Taking tips

Circumcision is not funny.

I learned this back in medical school, after telling a joke about it in front of one of my teachers.

"It's barbaric," she said. "It's cruel and totally pointless. It's just gratuitous penis-mutilation."

Now there's a phrase you don't get to hear every day. Every guy in the room crossed his legs involuntarily.

That was the start of my career-long ambivalence about circumcision. On the one hand, I wanted to honor the wishes and traditions of the parents. On the other hand, I wasn't wild about lopping off baby parts that didn't need lopping.

Once I was trained to do circumcisions, I spent a lot of time trying not to do them. When I delivered a baby boy, the mother would often wait until the father was out of the room and ask me in a hushed voice, "Do we really need to circumcise him?"

I'd tell her flat out that I didn't recommend it. I explained that there's no medical benefit, and I gave graphic examples of every possible risk and complication. I reminded her that her baby felt as much pain as anyone else, and that he'd be awake for the entire procedure. By the end of our conversation I'd have her convinced.

But almost always, by the next day, she'd change her mind. When I asked why, she'd roll her eyes and frown.

"His father wants it to look like his."

Clearly, my crusade to Save the Foreskins was going nowhere. I was stirring up lots of conflict between parents, but I wasn't stopping any lopping. So finally, I just stopped trying. Nowadays, I still review the facts, but I leave out the judgments. If they want it done, I do it. No questions asked.

My change of heart has been helped along by an influx of Somali families in my practice. For them, circumcision isn't just a procedure – it's a rite of passage, and a joyful one. It symbolizes the bonds between a boy, his family, his faith, and his community. Bonds that last a lifetime, sanctified with blood.

But it's complicated. Back in Somalia, they do female circumcisions, too – removing the clitoris, and sometimes surgically closing the vagina. It has the same ritual purpose as it does in boys, but it's also a surgical chastity belt. When seen through Western eyes, it's a form of oppression and mutilation. But really, is slicing off the tips of babies' penises all that different? How can we condemn one, yet embrace the other?

People often ask me: If you had a son, would you circumcise him? My reflexive answer is no – but that's easy to say when you've got two daughters. When push came to shove, would I have had that same strange compulsion to make my son look like me? And when you think about it, is that really so strange?

Being a parent, for all the sacrifice and selflessness it requires, still includes a healthy dose of narcissism. Part of what we love about our children is that they are a piece of us. They, and their children, and their children's children, are the closest thing to immortality most of us will ever know. And just like Donald Trump erecting one of his shiny towers, we want our legacy to bear our mark and our name.

We could argue endlessly about why we mark our sons in this particular way, and what that tells us about men and their obsession with penises. But it's worth remembering what lies beneath it all. Our children, for better or worse, are the gifts we give to the world. We gift-wrap and present them with great care – not only so they'll be appreciated, but so everyone will know where they came from. We want the gift to reflect the giver.

With that in mind, here's a small gift for you. Since you've been patient enough to read all the way to the end of this column, I'm going to tell you that joke I mentioned:

A baby was born, perfect in every way, except for one problem. He was missing an eyelid.

"Don't worry," the doctor said. "When I do his circumcision, I can use the extra skin to reconstruct it. He'll be as good as new."

A week later, the doctor removed the bandages and sat down with the parents to discuss how it all turned out.

"Well," he said, "I have some good news and some bad news. The bad news is: he's a little cockeyed. The good news is: he should have excellent foresight."

Hey, what did I tell you? Circumcision is not funny.