Regrets of a Doctor and Mother of 13 Kids…

Regrets of a Doctor and Mother of 13 Kids…

My mom’s a doctor, and I think she did a great job of balancing motherhood and her medical career. When we were in school, she worked part-time so she was always home by 4. And now, even as she approaches 70, my mom continues to love her career as a psychiatrist with a large private practice.

Dr. Chana Katan, by contrast, looks back with a lot of regret at the many years she spent as a gynecologist at Jerusalem’s busiest Delivery Room, during which time she sometimes didn’t even see her young children for days at a time. I’m not posting this because I think it’s impossible to balance motherhood with a medical career. I know from my own experience that it is possible. I am posting this because I agree with Dr. Katan that it’s so important for us mothers to stay aware, to make sure that our children, marriages, and we ourselves are not paying too high a price for the hours we spend outside of the home…

The following is an excerpt from Woman’s Life by Dr. Chana Katan:

We started our married life as a young family in Alon Shvut. I studied full-time at the medical school of Hebrew University, and at the Hadassah Medical Center in Ein Kerem, and my husband studied Torah at Yeshivat Har Etsion where he worked part-time at the yeshiva’s library. Our first-born son would spend the entire day until 4 PM at the Emuna daycare center of the yishuv, and appeared to be happy and cheerful. When daycare was over, Leah the babysitter would pick him up and watch him in our empty home until my husband would arrive home at the end of his evening learning session.

This arrangement worked well for all of us for several months, until one evening my husband returned to our apartment from synagogue, and our babysitter Leah, who was generally a quiet woman, greeted him with a furious rebuke, “What kind of parents are you?! You have such a sweet child and you are never with him! You leave him at daycare in the morning and by the time you come home he is fast asleep!”…my husband broke out into uproarious laughter and tried to calm down our angry babysitter. At exactly that moment I arrived home, and the babysitter repeated her angry outburst for my ears as well, but I, in contrast to my husband, broke out into bitter sobs.

Several years passed. The hour is 6 in the morning. In the background I hear the quiet sounds of a morning radio program. My husband’s already at synagogue. As I drink a cup of coffee and eat a little something my eyes stop at the invitation posted on the refrigerator: an evening for the women of the yishuv, something special and fascinating. But I have to work on that day and nobody can replace me, especially since there is a party at my child’s nursery school the coming week and I already “sold my soul” in order to get a few hours off in order to participate in it.

I slowly approach the crib where my baby is sleeping peacefully. It pains me to wake him up, but what can I do? I must leave, and I can’t nurse him for the coming 40 hours. I lift him and he wakes up. I attempt to ignore his cries and try to nurse him when I am half-sitting and half-standing, a rushed morning nursing. That’s it, I need to move. I place him in his bed, look at my other chicks who are still fast asleep. I kiss them one by one as they sleep, and leave. Exactly 6:35. The entire world is asleep. The house is quiet. The first chirping of birds is heard in the air. I’ll return here the following day, and I already miss it…

The following evening I return home. What a view—it is dark outside, the home is quiet and silent, the children are already sleeping. I didn’t say kriyat shema with them before they went to bed, I didn’t tell them a short story, I didn’t sing them a lullaby.

I pass between the beds, place kisses on soft cheeks, lift the sleeping baby and sit down for a nighttime nursing…I am surrounded by disorder, dolls and toys are scattered everywhere, and out of the corner of my eye I see that some of my children are sleeping in their clothing. But my eyes can’t see anything anymore; I am waiting for a few minutes of sleep in order to gather my strength. In just a few hours it will be sunrise, and again I will leave before the birds are chirping…

The truth is that it is not only female doctors who combine many roles. The modern woman rolls within her hands, like a circus juggler, balls of different colors, and quickly switches between different multicolored hats.

