The Circ Room
“Wah!” If I got an answer to my telephone ring in the circ room, there was always the sound of a crying baby in the background. When I asked the operator for the circ room extension, invariably she asked me if that was really the extension I wanted.
I wondered what happened when Betty’s son, and other boy babies I had seen delivered, were circumcised. To find out I embarked on a new venture, that of watching a circumcision performed.
Mothers in hospitals sign permission sheets for their sons to be circumcised. The operation is done by the obstetrician who delivers the baby, as is the ritual of episiotomy, but unlike episiotomy, the permission of a parent is required. Mothers usually sign these sheets with only the vaguest notion of how or why these circumcisions are performed. They only know that it has been done since Biblical times, and they have heard something about a study saying that it prevents cancer. Occasionally a comment is made that it seems barbarous, but then perhaps babies don’t feel pain as much as they would if they were older. The clincher is that, because everyone else is having it done. the child will be different from his peers if it is not done. Finally, the hospital is set up to do it.
When I asked for the circ room at the front desk, the woman on duty asked me, “Are you a doctor?” Later, when I was observing the circumcision, an obstetrician asked me, “Are you from the state?” Because not many visitors see the circ room, he thought I might be an inspector. I asked the nurse in the room whether fathers ever asked to see their babies circumcised, and if this was allowed.
“He can if he has written permission from the obstetrician and if he’s so stupid as to want to. At the ritual circumcision of Jewish babies the father is there, but he turns his back. The rest of the people are spilling into the hall. They don’t see it done. The hospital has a special room with goblets and wine. Jewish obstetricians don’t even watch their own babies get circumcised. They’re practically out in the hall when their own babies are done. I tell them they’re cowards.”
“Do any of the parents refuse to sign the permission sheets?”
“Some of them refuse to sign.” Each baby to be circumcised that morning had the signed paper lying across his feet in the bassinet.
I watched three obstetricians do five circumcisions in an hour early one morning, which is the time of day circumcisions are usually done. Afternoons are for office hours. The nurse gets the schedule the day before and goes to the nursery to pick up each baby at the scheduled time. A notice on the bulletin board urged obstetricians to be prompt or the baby would have to be returned to the nursery so that other babies could be scheduled. The nurse usually brought up two babies at a time, managing somehow to maneuver them out the elevator door and through the door of the circ room. Because they were brought before they were fed, most were irritable and sucking on their sleeves. One was asleep.
When I asked one of the obstetricians how soon after birth the circumcisions were done, he said that one should wait a few days after birth when their blood clots better, but that there was really no problem. I saw very little bleeding at any of the circumcisions I observed. The clamp holding the foreskin effectively cut off circulation to help prevent bleeding.
I asked the same question of another obstetrician who came in later. His answer was, “It doesn’t matter. I don’t think. I just do ’em.” From the sign on their cribs, I noticed that all the babies done that morning were about two days old.
One of the obstetricians was especially helpful in explaining circumcision procedures to me, so I asked him about the possibility of using some kind of sedation for the babies. Usually anesthesia is given for any kind of surgery. He told me that nothing was used, because it wasn’t good for the babies to be drugged. Of course, that statement opened up questions about labor medications which pass into the baby almost as soon as they are given to the mother. At delivery both mother and baby may still be under the influence of drugs. However, we both turned away from these questions. That is the way it’s done and that’s the way it is.
One of the men told me that there was a trend away from circumcision now, but when speaking to patients he thought it better not to talk about the choice. “It’s confusing to them,” he told me. He referred to the growing feeling that the teaching of proper hygiene to boys makes the surgery unnecessary.
There is no answer to the question of whether to circumcise or not to circumcise. Some prefer it done when the baby is a week old in accord with Jewish custom, or even later than that when medication can be given and the baby has recovered from birth. The mother can hold and feed him afterward. But then, no doubt, it could be the pediatricians who would be doing it instead of the obstetricians. Already there is confusion over obstetrical, pediatric, and parental control over newborn care.
Two obstetricians stood side by side each working on a crying baby. The babies were separated by a glass partition. One of the doctors chuckled and said to the other “Dr. Leboyer would never approve of this.” Dr. Leboyer (Birth Without Violence) deploring the bright lights, cool air, hard surfaces and rough handling of newborns was anathema to some of the obstetricians who had been practicing for years and hoped this fad for gentle handling of babies would pass. These men told their patients “The Leboyer method” was a fad and not safe. If there were no bright lights how would they see the color of the baby? One of these men stood beside me.
“He is coming here for a visit soon”, I volunteered.
The obstetrician nudged the other one with his elbow. “Someone will put arsenic in his tea.”
