Monday, May 28, 2012

Stopping circumcision one coworker at a time

Working to help end circumcision in my lifetime has become an important part of my identity both as a writer and a human being.  This blog is my small contribution to this movement.  In addition to my blog I try to talk with people in person about circumcision when I have the chance.  I admit that I tend to prey on pregnant people.  Now don't get me wrong, I'm not running across the street accosting pregnant women who are waiting for the bus or otherwise trying to make their way to work, but if fate brings me into close proximity with a pregnant woman I often ask her what she thinks about circumcision.  This is not so much because I really think I can change her mind; most adults don't like to have their mind's changed by anyone.  Rather, I do it for two reasons, the first being that I just want to get her thinking about it and create some uncomfortable associations in her mind that go along with circumcision so that she can't fool herself into thinking it's "just a little snip" like all of her damn friends who have already done it are probably telling her. 

The other reason I do it is more selfish: every time I miss an opportunity for advocacy I beat myself up.  I think about how given my personal experience with recovering from circumcision I really have some obligation to speak out to try to prevent it whenever I can.  So then I start feeling like I, in some minute way, failed this little baby and anybody who knows me will tell you I tend to obsess over things so it's just a whole lot easier to say something to this poor pregnant lady and risk offending her.  Even if I make her uncomfortable I think that's ok on some level.  Think about those creepy anti-smoking ads where they show the post-tracheotomy patients or the old men hooked up to hospital machines.  These ads are designed to make you uncomfortable, to make it less enjoyable to buy cigarettes and light up.  If I end up making her a little uncomfortable it's not entirely a bad thing.

That said it's a helluva lot safer to do this kind of work with people you don't know that you won't see again than it is to do with people you work with.  I work for a pretty large company which we won't name here because they are big enough to try to play Big Brother a bit in terms of social media.  I tend to come across pregnant women in my department pretty regularly.  Most of them I know on some level and I always think to myself, "_______ is a really sweet gal.  I know in her heart she wouldn't want to do anything to hurt her baby but this is Western Pennsylvania for God's sake and the chances are very good that his dad will a) want to circumcise him, b) want to give him a crew cut, and c) want to teach him to hunt."  The latter two I can live with but not the first one.  But how the heck was I supposed to approach this?

Most decent sized US companies have some kind of anti-harassment policy just like the one at my company.  At first I was really paranoid of running afoul of something like this.  What if I make her angry and she claims it's a form of harassment?  This kept me from saying anything to anyone for quite a while.  Eventually though someone I worked with frequently and knew fairly well got pregnant.  The more I thought about the reason behind my silence the sillier it sounded.  I realized I was making excuses to get myself out of it because this is, almost always, a difficult conversation to have with people.  I realized that unless I'm screaming in her face that people who facilitate their children being circumcised are going to burn in hell she's probably not going to complain.  The worst she will do is think I'm a crackpot and avoid me in the hall.  So I said something.

I asked permission if I could talk to her about it and she gave it to me.  I told her that I think everyone makes different parenting decisions and everyone makes the decision that they think is best and I make it a point not to judge other people's decisions but circumcision is THE ONE thing that has such a profound effect on families that I feel obligated to talk to people about it.  She listened and we discussed.  Like several other women I've spoken to about it she said she already had some reservations about the issue but she knew her husband wanted to circumcise the child.  We talked about his reasons for this and ways she could talk to him about it.  I encouraged her to have him call me if she liked and also gave her some websites for further information.

Fast-forward: she chose not to return to work from her maternity leave.  I told her I respected and admired her decision to stay home with her new baby.  I saw her about a week later when she came to turn some work items in.  She had the baby with her and I could just tell by the look on her face she had allowed him to be circumcised.  She couldn't look me in the eye and she seemed uncomfortable and eager to get the brief meeting over with even though both myself and a coworker were busy goo goo-ing with the new baby.   So our conversation didn't make a difference.  But wait...  What if she allowed the circumcision, regretted it, and now if someone she knows asks her about it she actually tells, wait for it, the TRUTH about how the violence of circumcision affected her bond with her baby and her family?  Ok maybe I'm reaching a bit there but when you get people talking about this you never know what might happen.