She is the merciful nurse when a child is injured, and with expertise, softness, and a mother’s touch she improvises an amazingly professional bandage even if she never took a first aid course; she is an economist when the need arises, planning and caring for her family’s needs; she is a professional seamstress, specializing in Purim costumes; every evening she quietly climbs the mountains of laundry like a professional mountain climber, irons and folds and makes order; she is her children’s tutor in all subjects…; she braids challot and braids her daughters’ hair and makes them hair-dos; she is also the interior designer of her home, but most importantly she designs the coming generation; she decorates the rooms of her house, and gets dressed up as evening approaches to greet her husband when he returns home; she is an expert in arranging flowers, and the most beautiful flowers of all—she grew them within her womb; she dries laundry and dries her children’s tears; she repairs broken appliances but mostly broken hearts; she is a soldier in permanent service every day of the year, also on Shabbat and holidays, and she will never say: Enough!

In my clinic, I ask my patients, among other things, about their occupations, and I try to phrase this question very exactly: “Do you also work outside of the home?” Most of the time, I find out, women have a workplace also outside of the walls of their home. It is not uncommon that these mothers are on the brink of collapse, at which point I ask myself: Is it all worth it? Even though most research says that mothers’ professions provide the woman with freedom of expression, self-actualization, emotional satisfaction, and general security, and all of these contribute to a woman’s general sense of self-worth, which could benefit the marital relationship and her mothering as well, on the other side, I hear my husband quoting what he learned growing up in his childhood home: “Ales—kan men nisht”: which, roughly translated, means “You can’t do everything.:

I think of entire days full of experiences in my home that took place without me, entire nights that I was working and my bed was empty. And Shabbats? And holidays?

I find myself, a doctor working full-time, telling my own daughters: “Why should the babysitter be the one who enjoys the new experiences that your child had in nursery school, and the pictures which he places into her hands with excitement, and the conversation of children around the lunch table? When a mother comes home in the evening, the excitement has faded and the experiences are nearly forgotten”…

My husband would say to me during the difficult days of residency, when I had neither night nor day: “I feel more badly for you than I feel for the kids; you miss all the nachas from our sweet children—this is quality time that will never return!” Today I understand how right he was.

I gave it up. I gave up kriyat shema at bedtime with the little children, the goodnight kisses, making the morning sandwiches, the end-of-the-year parties in kindergarten, and even one or two Parent-Teacher meetings.

Time that will never return.

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39 comments

  1. Being a working mom is challenging for all of us, but this woman is in a class of her own. Beyond that, I don’t know what to say!

  2. Dr Katan lives on our yishuv and she’s an inspiring woman. It’s been very poignant for me to read her newspaper articles in BaSheva and this translation of one, here. The sacrifices for mothers are never easy – any way we choose!

  3. I went to work to pay for my childrens’ expensive Jewish school in South Africa. When we came to Israel I worked from home. I qualified as a nurse and I could take care of them better with the knowledge I gained from nursing. B”H I even managed to resuscitate a neighbors’ child one erev Shabbat. I then qualified as a lawyer and helped many women with their divorces and children as well. I think it is wonderful if women can work a few hours a day or work from home. I was fortunate to spend time with my children when they were babies and I took time off to take them on holiday and be with them for their school functions. Its a balancing act but I has given me a life once they grew up

  4. I’m also a working mom and sometimes fear that this will happen (although not to this extent). We’re lucky that we work in an age where technology allows for more flexibility, but I still pray that I have the clarity to make the right sacrafices at the right times. None of these decisions are easy; we just have to try the best we can.

  5. All the work she did in the hospital for all those years is worth less than the sweet moments she missed with her own kids?

    What is it worth to Am Yisrael for her patients to have had a woman doctor with yir’at shamayim?

    Each of us has to negotiate our private, family life with commitments to klal yisrael and very often other issues in the mix as well. Dr Katan is free to view her choices through a lens of regret – although she could just as easily write about how proud her kids and husband probably are of her and how much independence and mesirut nefesh they learned from her – but I find “ta’am lifgam” in her consistent, repeated expressions of regret when she could have quit and never did. What kind of an example is that?

    • JewishMom

      While you are correct that in this section she expresses only regret, the overall sense I got from the book as a whole is Dr. Katan’s tremendous gratitude for, as you said, the contribution she has been able to make to Klal Yisrael as a female gynecologist with yirat shamayim.