In my gown and mask I stood watching. There were minor variations in technique. One obstetrician made a point of careful scrubbing at the nearby sink and then stood with dripping elbows, while another obstetrician felt that scrubbing was unimportant because he was wearing sterile gloves and there was no need he told me. One felt that a five-minute wait after the clamp was applied and before the cutting was done was not essential because bleeding was no problem. Another waited the full five minutes shifting impatiently from one foot to the other and humming a tune uneasily. While one of the obstetricians knew me and encouraged me to get up close, this one was suspicion of my presence. Despite my disclaimer, he was still inclined to think I might be a state inspector. Nobody comes to watch circumcisions.
“Poor little guy.” The elderly nurse, the keeper of the circ room, smiled. She was a pleasant. Spanish-speaking woman who had been doing time in the circ room for five years.
In general, the pain of the babies was ignored by all as being part of the procedure. Of course the babies cried. If they didn’t, there would have had to be something wrong with them. One doctor waved his hand slowly across the baby’s face. “I hypnotize them. They don’t cry so much,” he joked.
Only one of the little boys who came up that morning was asleep. When his bassinet was banged lightly with another one he crinkled his forehead in annoyance and after sighing once, went back to sleep.
“That little fellow won’t be sleeping long” the nurse observed.
He had short brown hair and a special sweetness to his round face. When she laid him on the molded plastic tray the corners of his mouth turned down and he looked up at the nurse with obvious dismay. Not until she fastened down his wrists and ankles with the strips of self-adhering soft-blue Velcro straps did he start to cry. Lying there with his arms straight and slightly out from his sides and with his legs also straight and apart, he found himself in a very unbaby like position and on a hard surface too. When I looked at him fastened into the shallow mold with stiff arms and legs the position reminded me of a paper-doll cutout.
The baby tried to close his eyes and withdraw from the whole situation while continuing to cry in discomfort. His whole body was tense.
When the obstetrician snipped the skin at the tip of the tiny penis the baby’s face turned pink and high-pitched squeaks mixed with the newborn “wah” crying The freeing of the skin from the penis, the placing of the bell over the tip of the penis, and the clamping, all produced squeaks and screams. His face was screwed up tight. But after the clamp was in place, the actual cutting off of the skin seemed to cause less pain and the cries became less urgent. The laying of the gauze on the exposed head of the penis after the operation produced more screeches. After being diapered he stopped crying but kept his eyes closed.
“When he urinates it’s going to sting. That always makes them cry” said the nurse. “This is a long baby.” She patted him and opened a packet of instruments for the next baby.
The circumcision procedure requires only a few minutes of time. First a green paper drape is placed over the baby leaving only the baby’s penis exposed. Sometimes the drape gets up under the baby’s chin or even over part of his face. The foreskin almost covers the head of the penis, so therefore a snip is made. An instrument can then be inserted and moved around the head of the penis to free the foreskin. Next, the obstetrician places a small metal bell over the head of the penis and pulls the stretchy pink foreskin about half an inch in length up around the inside of the bell. Then the clamp, looking very much like a small vise is attached and the foreskin which is now between the bell and the clamp can be trimmed off with a knife like so much excess dough being trimmed off the edge of a pie plate. The baby with the gauze over his penis is then put back into his bassinet diapered and returned to the nursery at the nurse’s convenience.
No one can know just when the baby stops having pain when he urinates but healing takes place during the next few days. During this time the baby should not be placed on his stomach.
by Constance Bean,
Labor and Delivery; An Observer’s Diary,
Ch. 12, p. 154-158
Doubleday & Co. New York, © 1977. (with permission)
SHAWN’S CIRCUMCISION by Vicki Campbell
Shawn was born in August of 1972 in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I had a short labor and a fairly untraumatic birth— as much as can be expected in a hospital. I had natural childbirth and an unnecessary 3rd degree episiotomy. Shawn weighed 8 lbs. 6 oz. and was 21 inches long. I remember looking at his penis and thinking how strange it looked. (I’d never seen an uncircumcised baby before.) It took me two days to get up the courage to ask the nurse if my baby was “ok” and if his penis was “normal.” She laughed and assured me they all looked that way and that he’d look “normal” after he was circumcised. I repeatedly asked the doctor if it would hurt Shawn and he repeatedly said ”No.” and that “it was better to do it now when he will heal quickly.” So I signed the paper to have it done.
On the third day after his birth I decided to take a look at Shawn in the nursery. As I walked down the hall I heard him screaming. I rushed to the nursery and knocked on the window. The nurse came to the door and I asked where he was. She said “He’s across the hall being circumcised.” The next few minutes were a living hell, an eternity of torture as I listened to him scream like I have never heard anyone scream before or since. I wanted to burst through the door and say “Stop! Stop!” But I didn’t know what they were doing or how long it would take. Finally the doctor came out.
