or so, so we took some solace in the fact that we’d have time to adjust to having a penis in the house. For the moment, all we needed to decide was whether or not to circumcise.
But circumcision is a controversial topic, and the stakes were high for us. As a lesbian couple, we felt like people would judge us no matter what we decided. There was no dad for our son to look like. No religious custom to fall back on. We didn’t want to make the wrong choice. I mean, what did we know about the penis?
So I did some research. I read baby books; I conducted an extensive web search; I polled friends and neighbors. I found out that, while still a common practice, there’s no medical reason for circumcision. In fact, circumcision rates have fallen dramatically from the 1970s, when circumcision was the norm. One straight woman friend went so far as to tell us, “Sex is much better with the penis intact because of the friction.” (This was more than two lesbians needed to know.)
Other friends—gay and straight, men and women—told us they preferred the look of the circumcised penis to the uncircumcised penis. Colleen’s sister-in- law, a nurse (and someone we trusted implicitly), told us that if she had a boy she would circumcise.
In the course of our deliberations, Colleen and I talked about penises more than we had in the entire ten years we’d been together—possibly our entire lives.
Despite the overwhelming number of opinions, for us it came down to this: If there were a female equivalent of circumcision in the United States, would we perform it on our daughter? No, we decided. So why would we do it to a boy when it’s not medically necessary?
And that’s the last we thought we’d have to think about the penis for a while.
Thirteen days after Emmett was born, he developed a fever and had to be hospitalized. Other than the 101-degree fever, there was nothing obviously wrong with him. But because of the risk of meningitis, the hospital conducted every test imaginable, including a spinal tap. They gave him an IV drip and checked his vitals every four hours.
On our third day in the hospital, the doctors found the culprit: a urinary tract infection. Who knew infants could get urinary tract infections? As we found out, UTIs occur in less than five percent of all uncircumcised boys. A small enough percentage for doctors to conclude than circumcision is not medically necessary. And yet almost no circumcised boys get UTIs. Just our luck.
I could almost hear the collective chorus from my family: I don’t know why you didn’t have him circumcised in the first place.
We left the hospital after five long days, armed with a month’s worth of antibiotics and instructions to schedule an appointment with the urologist. If the infection happened again, it could cause kidney damage. We would need to have some tests done to see whether our son was predisposed to UTIs.
Back to the research. More often than not, I wound up at anti-circumcision websites that railed against the evils of circumcision and the medical establishment at large.
When we met with the urologist two weeks later, he recommended—can you guess?—circumcision. I felt the blood rush to my head. This is just what the alarmist websites warn you about. Sensing my discomfort, the urologist defended himself. “Believe me, I don’t routinely recommend a circumcision,” he said, “but given your son’s history and his tight foreskin”—I hadn’t read about tight foreskins—”I think it’s the best option.” He explained that the test our son needed to rule out an anatomical abnormality could even cause a UTI if he were to remain uncircumcised.
“But you need to get done it now,” he said. “I need to know by Monday morning at the latest.”
Emmett was already nearly five weeks old—late for a newborn circumcision. If we were to delay by a week—or even a few days—he would have to undergo risky general anesthesia. Or we’d have to wait until he was older.
It was a Friday afternoon. If we decided to proceed, our HMO could do the circumcision, the doctor said, but he’d have to pull some strings and we’d have to hope they could schedule us as soon as possible.
So here we were: Two lesbians who had decided to leave their son’s penis well enough alone now having to turn their attention back to what was quickly becoming a lesson in Murphy’s Law.
My overriding fear was not about the circumcision itself, but what people would think. It felt like our first real parenting decision was on trial for all to see. We were sitting in the car after our appointment, not thinking of our son but of how we would feel if we decided to circumcise.
I didn’t trust my own instincts, so I called two, three, four urologists’ offices for a second opinion. All the doctors had left for the weekend.
Colleen was sure we should schedule a circumcision. But she was tired of the hospital; she wanted it done at home. I abandoned my quest for more information and started to look for mohels. Some of our Jewish friends had their sons circumcised at home. One mom even had an older baby circumcised at home. Colleen decided that mohels had more experience than our HMO would.
I found a woman—technically, a mohelette—who was also a pediatrician. Her website, thebrisdoctor.com, was reassuring. I called and explained my son’s health history and age, and she agreed to do an at-home circumcision the very next day.