      Towards the end of the book she explains, “At difficult moments I find myself asking, how am I doing this? Why? And I come back again and again to the same answer. In my occupation as a doctor I am occupied with the issues that are among the foundations of life. I function as a person in whose power it is to truly change reality. I am thinking about the rebirth of the Jewish people. About big processes. And that gives me strength.”

      I have read the first paragraph of the book about 10 times because I found it so inspirational, and it gives, I think, a real sense the motivation for Dr. Katan’s tremendous mesirut nefesh. She writes:

      “For years I have had the feeling that I should tell about the events and thoughts that have filled the crowded years of my life during which I was and still am a mother, a woman, a wife, and a doctor. I filled all of these roles full-time, when above all of them I am a daughter of the Jewish people in the land of Israel which is being rebuilt.”

  6. I soooooooooooooooo appreciate the reverance expressed here for women who make all kinds of different choices vis a vis home and work. I love this post and I love the comments people have made! 🙂

  7. thank you Chana for posting this; though this is an extreme exemple, since most of working moms still have time with their children (like your own mother), and it is not at all representative;
    i think it is too easy to privilege one’s career over one’s little children and then say “i regret”! It is not a model for me it is a demonstration of ego and self-importance!

  8. May i add that your article on Ayala Nivin’s large family was really more inspiring!! this one is depressing….

  9. i’m with ann on this one. very depressing post—hope her kids survived and thrived despite their lack of maternal attention.

  10. I’m assuming from the title of the post, this incredible woman has 13 children?

    I don’t mean this harshly, but I totally fail to understand why someone would even think they are capable of being a mother to 13 children (as opposed to 1/2/3 children) AND work a full time, super-demanding job as a doctor?!?

    This is beyond an irrealistic expectation of the self.

  11. Yes it is depressing but there is something to learn from what she says. It will give me something to think about when I feel too tired to read a story or give one last cup of water. Also she is not the only woman out there who does have this lifestyle and maybe it will make one more women stop and realize that now is not the time to put so much into her career.

    • JewishMom

      yes, I also found this extremely inspiring. A reminder of what a precious gift it is to be able to spend time with and raise my own children.

      • Not only a reminder, I must say. As a young mom of 3 little ones … and quite close to a breakdown sometimes … this post is very inspiring. I chose not to take huge steps towards huge careers because I had seen many moms of this sort and I saw the pain in the families and knew that by the time I’m 80, what will have meant most will be intimate memories of my little ones, and not the big career. Nevertheless, “staying home with the kids”, and yes, working a little here and there, is still a HUGE challenge for me having been raised and groomed toward the big career I chose not to pursue in the end. This post reminds me why I’ve chosen this path and to keep savoring these years until the time is right to make the career happen. Thank you, Chana

  12. So I hate to put a twist on the whole thing, but my husband has the same schedule as Dr Katan, and I must tell you all, as the spouse of a man who seldom sees his chilrens milestones, booboos, fallen teeth, and all the trying times of being either ill, pregnant (again), or just alone..it is an art to be a spouse to these people…almost an act because at times you ask yourself, is this worth it?…kudos to the father but as a mother pulling both jobs I need to fuel my soul with parenting classes, and midos shirs, fuel my body with more than just cereal at 11pm, and excersize to stay fit for the daily marathons with just 5 kids under the age of seven…so it was and wasnt always like this, because by kid #3 I was working too and had alot of help and family support in the US, but after making aliya (while pregnant) and by the time we adjusted and became pregnant with number 5 life became a juggling act and our choice was to make a full effort on both our parts to reach financial stability and on the way my husband serves a rav to a distant kehilla on a prominantly secular moshav..so we love shabbos, but so do his students, and we love pesach and succos because we get to all be together…but doing it all without resentment..id have to be a liar…so if the s.a.h. spouse can keep everyone happy and distracted kids usually relish the time they do see their working dads moms, and have alot of respect for them, but if the spouse who does it all is a martyr..the kids pickup on it and its bad for everyone..so its important that the couple meet once a week or 2 to discuss things and its also important to ask a rav if this is really how to continue raising a family…

  13. Cant understand why someone would choose that

  14. EA (above) asked:

    All the work she did in the hospital for all those years is worth less than the sweet moments she missed with her own kids?