“Is he all right?!” I asked in panic.
“You have a very strong little boy there,” he said. “It took three nurses to hold him down. He did not like what we did to him at all, but he’ll be fine.”
A nurse brought him to me and I took him to my room. I told him I was sorry and that I didn’t know it would hurt him so badly. He nursed and fell asleep. We went home from the hospital the next day. He healed and I didn’t think much about it again
Then a year and a half later, when Shawn was 19 months old, the real problems began. Shawn awakened me screaming in his bed! He flung himself and thrashed and screamed and repeatedly was brought to a position of a crucifix as if someone was holding him down. I could not wake or comfort him. He screamed for 45 minutes anti then fell beck to sleep. I was horrified. I had never experienced anything like this before. The next morning he did not remember anything.
He went through this same thing once a week for two years. Times varied from 30 minutes to 1 ½ hours, but always the same high pitched screaming, thrashing, and as he became older, more verbal.
He began saying, “No, no, no!!”, holding his genitals, and then, as if someone was holding him down, he would fling himself into the circumcision position and struggle there. Then he’d break loose of the imaginary hold, grab his penis, and scream “No, no, no!!” again. Back and forth he would go until he’d finally give up and go to sleep. He wouldn’t let us comfort him. After a while we found that if he needed to urinate the screaming would last longer and if we could get him to go to the bathroom he’d usually fall asleep after that.
He started doing it about once a month when he was 3 ½. Since he was 5 he has only done it about two times a year. He still does not consciously know he has ever done this. We have told him about it in detail and he cannot remember having these experiences. He does have nightmares occasionally and he will remember these the next day. We can awaken him after a bad dream and comfort him. This other thing that he does is not dreaming.
When Shawn was 2, I spoke with Arthur Janov at a Birth/Rebirth Conference in Santa Cruz, Calif. I described Shawn’s behavior to him. He agreed that it was a typical circumcision trauma. He said to let him scream it out, to comfort him as much as one could, but not to worry, he would outgrow it.
When our second son, Peter, was born in 1979, my husband Jim and I had a hearty discussion about whether or not to have him circumcised. Jim felt concern that Peter wouldn’t “match” him and Shawn. I couldn’t believe that after all we’d been through, he’d even consider it! So I got out articles pro and con – O.B. texts, pediatric books, Mothering Magazine articles-for him to read. I told him that after he knew as much about it as I did I would then discuss it and if he still wanted to get it done I would agree. He never mentioned the subject again. Peter is obviously still intact. I think men have a very difficult time dealing with this whether they admit it or not.
From Circumcision; The Painful Dilemma – © 1985, Bergin & Garvey, S. Hadley, MA (Currently out of print but available on line and now in the process of revision.)
by Rosemary Romberg
A DOCTOR’S PERSPECTIVE
My wife initially trained in Pediatrics and then Child Psychiatry. We were confused about circumcision and when initially confronted in medical school with the task of performing circumcisions, were caught in a dilemma. I chose to ignore the obvious absurdity of the procedure and the baby’s screaming and learn the procedure. My wife absolutely refused to have anything to do with circumcision.
My wife went into pediatrics and she was considered a bit odd, being unwilling to perform a simple procedure which is economically beneficial to the pediatrician. I went into internal medicine and had no further confrontation with the issue until about two years ago, when my wife became pregnant. I found, at that time, that I was hoping to have a female baby so that I could avoid the issue. I had been circumcised and I think my major conflict was not whether I thought circumcision was beneficial, for I had long since decided that it was no more than a pagan ritual, but rather whether I wanted the baby to be like me or not. Prior to the birth of our baby, in order to make a final decision about this issue, I went to the newborn nursery at the hospital where I worked. I watched a circumcision being performed and immediately, without any question, knew that there was no way that I could have my newborn son tortured in such a manner. It seemed like the first time I had ever really watched the procedure, even though I had done several dozen in medical school. The baby was absolutely panicked and exhibited the most shrill and desperate behavior one could imagine. The pediatrician performing the procedure continued his mutilation as if nothing were happening. I almost vomited.
As luck would have it, we had a son and of course, we did not circumcise him. We have had absolutely no problem and I am certain there will be none. I consider circumcision a vestige of savage ritualism. I am certain that it scars the psychological and sexual development of the human being.
Gregory E. Skipper, M.D.
From Circumcision; The Painful Dilemma by Rosemary Romberg
© 1985, Bergin & Garvey, S. Hadley, MA (Currently out of print but available on line and now in the process of revision.)
(Revised – 2013)