Letter to Ina May

Rosemary’s Letter to Ina May Gaskin in 2016

Dear Ina May,

I’ve been wanting to write to you for quite some time. I have felt that in many ways you and I have had much in common. I think we are about the same age (I turn 69 next month) and I too was a college student in the late ’60’s (University of California, Santa Barbara). During that era I was very much tuned into the fervor of social change and questioning going on. While today I lead a fairly traditional life, the energy of that era has affected me in every step of life, in particular my experiences of birthing and raising my children. There were so many issues in the air, so much to bring out in the open – opposing war, tuning in to our own sexuality, and embracing women’s rights. My first baby was born in 1972. During my first pregnancy there was so much to learn, and I explored every avenue I could back then by taking Lamaze classes, going to La Leche League meetings, eating healthy foods, etc. I was able to give birth without medication and breastfeed successfully as planned, but much of the hospital routine was terribly dehumanizing – baby whisked off to the central nursery, brought to me 12 hours later all bundled up so I could only see his face – and so many other things that I sorely questioned in retrospect.

My first baby was a son who was routinely circumcised in the hospital. When we left the hospital the nurse showed me his raw, red wound which alarmed me, but the whole hospital experience was full of new, strange, jarring experiences. At the time it did not occur to me that the baby’s penis should look any other way.

After my first son’s birth I became a Lamaze instructor and through this journey I continued to learn so much more about birth and the needs of mothers and babies. I loved teaching the classes to other young, eager and excited expectant parents. At that time home birth was extremely “underground” (in Southern California) but I was attracted to the idea, actually considered that option for my next baby’s birth, but with no competent support in my immediate area I opted for a far better hospital birth in a new hospital where I had been invited to teach. In 1974 I had a far more progressive, family centered birth in which I had immediate rooming in with my second son. He too was routinely circumcised. When I had taught Lamaze classes amidst all of the discussion about exercises, rest, breathing, focusing, pushing, breastfeeding, etc. – it never crossed my mind to mention circumcision. When my second baby was born it also did not occur to me to question his circumcision. However, this son was an extremely fussy baby who screamed incessantly for the first three months of his life. Whether this was directly caused by his circumcision pain, digestion issues, or something else I cannot say, but that time was a nightmare of adjustment for our whole family. Even though he nursed well, I had difficulty bonding to this baby and was having migraines. It seemed like he was mad at being in this world and couldn’t be comforted. Fortunately as he grew older he became more relaxed and happier and things smoothed out for us.

During the late 70’s many more books and publications were coming forth about our ideals for birthing and baby care. I became increasingly in love with the idea of home birth. I was inspired by works such as “The Birth Book” by Raven Lang, “Birth Without Violence” by Dr. Leboyer, the many inspiring writings of Jeannine Parvati Baker, AND of course your book on “Spiritual Midwifery.” I had especially loved reading about all of the positive, joyful birthing experiences shared in your book. Most of your book conveys a joyful, loving energy that helped inspire my own path toward home birthing. The painful journey I had taken with my extremely angry, fussy second baby made me determined to follow every lead possible to make any entrance into this world peaceful, pure and perfect for any future babies of mine.

By 1976 my second son, who had entered this world as a cranky, unhappy newborn had mellowed into a happy, carefree, inquisitive little toddler. I believe that my continued nursing and nurturing of him had helped him heal and grow from his traumatic beginning months. Then one day the kids were bouncing on the bed when he fell and had a cut over his eyebrow. We knew it would need stitches so we rushed him to the nearby emergency room. The doctor took him into the operating room, bound him down into the “papoose” board that is used to restrain children, and forced me out of the room where I listened to him howl in terror for about 15 minutes. I happened to be in very early pregnancy at that time. In the aftermath of this trauma my son regressed emotionally and reacted in terror to normally unthreatening events such as refusing to sit for a photography session, screaming at the sight of Santa Claus, and refusing to go on a merry-go-round ride. So much of the healing I had given to this child became undone with this one event. Also, being a parent forced to sit outside while ones’ child screams is a heart-breaking experience.

As 1977 approached and my new pregnancy advanced, my plans for a home birth began to gel. I found a competent midwife and became friends with many other moms active in the home birth movement. While I normally paid no attention to other baby boys’ penises, I did notice that among the many home birth moms I saw, most of them had boys that were not circumcised. I had hardly ever seen mention of circumcision in the many childbirth oriented books in my possession. Jeannine’s book mentioned a little bit about non-circumcision. (Nobody had coined the terms “intact” or “intactivism” yet.) I was interested in the idea of not circumcising, but had no sound information to back up my feelings. It just seemed like another neat, “natural” thing to do that would go along with our emerging lifestyle of growing our own food in our garden, still breastfeeding my kids as toddlers, eating what organic foods we could, and now planning our home birth. But I had been hoping to have our girl this time so I kind of pushed any thoughts of circumcision out of my mind. Besides, I thought, “my husband is Jewish and Jewish males have to be circumcised…. but we don’t practice Judaism and I’m not Jewish…. but they can get ‘infections’ if they aren’t circumcised. … but , oh well, this baby will be our girl and we won’t have to worry about it.” Finally I decided that since our first two boys were circumcised, and I didn’t recall anything about it being a big deal, … if we have a son I guess he wouldn’t like being different from his daddy or his brothers.” …. Actually we were all fairly “brain dead” about circumcision during that era.