    My answer is: YOU BET IT IS! Of course all the work she did helping strangers (or even friends) is worth less than the sweet moments she missed with her own children, her flesh and blood, the babies who were depending on her AND ONLY HER to be their mother and to be there. She failed them. Of course she is flooded with regret. My heart goes out to her and I thank her for telling it like it is so the young mothers can understand what they are doing to their children and themselves if they set it up so they are gone for 40 hours in a row, chas v’sholom.

    No need to jump on me about how you only work to put bread on the table. I’m not knocking mothers who go out to work a few hours a day. I am agreeing with Dr. Chana Katan, above, that being gone the amount of hours and even days that she was gone is likely to lead to only one place: deep, inconsolable, life-long regret.

    Ann, you write (above): i think it is too easy to privilege one’s career over one’s little children and then say “i regret”! It is not a model for me it is a demonstration of ego and self-importance!

    But Ann, Dr. Chana Katan has zero ego and no sense of self-importance. Just the opposite. She is totally humble and sees herself with very realistic, even critical, eyes. I don’t see how you can read her humble, sincere, pain-filled words and see “ego and self-importance.” People with ego and self-importance justify their actions no matter who gets hurt. All that counts is their own happiness, fulfillment, etc.

    Yes, it’s nice for Jewish women to have Jewish female doctors, but others could have filled that role. Nobody else but the mother can be the mother no matter how good the father or grandparents or babysitters are. (And many are VERY good.)

    Dr. Chana Katan, may G-d bless you, and thank you for writing so honestly. I admire and respect you for your honesty and grace. You did what seemed necessary at the time and I hope you one day find peace with what you did. I know it’s not easy.

    I know what it is like to feel regret over things that happened (decisions we as mothers made) decades ago when the children were small. The pain is so sharp, and that feeling of “oh G-d, what have I done, and now it’s too late” just doesn’t go away…

    • you are definitely right on the ego part; a woman who is able to have regrets publicly is very humble. But still…for me a woman who goes away and leaves so many children (13 is more than usual), thinks she is sooo useful outside doesn’t she? so this is the ego part that speaks, isn’t?
      maybe i feel her pain, but for me it’s too easy to leave everyone and then say in a book, hello it’s me i shouldn’t have done that!!!
      she had many many years to think and act before regretting when its too late! we are surely responsible in our lives!

    • I read this post and didn’t see the author, and said to myself sounds like Rishi Deitsch!!!! How funny! I agree with you Rishi, don’t worry. I am a Shlucha, proud mom of double digits b”h, and bubby, and while I worked for a number of years part time shebipartime, (11 hours a week) I have been with my kids for the last ten years. I can’t say that it’s not a struggle sometimes, but I keep telling myself, that while it’s nice to do something else, the stress and pressure isn’t worth it! and it’s probably the very end of my “career”, as my age is getting up there, so another year or two and the baby will be in school and I’ll be free to do whatever, if I have any energy left.

  15. yehudischana

    Would love to get my hands (and eyes) on a published English version of this book! Chana Jenny, how about it?

    • JewishMom

      I don’t think I’m up for it, but it’s a great idea! If it is translated, I will definitely keep you JewishMOMs posted:)

  16. Ann, I am trying to hear what you are saying and I think I almost do… but what does the quantity of children have to do with it? I don’t see why it would matter if one child were left or four or fourteen. The point is not being there for your child(ren), isn’t it? and then regretting that which cannot be redone.

    • you are right it doesn’t matter, but when you have thirteen children there is even more time needed for each one of them! and more birthdays to celebrate, and kisses, and a ear to listen…so i can’t get how she could work so much and therefore have so little time for each of her children; and why did she chose to raise so many kids if she couldn’t be there? what’s the point? i am not saying why did she have so many kids,has veshalom, but why did she work so much?isn’t it too easy to say now i am sorry?

  17. I have two thoughts:

    !. Since Dr. Katan’s career/family challenge seems so uniquely superhuman, it seems to me that Hashem CLEARLY gave her a very special task in this world, and the special character and tools to deal with it. To me her supernatural balancing act is possible only with the closest hashgacha. My feeling is that G-d not only wanted her to bring many souls down into the world (and boy did she come through on that one), but He also wanted her to help others to do it. A superhighway for souls….

