Last weekend I hosted a Peaceful Parenting table for Intact Houston/Intact Texas, local chapters for Saving Our Sons (the not-for-profit organization Peaceful Parenting/Dr. Momma‘s focus on circumcision).
My challenge was to include genital autonomy as one crucial component of the peaceful parenting lifestyle … without calling it by name.
I had spoken with a marketing director at my local Babies ‘R’ Us about setting up inside the store to hand out information. After browsing the Dr. Momma web site, she said she’d love to have us there. In fact, as a company they’re very welcoming toward many of the topics mentioned, she explained. Ones like co-sleeping, breastfeeding (they hold regular classes there for newbies) and child-led weaning, babywearing (regular classes at Babies ‘R’ Us for this too), encouragement of gentle discipline and alternatives to punitive parenting (i.e. spanking and crying-it-out) and so on.
But…(there’s always a but, isn’t there?)
She told me I wouldn’t be allowed to display or hand out any information on “controversial topics.” I knew exactly what she meant but I wanted her to say it. She clarified:
“You know, cord blood banking, vaccinations…
Ah, I see. Well I’m not especially qualified to discuss the first two hot controversies with any bona fide expertise anyway but… that third one. It just can’t be the sacrificial lamb in this proposed demonstration for gentle child care!
“It’s not necessarily the personal position of anyone working at the store or the corporation itself,” she said. “Taking a public position or side on it… it’s just something we cannot do ”
It was not her fault. Or the fault of the business policy itself filtered through her really. As far as I knew, Babies ‘R’ Us hadn’t ‘taken a stance’ on female genital cutting either. Of course I’d love to see a more pro-intact representation in all self-proclaimed “baby-friendly” establishments, but in this moment I knew it was neither the time nor place for such a battle.
Okay, I can still work with this, I thought.
“Could I share information on proper intact care and the functions of foreskin?”
I handed her an example of the kind of card I hoped to pass on to new parents.
“Oh sure! As long as you don’t make circumcision a table topic itself, or say ‘don’t circumcise.’ As long as you don’t have anti-circumcision signage, this would be just fine.”
Amid the colorful mosaic of topics up for exhibition at this table, how could I still draw attention to the necessity of genital autonomy’s inclusion in peaceful parenting if I couldn’t specify this very thing that violates the child-rearing approach — perhaps most painfully and irreparably?
Here’s what I came up with.
1). Sticker All The Things
From samples of Lanolin (famous for its power in easing common nursing woes) to handouts on car seat safety and baby-led solids and safe bed sharing practices and more, stickers were the decoration of the day.
And fully-functional, too: should one satisfy the reflex of human curiosity by searching for this DrMomma.org on the sticker, one would be greeted with headlined research and honest anecdotes about circumcision.
However indirect, it works. Because although many won’t take it upon themselves to Google “tell me more about circumcision” unprompted, modern populations of new parents have their fingers flying on the keyboard in search of other baby-friendly topics covered, supported, and linked at this web site.
2). Snack Now, Read Later
Life Rule: If you have free treats, they will come.
And if you bake homemade stuff, even better. I don’t do…*that*… so I simply packed goodie bags full of pre-purchased single-serving munchables I thought pregnant mothers would enjoy:
- Bag of pretzels
- Box of raisins
- Organic Preggie Pops (found at Babies ‘R’ Us)
- Gin-Gins Ginger Candy Chews
- Hard mint candy
- Mother’s Milk Tea bag
…and of course, a handful of info cards to gaze upon while grazing (or to inspect more closely after returning to the car, or to stick in a wallet for later rediscovery). Who knows what pocket-perfect treasures await in the goodie bag?
Maybe this card with a photo of a beautiful mother and baby nursing, in their own little world, accompanying the finding that traumatic early experiences like circumcision can torture an otherwise healthy breastfeeding relationship…
How about this one — because we only know what we know when we do, and these are the days when all world medical authorities have finally concurred that circumcision is not doing anything ‘better’ for a baby.
Or maybe some other card that invites an ‘in the privacy of your own home’ visit to online pages offering non-judgmental, gentle education. We all have room to learn something invaluable that we didn’t already know.
3). The Functions of Foreskin
In American sex ed classes, foreskin is rarely mentioned. If it’s not treated like a ghost, it’s often treated like a condition that undergoes removal to reinstate the penis back to ‘normalcy.’ No mention of it’s functions or the consequences of its loss. Many circumcised males grow up into adults who aren’t even aware they weren’t born this way.
An anatomy lesson about normal male genitalia doesn’t have to be about circumcision. The idea is that after demonstrating the abundant and vital purposes of the biologically natural reproductive organ, the thought bubble question of “But why would we want to cut all of that off?” will cross one’s mind, however fleetingly.