Now I'm in a similar situation again.  Someone else is pregnant.  I don't know her as well as the person I supervised but, again, she seems kind and thoughtful enough that I feel obligated to offer information on the side of keeping her baby intact, at least creating the idea that saying no to circumcision is an option.  I was feeling conflicted about how to approach this and whether it was appropriate for me to say anything, but after writing this I realize that it is my duty to make what small contributions I can to the effort to keep all babies whole.  And every pregnant woman is, like it or not, offended or not, an opportunity to further this advocacy as respectfully as possible.

(After all if some idiot at Starbucks years ago can get away with chiding my then pregnant wife for drinking what he thought was a caffeinated coffee, is it so out of bounds for me to ask and have a non-confrontational, respectful discussion with a pregnant woman about circumcision?) 

Monday, May 14, 2012

Circumcision & Motherly Instinct

Mothers. The lifeblood of the world. The warm center of a cold senseless universe. Those who bear life. They are amazing people and their role in circumcision is often a strange one. What better time to meditate on this than the day after Mother's Day?

My kids have a book that is titled "All Mommies Love Their Babies." It always strikes me how true this title is. There are things in life that become obstacles to that love, that slow the passage of the stream like rocks, dirt, silt, moss, but they seldom stop it. A mother's love can be befuddled by the artifices of modern life but typically it perseveres. It must. Where would the species be without it? With love comes responsibility. Every parent who has held their newborn child and gazed into the pure light in their eyes knows this. And one of the most pressing responsibilities is to protect them. We worry about everything from getting them in the best school to protecting them from child molesters to making sure they don't run into traffic on a busy street. And, if you'll pardon my language, that is one of things that is so fucked up about circumcision: The mothers who sign off on it often think that by doing so they are protecting their children.

All of modern medicine's scantly supported justifications for circumcisions become frightening bugaboos these mothers feel compelled to prevent. I once read a post from a woman who worked for a urologist. Her reason for circumcising her son was that she had seen a case of penile cancer and thought she had to do everything to protect her son from acquiring such a disease. A noble thought, certainly, but a rash one and poorly researched. Part of protecting your children is about odds. It's kind of like Vegas: which is the safer intersection to use to cross the busy street? Is the benefit of Junior's medication worth the risk/side effects? Odds of acquiring penile cancer are pretty slim yet with circumcision the odds of the child's future sexual pleasure as an adult being reduced is 100%, the odds of violating his right to choose what happens to his body is 100%, and I don't know what the odds are that he will be angry at her for her decision but they are probably greater than the odds he would have gotten penile cancer! So in trying to prevent harm to her child she has instead caused it. Stories like this are repeated every day. Why? Because all of us, mothers included, have lost touch with our instincts.

As humans we are hardwired to protect our children. Without these instincts the species would not have continued to exist. These animal instincts are powerful. Instinct is what drives the mother to pull her child out of the street before she even sees the car. She just knows one is coming. Instinct is what helps her and the child breastfeed. Instinct is how mothers can take their baby's temperature without a thermoter. :) But unfortunately we have been taught to distrust our instinct, to drown out that little voice inside that often has the very best ideas. And without our instinct we are like babes in the woods. Nothing makes sense if we can't trust ourselves. Adrift, we turn to the lighthouse of education and knowledge: doctors. Their books, their degrees will save us. We just need to do what we are told. But even their messages seem contradictory at times, or diluted, or just completely absent. That leaves us in fear. And decisions made out of fear are not typically good ones.

I'm not sure what's happening to the motherly instinct in the US. Is the declining circumcision rate proof that instinct is growing stronger again or is that a measure of activism and the desire so many of us now have to educate ourselves, especially in the matter of our children?  Certainly instinct survives, and in many families thrives. But every time a newborn baby is handed over to someone with a knife to be cut, whether the mother believes this will save his soul, or prevent AIDS, or improve his health in some bizarre fashion, the outcome is the same: her bond with him is damaged, his body is violated, and what began as an impulse to protect becomes an act of harm.

As I raise three children, now ages 3, 5, and 6 I can honestly say that learning to listen to my own instincts has been more valuable than any book about parenting I have ever read. Certainly not all of my decisions have been good ones but I'm going to keep playing the odds. I'm going to bet on the animal instinct that's helped the human race survive for 200,000 years NOT fear. I'm going to listen to the little voice that says, "It just doesn't seem like a good idea to let that fucking weirdo with the knife cut off part of your newborn child's body." All the research I've done and continue to do about circumcision just proves that voice right over and over again.