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I Don't Know What To Do With My Son's Foreskin

Photograph by Twenty20

Just to clarify, the foreskin I'm seeking help with is still attached to my son. Not that I'm sure exactly which bit it is** because it looks nothing like his father's. In the UK, where my son was born, circumcision isn't standard (and the rates are falling in America), so it never crossed my mind that my son wouldn't have all the skin he was born with forever. Just like it never crossed my mind, until yesterday, that I've not paid his foreskin any attention in the 13 months since it—and he—arrived in my life.

No one ever told me I had to, so when I sent a panicked text to my boyfriend asking if he had forgotten to tell me anything in the last year, I could only hope his omission was because I don't need to do anything. And that I haven't needed to do anything for the last year. Up until now, I've been operating under the potentially faulty assumption that boys' genitalia is easier than girls', just grateful there's no need to pay attention to which direction to wipe.

RELATED: Circumcision: Don't, Just Don't

But, suddenly, I had doubts. It couldn't possibly be that his little willy-hood hasn't needed something done to it. Not if 50 percent of Americans, and certain religious groups, see a reason to cut it at birth.

My foreskin knowledge, I am realizing, is scanty (see ** above). Here are the results of a word association game I just played with myself to see if I could dredge up some memory from high school sex ed or prenatal class or something from someone in a position of expertise when it was discovered that I, a female, was going to birth a male.

** Foreskin:

  • skin
  • retract
  • that stringy bit that attaches it
  • smegma

I have to confess I did not know I knew that last one. Next level foreskin—unlocked!

I clicked, aware that it was the only time I can think of when I had zero clue what I was about to read.

Unfortunately, I've also got to the root of my panic. Smegma is not good, I recall that much. Foreskin cheese caused by the buildup of dead skin and other penile output. How much can a 1-year-old have accumulated? And what if I damage the stringy bit trying to retract the skin to find out? I'm finding it hard enough to brush his five tooth stumps. He writhes and screams, his hands multiply and bat the brush out of my hand, and he jack-knifes off my lap to freedom every time. He's never going to sit still for foreskin care.

Asking my boyfriend was no help. From puberty onwards, he's been hyper aware of everything to do with his foreskin and the surrounding equipment, but he has no idea what it did, or looked like, when he was a baby. He did advise me however, after age 13, to always knock before entering our son's room.

So I had to Google it, squeamish, despite having survived the slideshow of baby poo and the one with all the rashes. Thankfully, "foreskin hygiene baby" yielded results in a number of reassuringly familiar parenting websites featuring authoritatively reported "service pieces." I clicked, aware that it was the only time I can think of when I had zero clue what I was about to read.

The relief!

The reason no one told me anything, never even mentioned it ever, not once, is that I don’t have to do anything after all.

Since my son will have countless decisions to make regarding his sexual health and safer sex, the age where this potential factor needs to be considered is when he is sexually active.

Apparently, the foreskin is still fully attached to the head of the penis and will remain so until he's 2 or 3 at the earliest. It's perfectly normal for it to take anything up to 17 for it to be fully retractable, though it will still have the stringy bit, which I now know is called the frenulum. It can’t be retracted while still attached, and I should, under no circumstances, try to ease it back. Even better, the head of his baby penis is self-cleaning. So, I have at least another year before I have to think about any of this. After that, he will just need to gently retract it in the shower, keeping it clean and dry, with much the same care as he will his toes. Even that, some pediatricians say, is not necessary until puberty, presumably because that is around when I'll have needed to start knocking on his door. Hopefully, my involvement will be reduced to occasionally reminding him by then.

To me, this makes my baby's foreskin nothing to worry about, like his ears, except less detached. I don't pay special attention to cleaning his ears and, of course, I don't stick my fingers down them, but there is a possibility he will one day get an ear infection or need a doctor to treat them. I began my research a little glibly, I admit. I didn't know anything, and I didn't know what I didn't know. It turns out there is a list of possible complications, though all are treatable and for most of them, the foreskin itself is less to blame than rough handling, poor care and hygiene.

RELATED: Why I Chose Circumcision For My Sons

An area with conflicting advice concerns the spread of STI's and HPV, the virus that can lead to penis and cervical cancer. Some organizations state a link, based on studies in less developed countries. Others report no increase in disease when good hygiene is maintained. Since my son will have countless decisions to make regarding his sexual health and safer sex, the age where this potential factor needs to be considered is when he is sexually active. And that means, for me, that he will then be old enough to decide what to do with his foreskin.

My job in the meantime is to teach and help him while he's too young to give importance to all those other things like cleaning his teeth and washing his ears.

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