Sometimes that is enough. After all, sometimes the gross, unfortunate misunderstanding of foreskin as ‘extra skin’ is enough for parents to sign their sons up for it’s removal.
My approach: I consciously assumed every expectant parent would keep their child intact and spoke to them accordingly. If they were having a girl, the chance of this in our American land would be nearly 100%. If they were having a boy, it would presumably be the 50% chance reflected in my area of Texas. Despite this coin toss statistic that might very well leave the child with a scarred head and no tail, I spoke to the parents as if it was no question that their baby will keep his whole body. In other words, I didn’t preface intact care tips with “Do you plan to keep your son whole?”
Instead I worked in functions of the foreskin while relaying other fun facts about babies. I found it best to begin with cool stuff like how they dream in utero, how they don’t really suck milk out of breasts but instead use positive pressure, how they’re born with vernix that protects their fragile new skin — then oh, also! — the many interesting reasons why their foreskin is so important. See, babies are fascinating and learning is fun!
(I displayed an info sheet called “10 Facts About Foreskin” on the posterboard, pictured below at #6).
4). Proper Care of Intact Boys
We discourage referring to intact boys as ‘uncircumcised’ for the same reason it doesn’t make sense to call untouched bananas as ‘unpeeled bananas,’ and peeled bananas simply as ‘bananas.’ The penis norm is an intact one; the deviation is its cosmetically altered, disassembled, ‘peeled’ form. Thus intact boys don’t have ‘extra parts’ that need any ‘extra care.’
Alas, education about proper intact care need not necessarily spearhead a primary agenda of “don’t circumcise.” It’s merely some schooling about the natural human body that’s been long overdue in our country.
At this table I offered free samples of Calmoseptine stickered with “I am intact, do not retract!” I explained how this cream is wonderful for soothing any redness, irritation, etc on the sensitive genital areas of baby boys and girls. Remind them that to keep their baby healthy and happy, soaps and oils are a no-no on sensitive parts like genitalia, and never retract a boy’s foreskin (or wash inside a girl’s vagina). Virtually any health issue that presents in a boy can be treated the same way as for a girl.
Not one person followed up with a question about how to care for a surgically altered penis.
*New at Saving Our Sons!* Go here to stock up on these convenient wallet-sized intact care cards:
5). Breastfeeding Troubleshooting
There are so many *potential* complications with breastfeeding in the earliest days that we all tend to worry about, even if just a little. We’re told how important it is to get off to a good start, and you know, it’s a lot of pressure to get it ‘right,’ like, right away!
When showing the table’s breastfeeding materials, I assured nursing-curious mothers how many of these unfavorable conditions (like perceived insufficient milk supply, letdown issues, poor latching, thrush, and so on) can fortunately be prevented. Then I talked about what you can do to decrease risk of falling into these booby traps.
A few examples: Find a reputable lactation consultant in advance of birth, nurse on demand, avoid supplement top-offs, co-sleep, and refuse unnecessary traumatic experiences for the baby during his nursing period including optional surgery, like the most common newborn surgery in America — amputation of what would’ve amounted to approximately half his total adult penile skin.
I like to direct these mothers to intact-friendly online breastfeeding communities in which numerous members — in addition to offering solutions for any nursing woes — openly share how circumcision may not have killed their son outright but surely brought such finality to his nursing days. Hearing the truth from veteran mothers gives new parents a chance to empower themselves with information they won’t find in seemingly more expected places (“Struggle to breastfeed successfully” is not listed as a possible circumcision risk on the consent form).
Read my post on how circumcision affects breastfeeding here.
Get lactivist bracelets of your own here (lots of varieties to choose from!).
6). Cloth Diapering & Elimination Communication
I wouldn’t call myself a cloth diaper or EC expert, but I’m familiar with what makes these both of things easier and harder, respectively. For example, when someone interested in cloth diapering wondered aloud about the cleaning myths, I explained how a diaper sprayer is totally worth the extra monetary cost in the long run. Also how to avoid oils and creams during diaper changes to preserve the cloth’s integrity. And of course, blood doesn’t belong in a diaper either; a cosmetic wound isn’t worth the extra bodily cost in the long run.
Most Americans are new to the concept of Elimination Communication (DiaperFreeBaby.org and ECSimplified.com are neat places to explore). As far as EC rough patches go, progress can stall if a baby’s elimination signals get disrupted by the trauma of freshly skinned genitalia. The association of burning pain from urine and feces on a raw, wounded exit is not lost easily or quickly enough — as I’ve gleaned from many known cases — to kick off diapering or pottying with a willing and comfortable participant. Tight, painful erections due to insufficient leftover skin or continued throbbing at the circumcision scar site can also interfere with diapering and pottying a child as he grows.