That April I experienced a perfect, peaceful home birth, attended by my husband, our two little boys, my midwife and one close friend. Our beautiful little baby emerged from me quietly, coughing and sputtering a little bit, and started to breathe as he lay peacefully on my chest – another little boy! I finally experienced birth the way it should be – unhampered by all of the hospital noise and paraphernalia. Our first week together was totally undisturbed, with this sweet baby sleeping beside me, waking and nursing as needed – totally peaceful. My husband called a local pediatrician and made the arrangements for the baby’s circumcision the following week.

What force ever led me from the beautiful birthing scene to this strange doctor’s office a week later, undressing my baby and handing him over like a sacrifice I will never know. That day was almost 39 years ago, yet today my feelings of anguish, horror and wrongness are still difficult for my fingers to type out. I wanted to stay there with my precious son who had never left my side through his first eight days on this planet. Yet we were quickly shoved out the door, like impudent children, my inner “mother bear” instincts blocked, violated, my soul screaming to go back and rescue my baby. Some 15 minutes of chatting over trivia passed, and then we walked back in to the horror chamber to the sound of our infant’s desperate screams! His cries echoed from the walls and filled the building. His penis now bloody, diaper blood-stained, my maternal soul in shreds. I hold him in my arms, my breast now quelling his screams as he suckles. I’m back for him now. Can we ever heal? The doctor babbles on with advice but I’m deaf to his voice. Mercifully the baby falls asleep, withdrawn now from his pain. I drive home. He’s a different baby, his body tense and violated, sheltered for now in the sweet refuge of sleep. The glorious Nirvana of perfect birth, now shattered, damaged, the world gone gray.

It’s hard to describe, but that day in 1977 heralded the inception of modern day intactivism. The arduous path that followed for me was one of intensive researching, writing, reaching out and contacting others. I began only concerned about infant pain and wondering why genital cutting was this glaring blindspot in our otherwise awakening awareness about birth and infant care. Only after learning facts piled upon facts did I fully realize the wrongness and absurdity of cutting the genitals of helpless, sensitive infants. It is a painful awareness, but one that so many of us who at one time felt brainwashed to perceive circumcision as “the norm” have now awakened to the blatant reality.

I have read many of your writings and know that at one time you advocated circumcision and performed circumcisions on babies yourself. While I have fully enjoyed your otherwise positive, joyful recollections of people’s birth experiences, the spectre of circumcision imposed on these otherwise loving and beautiful scenes juts out as a jarring inconsistency. The opponents of female genital mutilation use the symbol of a beautiful rose with a razor blade slashing through it and blood dripping. The image of a beautiful birth experience damaged by genital cutting matches this same picture. (Can it actually be wrong for a girl but right for a boy?)

I cannot condemn you, of course, for your stance and actions regarding circumcision way back then, because at the time my own head was in the same place when my first three sons were cut back in the 70’s. I fully understand how naive we all were at that time. We believed that we were doing something right and healthy if we circumcised our sons. (Today we know that if the child’s foreskin is left entirely alone until it separates naturally of its own accord none of the purported “problems” should occur.) We had so many other issues – breastfeeding, natural birth, episiotomies, home birth, nutrition – to get out of the way before it occurred to any of us to question circumcision.

But we all change and grow in our awareness as we continue on life’s path. Our goals here have included peaceful, positive, nurturing lifestyles, free from war or any violence. As part of this process we wish to nurture our children by respecting their feelings (genital cutting is painful!), and their freedoms and rights as human beings (no baby or young child has ever wanted or asked to have his/her genitals cut). Also, part of our path of social change has included one of fully accepting and experiencing our own sexuality as part of our overall life essence. We wish the same for our children as well. But today we also know that a large portion of nerve receptors are destroyed when a foreskin is amputated. The heartbreaking truth is that the circumcised male is incapable of feeling the full sensation of his potential sexuality. Also, lack of foreskin takes away the natural sliding function afforded during intercourse, hence making sexual penetration more difficult and abrasive. I believe it is no accident that so many men seem cut off from their feelings and angry in how they express themselves. This is the most painful facet of the circumcision “dilemma” – far beyond the matter of pain and trauma in infancy.

In any event, Ina, I am hoping that my words may reach you here and give you cause for thought as you reflect on your otherwise powerful and positive contribution in this world to home birth, midwifery and infant care. I will welcome your response.
Blessed be. – Rosemary
(Ina May never answered this letter.)

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