In America today, 56% of newborn boys get circumcised, according to this article in the Washington Post. My son is a part of that percent. I know the arguments for and against circumcision, and I chose to have the procedure carried out for its perceived health benefits. (As the article indicates, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention is poised to release new findings that maintain circumcision can reduce the risk of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.) I did not join the online controversy in which parents call each other names on message boards like “mutator,” nor did I torture myself watching graphic videos.
The day after Ben was born, I accompanied him to the nursery where, in less than five minutes, my OB-GYN performed the procedure, using a metal ring tool to cut and remove about 5 mm of foreskin that covered the head (glans) of the penis. During the first diaper-change following the procedure, I noticed Ben’s glans was bright red, but my OB-GYN explained the appearance was “normal.” We got discharged. A week later the redness subsided, but as I went to clean Ben with a baby wipe I found myself squinting down at his penis. It seemed the entire glans was sucked into a ring of fatty skin. Where is his penis? I panicked. I gently pulled the skin back and his penis popped out like a tiny turtle’s head. Phew.
Something is wrong
Still, whenever I released my fingers after cleaning Ben’s penis, the head retracted back in. Wasn’t circumcision supposed to have removed the skin I was tugging back? Confused and upset, I found myself Googling phrases like: “My son’s circumcision looks weird.” The search revealed message boards stacked with topics like “incomplete circumcision” and “re-circumcision procedure.” You don’t read about that in the fluffy parenting books – nor do the studies that boast circumcision’s health benefits.
Three days later the pediatrician told me that some baby boys have a large amount of fat in the pubic area, so the appearance wasn’t all that abnormal. I put my anxiety to rest and listened to the pediatrician say the same thing at two months, at four and at six: “He’ll grow into it. RELAX.”
When Ben was eight and a half months later and I was still retracting the skin with every diaper change, I found myself confiding in a girlfriend at a birthday party while we changed our boys side by side. I opened Ben’s diaper and my friend peered in. “Oh no,” she said. “That’s wrong. You’re not supposed to have to pull the skin back on a circumcised baby boy. There isn’t supposed to be any skin there.”
“The pediatrician said he’d grow into it!” I barked. At Ben’s next well check-up, the pediatrician examined his penis and his forehead wrinkled up. “Well, now he seems to have an adhesion, which sometimes occurs when tissues of the body are cut and the edges of the skin stick to the surrounding tissues,” he said and signaled for me to take a look. “I think you should see a pediatric urologist. He might need to have this redone.” Redone?
When I finally got an appointment a month later, I told the pediatric urologist our history. He snorted a laugh. “The child is either circumcised or he’s not. Ben has an incomplete circumcision, and that’s why you have to retract the skin.” He explained that he could cut Ben right there on the table “1-2-3,” that he’d scream, but that it would be beneficial because he could clean out the smegma (sloughed skin and oils that form in an attempt to break up the adhesion) that was trapped under the sealed skin.
But that wouldn’t be all. Ben didn’t just need another circumcision, he needed a penoplasty – plastic surgery on his penis. He would have to be put under anesthesia for a forty-minute procedure. We’d have to do it before Ben started potty-training, because though the recovery was quick, it would involve some pain and sensitivity (mostly stinging) when urinating, and we didn’t want to associate “pee-pee in the potty” with pain. Thankfully, however, since Ben was just fifteen months old, he wouldn’t remember having the surgery, but if we waited till Ben was five, it would be hard to explain to him why he had to have surgery on his private parts. The other option was to leave it be and hope he didn’t get an infection, another adhesion, or feel awkward about his sort-of-circumcised-looking penis down the road. I booked the surgery.
Surgery Day and Beyond
Because Ben was an infant, I was able to accompany him into the operating room, though I wished I hadn’t. The anesthesiologist placed a mask the size of a toy teacup over Ben’s screaming mouth. I watched his eyes close and his body go suddenly limp. I started to cry, and a nurse escorted me out of the room. In the waiting room I talked with two other sets of parents of babies who were having the same procedure, the result of a “botched circumcision,” as one of the fathers said in a huff.
Forty-minutes later the procedure was done, and the doctor updated me on Ben’s status: “He did beautifully. It’s all fixed now.” In the recovery room, Ben was disorientated and agitated – common side-affects for an infant coming back from anesthesia. But within two hours we were home on the couch, and Ben slept the afternoon away on my chest.
His post-op care was simple. Whenever I changed his diaper, I gently cleaned him with a sensitive skin baby wipe, dabbed his penis with antibacterial gel and covered it with a square of gauze. Three weeks later, it was like he never had the surgery, and I probably won’t even tell him about it.
But now when people ask me if I still believe in circumcision, knowing what I know, I’m not sure. Even if the supposed health benefits are real, they definitely don’t outweigh the ordeal my son went through.