I’m hesitant to recommend most cloth support groups online, no matter how ‘natural-minded’ they claim to be, because it seems the question “How do I get blood stains out of my cloth stash after my son’s circumcision?” is often answered by unhelpful respondents who fail to address the real problem — which is the bloodied body part, not the bloodied stain.
This group is not only knowledgeable about diapering/pottying topics but also intact-friendly and can offer more obvious advice about preventing blood stains in cloth, like “Don’t circumcise” (well, *I* can’t say it, but I’ll just let them do it for me!).
7). Get a Male Volunteer
Maybe my presence here as your average suburban pregnant mother and host of a Peaceful Parenting table at a baby supercenter was a bit cliche… or perhaps my imagination is just wild… but I could swear that when people noticed a male volunteering his time at the table, they were ready to take the conversation seriously (for lack of a better word). Like they didn’t expect him to be there, and wondered for the first time ever what this breastfeeding/bed sharing/birthing chatter has at all to do with men.
So the Designated Dad weighed in on what was most important to him as a parent, too.
He told them that parenting is hard. Tiring. Confusing. But it’s so much easier with a happy child who trusts you and allows you to comfort him. And don’t forget that respect of a baby/infant/toddler/child/human’s body is equally as important as respect of his mind and spirit.
For a baby or young child this happiness comes from a feeling of physical security, which he codes deep in his growing bones by staying close enough to know his parents’ breaths as lullaby; by associating their hands with healing instead of hurting; his very first unconscious memory one of gaining a special place in this warm, welcoming world, rather than one of losing a tangible piece of himself to unforgiving metal tools.
That peaceful parenting has as much to do with fathers as it does mothers is beside the point, though. Really, it’s all about our babies. What do they need? What will they want? How do we keep them happy?
A man will be able to talk to you about setting aside ego, pride, and past injustices brought upon him before clocking into parenthood. He can tell you there’s no place for these within the role of a child guardian. He can tell you boys don’t have to look like their fathers or brothers any more than girls have to look like their mothers or sisters. He can tell you this with all the acquired rationale dads are so known for, and without the emotionally-reactive instinct often credited to moms (which is so like me — on the other side of the table, focusing hard to suppress welling tears as I chat about the blessing of nursing a toddler…).
8). Introduce Real-Life Peaceful Parents
When I presented the idea of non-punitive parenting, most parents with ripening baby bellies looked at me like I’d sprouted alien antennae from my scalp. Or maybe like they felt sorry for us and our belief in parenting what I imagine they’d call ‘the permissive way.’ Either way it was hard to tell between the blank stares of confusion, slight smirks, and widened eyes of hope that I wouldn’t peg them (either accurately or mistakenly) as the belt-wielding or crying-is-good-for-their-lungs type.
Thankfully, most people readily open up to visuals and real-life examples. I came prepared with a few on my posterboard.
“Don’t you think this picture is just precious? This is a homeschooling mother of three who lives near me. Here she is breastfeeding her toddler. She believes in everything gentle parenting, she mentors about elimination communication, and she’s an intactivist, which means she advocates for genital autonomy as a human rights issue…”
If you try this as a way to introduce a particular topic like circumcision, you can continue talking about this person like you’d introduce her at a play date. We all want to know what other mothers in our community are up to, don’t we? When the people you’re talking to get the idea that you’re painting a picture of a well-rounded role model of a parent, they’ll unconsciously package her interests and beliefs in with their overall impression.
You’ll describe a peaceful mother they could see themselves getting along with. Someone they might trust to babysit their own child. They’ll wish they knew someone just like this person in real life. Whether verbalized or not, they’ll have questions about her and for her. And that’s the first (and perhaps most important) step in the discovery of circumcision truths — the questioning. That very first, usually very small, yet also very nagging “But why?”
This mother, who is both real and symbolic, also happens to really believe that keeping her children whole is non-negotiable. So they imagine she’d generously and with empathy answer that little question if they asked. But to them she exists only through you — you who gets the advantage of availability in the flesh, right then and there. You’ll sense that tiny question brimming beneath their cheeks as they struggle to form it but can’t quite find the words. Just those two little words.
Thankfully, every piece of paper you already gave them is covered in a link that provides the answer in more thorough detail than you could possibly provide before they say thanks-goodbye-nice talking to you and carry on with their affairs.
After proper research leads to the conclusion that there’s no valid reason for violating the genital integrity of children, that little question eventually morphs into the exclamation: “Don’t circumcise!”
See photos from more recent events on Intact Houston’s Facebook page (give us a “like” while you’re there!).