Confessions of an 'Intactivist'

By Jill O'Reilly © 2011

I had my first son almost 14 years ago, and the circumcision debate that is raging today is the same one that raged back then. So I've chosen to sit it out - until now.

When I first learned about circumcision I was horrified... How could any mother who is truly connected, attached, loving, and intelligent choose such a thing for her baby?! "How?!" I thought. Why would anyone want to put their soft new bundle in a situation where they would experience such pain - for what is basically a cosmetic procedure? Don't they understand what they are doing? What is wrong with people/society/America?

For years I couldn't see a baby boy without wondering about the state of his penis. Did that cute little smushy bundle in the adorable Gymboree onesie begin his life by being strapped to a plastic tub while a piece of cold metal sliced across his genitals? Did the funny little toddler at the park who is playing with my son have all his parts? Or had his parents been 'sheep' who blindly followed a silly social custom?

But now I have a teenager... and I have had a daughter... and two more sons. And I have been privileged to work with many, many expectant families. I have taught childbirth classes, and I have assisted at homebirths, and I have witnessed many families bring beautiful boys into the world, and love them. Adore them. And yes, circumcise them. I have learned that emotional arguments and my own opinions don't matter. I have seen parents agonize over the decision, and I have seen parents for whom the decision is not even up for consideration. I do not weep for those babies. I do not grieve for their loss of sensitivity, and I no longer see a baby in the store and have the state of his penis be the first thing that enters my mind.

An acquaintance recently had a baby. She has a blog and vehemently opposes circumcision. Her blog is aggressive and very 'in your face.' She reminds me so much of myself. Full of passion about a hot topic. But passion only gets you so far. Along with passion there must be COMpassion. I have been trained how to educate, how to communicate, how to inform, how to facilitate and... how to let go.

When my babies were young, and I was so close to the situation, it was impossible for me to emotionally distance myself from the subject. I couldn't discuss circumcision calmly because it was too easy to imagine my own child in that plastic tub, and the outrage would come welling up, fueled with the passion of a mother bear protecting her cub.

But my passion has cooled, my outrage has subsided - baby and toddler-hood is fleeting. The things that are so dramatically important now will barely register in a few years. If someone had told me that one day I would be posting something like this I would have been shocked. But those circumcised babies deserve mommies who aren't feeling like they abused their kids. They deserve a mommy that is empowered, not belittled. They deserve mommies that feel strong and capable and wise in their decisions making abilities. They deserve to be held by someone who hasn't just had her entire self-image repainted as some kind of monster. What has been accomplished by destroying someone's confidence in their parenting? What have we done when the young mom who loves her baby (and I promise you, she loves him every bit as much as we love ours) thinks that she has failed... and so quickly?

I'll tell you what happens: we create someone who doesn't trust her ability to make the right choices. And that is far, far more distressing to her son's future than whether or not he is intact. The biggest problem with debating circumcision is that much too often the discussion is happening too late... that foreskin can't be put back on. Making someone feel like they won't be a good mother unless they 'confess' and see the light is terrible. And it accomplishes nothing.

I have no idea if any of my son's teenage friends are circumcised or not. I've never asked him and I never would. I've never asked any of his friends' mothers either. It's just not something that comes up often during conversation. Intact care, breastfeeding, co-sleeping... all of these are important topics in the small world of baby and toddler-hood. But the impact of our words - and the feelings that they foster in mothers caring for their babies - those matter forever. Empower each other. Respect each other. Babies need to be raised by mothers who are strong and capable. There are many good mothers, and many good mothers with circumcised sons. We're all in this together.

If you're the parent of a circumcised son and would like a safe space to discuss the subject further, join with others at Keeping Future Sons Intact, or drop Lillie a note to be added to the private KFSI discussion thread. Additional resources for related material at: I Circumcised My Son: Healing From Regret.

Jill O'Reilly is the mother of four children - three sons and one daughter. She spent years working as a midwife, doula, and childbirth educator. She is currently expecting her 5th 'bonus' baby in a few weeks and is busy planning for her homebirth. She can be reached at or here on Facebook.


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