    2. I was just wondering, aside from the actual child-rearing, how did Dr. Katan actually find the time and energy to BE PREGNANT on top of it all ?!

    I only have admiration for this woman. I think I feel that way particularly because of her partocular career choice. I don’t think I’d feel the same if she were, say, a Wall Street Whiz Kid. (Judgemental, I know)

    • i also want to add that I found particularly poignant her description of snatched moments of nighttime and early-morning nursing: this painted a picture, to me, of a woman who gave whatever she could possibly spare to her children. She didn’t have time, but she gave as much nourishment as her body would allow. I am an abysmal nurser and end up weaning very early out of sheer frustration, so I found her physical sacrifice amazing despite her exhaustion. That’s what brought on the tears for me.

  18. Y.L., you’re right –
    but try for just a second to experience all that through her child’s eyes/heart
    feel what the child feels when her mother picks her up for that early morning nurse then puts her back, and the child doesn’t see, hear, feel or smell Mama again for another 40 hours

    experience it through the child’s eyes
    it’s different, then.

    • It’s ironic that despite her hardships and regrets, she still encourages other mothers in the maternity ward. Think of how many homes and marriages she may have saved by perhaps warding off postnatal depression in those unfairly rebuked mothers…. Her kind words of encouragement may be the reason Hashem strengthened her heart in her mission. Rishe, it may be that her children missed her terribly, I’d lOve to hear what they say about it, though. Maybe the light she shone on them whilst she could was enough to sustain them. Does not Hashem match mothers to children? Again, her resolve seems so supernal I console myself by thinking that she was given children with souls who would cope.

  19. HL- don't discard it, push it off 15 yrs!

    Dr. Katan’s career is HUGELY important, but little children are only little for such a short time! Even if you have many, we only have so-many child-rearing years.

    I have small children and every time I consider taking on things that I question, “But, Ma, do you think it won’t be good for my kids? It’s going to be a huge undertaking.” My mother doesn’t respond with, “Oh, you better never, ever do that!” She usually reminds me, “Sure, in about 5 or 6 years when your baby starts kindergarten, you can work all day when she’s at school. And if that doesn’t work out, in 18 years, they will up and grown and out of the house and then you can surely do it then. I’m behind ya!”

    So, true, female doctors are important, and we need them, but that is completely besides the point: during the 20 years that we are raising our families, not matter how important our job- another female doctor with yiras shamayim who has already raised her children can stand in her place until her babies are grown and she can join the workforce again.

    It’s not a “now or never” thing.

    My mother was home every single day when we walked in from school as far as I can remember. As a matter of fact, it was so rare that she wasn’t that when she wasn’t home wee had a consolation supper of junky cereal and milk as a treat.

    Cold watermelon on the table on scorching days. Heaven! And then three of us to a bed because we lived in a two-bedroom. Heaven! Whatever it was was all heaven because my mother was around, she was raising us, we joy-rided to pizza shops and back with Marvelous Middos Machine songs, we marveled at fancy cakes in the bakery windows, and she also did the more obviously imp things like setting the barometer for how tough on ourselves to be regarding schoolwork… and we all did well without her putting any pressure. We were just happy.

    And now, my mother is working. Hard. She works outside the home, does interviews outside the home, lectures and also works hard at home working many more hours than she ever did when her children were small.

    The career may be important, but it can simply wait a couple of years.

    • Ok, but find me a medical career that started at the age of 40…. I’m supremely grateful to all the women out there who become gynies. I had taken them for granted. Just this week I lodged a complaint with maccabi that there was no female available in my town, that I could only get an appt in a month, and I live in a religious city!!!

  20. surely women could work part time, two women on a full time so that there are women gynies but theu still have time for the priority: their private life!
    Chan you told us alittle while ago about a shiour by Rabbi Nivin who told that we have two missions in life; one inside our home and one outside, but the inside mission is always a priority!

  21. Devorah Leah

    OMGosh, Dr. Katan was my doctor for our first born.

