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Circumcision: When Partners Disagree

QUESTION: My partner is Jewish and wishes to have our baby-to-be circumcised. Although I find the Jewish faith to be culturally rich and spiritual, this one aspect I find primitive, outdated and abusive. This is upsetting me greatly. I'm afraid that I may not have any choice in the matter, as there does not seem to be any middle ground for compromise. Is there anything we can do to reach a neutral position?

ANSWER: This conflict represents a core issue, which touches on primal feelings for both of you. The manner in which you handle this decision will set the tone for your parenting relationship. Your partner is no doubt deeply steeped in the cultural and/or religious implications of his faith and believes this procedure is in the best interest of his child. However, you do not view your child's best interests through the same lens in this situation. Your very strong negative feelings about circumcision also needs to be heard and understood by your husband. Resolution requires extensive discussion and soul searching on both sides.

The decision of whether or not to circumcise should result from a thorough understanding of each other's perspectives. The resolution that will evolve from understanding one another is unknown. It is the process of being willing to delve deeply into what both of you perceive as painful and to truly understand the nature of that experience which will allow you to feel connected. As you view it now, one of you will have to initially sacrifice your position. Stay open to the potential for this empathic process of discussion to be transformative in some way that you do not now comprehend or anticipate.

First, research the medical procedure of circumcision and the medical statistics as you would with any operation your newborn would experience. Do not shy away from this exercise. It is a part of knowing that you are both fully aware and willing to accept the risk and pain involved. Express your feelings without accusation. Ask that your partner be open to your experience and the impact of this physical procedure on his child. Should the two of you agree to circumcision, you must know that he is not in denial of your perspective, but willing to accept whatever real jeopardy or distress is involved for what he may believe is a truly greater benefit.

Next, thoroughly listen to your husband's feelings and the emotional meaning -- both religious and personal -- that this procedure holds. Do not denigrate one another in the process. Be open and gather information about the various ways circumcision could occur: in a hospital setting, at home with a rabbi, with or without anesthesia, with or without parental and family presence. Put yourself in the place of your child. Visualize a variety of different possibilities. It is our job as parents to try to imagine our child's experience and to weigh the benefit/pain ratio. Imagine the most positive outcome possible from your husband's perspective and ask him to do the same from your perspective. Seek out the experiences of other parents in your similar situations who have had positive experiences on both sides of this decision.

Ask your husband to imagine he is not circumcising his child, and live with that visualization for a day, while you simultaneously "try on" his best scenario and imagine it for a day. The process of delving deeply into the primal feelings involved, expressing and imagining the other's perspective may likely yield some kind of middle ground you are not yet aware of as a possibility.

Though difficult, this is an opportunity to gain deeper self-knowledge, as well as an understanding of your partner's experience. You may discover that your husband's issues revolve around his own masculine identity and being "different" from his son if he is not circumcised. Other issues can include siblings being "different" from one another. A family might resolve that differences between their sons were simply a part of their individuality. Simply having a safe atmosphere to entertain different possibilities and express deeper "unpopular feelings" may yield a variety of ways that your husband might find to emotionally resolve personal issues which result in forgoing circumcision.

Some mothers in your situation have found a way to embrace the decision to circumcise by adopting a more "humanistic" approach to the "bris," which includes holding the child, administering wine and breastfeeding immediately afterwards. These mothers accept that their love lies in the bonding to their child through some adversity, which they are willing to face with their newborn. They believe their presence buffers the physical trauma, making it a bearable ritual with positive implications for the child's development in the family, rather than an abusive experience for their newborn. Other fathers in your husband's position have adapted by having a bris ritual in the spirit of the "covenant with god" without circumcision.

This is your first major parental decision. Conflict that is resolved from empathy unites rather than divides. Invite your husband to join with you to lay a foundation for solving problems together. Work to find a compromise that leaves your son a legacy of connection and cooperation rather than division and polarization surrounding the atmosphere of his arrival into your family.


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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