This would be her first non-ceremonial lesbian at-home non-bris bris.
In the hour leading up to the circumcision, we debated whether we should mark the occasion. Should we say something? Do we take photos? We considered purchasing a bottle of Manischewitz. In the end, we did nothing but watch: Colleen, her brother, her sister-in-law, and her mom gathered around the dining room table as the doctor pulled out a restraint board, a circumcision clamp, a surgical knife, gauze, and some other supplies. We watched as she numbed our son’s tiny penis with anesthesia. Colleen held his arms. Emmett didn’t cry, and it was all far easier than I imagined it would be.
Yet I am horrified by what appears to me to be a mutilation. If we had circumcised him from the beginning—before we decided it was medically necessary—I’d have believed we’d made a mistake.
A few hours after the circumcision we were resting comfortably on the sofa watching a movie. Emmett had been sleeping blissfully for several hours when the mohel called to check on him.
“Has there been any bleeding?” she asked.
“He’s been asleep since you left. Should we wake him up to check?” I said.
“Just take a peek in his diaper,” she said.
I slowly unwrapped Emmett’s diaper. It was clean. Then I saw fresh blood emerging from his gauze-covered penis. Then more. Colleen put the movie on pause.
Blood started to leak through the diaper and onto my hands. I picked our little boy up and moved from the sofa to the table where the doctor had done the circumcision. Blood oozed onto the table. I cradled the phone between my neck and my ear as I gingerly tried to apply pressure to the bottom of the penis and upwards, as the doctor instructed.
Emmett was now crying hysterically. “Take off your shirt,” I told Colleen, who was looking a little faint. “The doctor said to try to breastfeed him to calm him down.”
“Do you think you can rebandage the area?” the doctor asked. “No,” I said as calmly as I could, with blood spilling out over my hands and soaking the bottom edge of Emmett’s snap T- shirt. “Don’t worry,” she assured me, “it looks like more blood than it is. I’ll be there as soon as I can.” And she hung up.
Colleen was standing over the table—topless—with her breasts dangling over our son’s head, trying in vain to feed a beet-faced, loudly protesting baby. It would have been comical had it not be so frightening.
Not getting anywhere with a breast, Colleen decided to give Emmett a bottle. I was still applying pressure to his injured, exposed penis but I could not stanch the bleeding.
A few minutes later, with a bottle in Emmett’s mouth, relative calm was restored. He was still bleeding as I lamely continued to apply pressure to what was clearly the wrong part of the penis.
As I gazed down at my beautiful, bloodied son, I thought, “Oh, my God. He’s going to have to have his penis amputated and he’s going to hate us.” I now felt we had compounded a bad decision with an even worse decision. Our son would be the poster child for the anti-circumcision movement. Even worse, religious fundamentalists would turn it into a cautionary tale: Lesbians Castrate Own Son.
“Oh, that is a lot of blood,” said the mohel when she arrived, congratulating me on having been so calm on the phone. “When you opened the diaper, it must have pulled off the scab,” she said as she deftly applied pressure to the penis and immediately stopped the bleeding.
She stayed with us for nearly an hour, reassuring us and checking to make sure the bandage looked clean. Emmett fell asleep before she left, but I was plagued all night by fears of a bloody recurrence.
The bandage fell off on its own accord the next morning, and the incision looked fine. At last, the trial was over.
Two days later, the foreskin swelled. I snapped a picture and emailed it to the doctor. “Great shot!” she said. (It was her first penis photo by e-mail.) She told us not to worry, the swelling would go down in a few days.
She was right. A few weeks later, Emmett passed the urologist’s test with flying colors. He’s been fine ever since.
At last, Colleen and I could stop worrying that we’d made a bad decision about circumcision. Now we’re busy wondering if we can be arrested for e-mailing photos of a baby’s genitalia.
Author’s Note: I’ve spent the last thirty-six years of my life trying to make the “right” decisions. Being a parent has taught me that no one can make your decisions for you. If there’s a lesson our son can take from our experience, it’s to be conscious, considerate, and confident in his choices. I only hope that I can do the same.
Adrienne DeAngelo is a freelance writer and stay-at-home mother based in Oakland, California.
Brain, Child (Fall 2007)