  22. Leah Hochbaum

    I always dreamed of going to medical school and until today there is still a part of me that regrets not doing so – in theory. But I chose my kids / family over my own personal quest. I still pursued a medically-related field that allows me a lot of flexibility in my hours and as my kids grow up I am able to develop that side of myself more and more – in balance with my kids needs. My aunt was a pediatrician and almost left medical school when she got pregnant with her first child. My grandmother insisted that she not quit and offered to raise the baby (her husband was also in medical school) which she then did until my aunt was able to be there for her own daughter. My grandmother is so proud of what she did for her granddaughter who is now a famous author – no regrets. But it was certainly not easy for anyone involved! I agree with the comments about 13 kids – you want to go to medical school and contribute to Am Yisrael by being a female doctor – that’s great. But then why 13 kids? Maybe use the little time you have to spread between fewer children? My mother is a doula and is on call 24/7 for births but she only started doing this after her youngest was in high school. In short – there are many ways to make the balance – Dr Chana Katan may be a great doctor but I think she was lacking a little balance in her life!

  23. Shulamis Green

    Many years ago, when I considered going back to school and becoming a midwife, I asked a few dear friends that were working in the field what the price was. They all answered in two simple words: my children.

    I knew then and there that I couldn’t do that and as a Childbirth Educator and Doula, I would redouble my efforts to make a difference “on the other end”-with the woman. True, I did my most full-time doula work when all my babies were small, but night shifts made it possible for me to be home at bedtime and be home in time to send them off to gan/school and recover while they were in school. Still, I missed many shabbossim, chagim, and family events during those years.

    However, I have no regrets. Doing my work made me a better mother. The lessons I have learned from the many women I have worked with have been a gift and an inspiration. It has been an example to my kids and a source of enrichment and wonder. My absences made them strong, resourceful, creative, and caring human beings-helping to make our family work and stepping up, each in their own way. Our time together was always cherished-even though at times, I was running on empty.

    I understand Dr. Chana’s feelings, but she should not despair because she has made a difference in many womens’ lives and she has taught her kids a profound lesson in human potential and dedication. As they grow, she will have more time for her grandchildren and sharing her wisdom with her children who will, after all, always be her children. Not just when they were small.

    I applaud her honesty and humility for sharing with us her emotional journey. But it is far from over, and as time passes, sweetness and nachas will replace her regrets.

  24. I read with great interest all comments. I agree with majority of women that Dr. Katan was making her choice every day by leaving to study in the medical school (in the beginning of the expert) and later, leaving to work. It’s a little too late to regret it, which is very sad.
    But I think that while it’s very easy to blame her for doing it, her husband is also the one to blame. They are one family, one unit, these are also his children. If they, as family decided that it’s the best for her to be the one working, then maybe he was supposed to be the one, mothering their kids, not the babysitters.
    The whole concept of mother working only so that she can support her husband’s learning comes at the price of their children. I don’t understand why is Tora learning, as holy as it is, is holier than raising one’s kids?

    • “The whole concept of mother working only so that she can support her husband’s learning comes at the price of their children. I don’t understand why is Tora learning, as holy as it is, is holier than raising one’s kids?”

      1) Is he really learning Torah, though?

      2) Doesn’t part of Torah read, “and you shall teach [the words of Torah] to your children; and you shall talk of them when you sit at home…”? I agree, then, that “he was supposed to be the one, mothering their kids, not the babysitters.” Isn’t talmud Torah for naught if one doesn’t follow Torah, including the Shema?

  25. It always shocks me how out of tune some parents are with their children’s needs. THe whole, “this makes me happy and that makes my kids happy” is a sham. You can use it to justify anything.

  26. I hate to bring this up, but one point everyone is missing is that perhaps the role of the father is NOT to sit and learn all day while his wife is out slaving away. I have seen this so many times, and although I know it is admirable to learn, I believe fulltime learning should be limited to only those exemplary and special talmudei chachamim, and these are few and far between. There should be admission tests for fulltime learning. For a year or two when you first get married, OK, then go out and get a fulltime job. The men here are the ones who are getting off easy. Even the torah supports the idea of learning as well as supporting your family. Women have been brainwashed into thinking it is a ‘privelege’ to work, raise kids, run the household, while their husband sits and learn. What a good deal for the men! Women have to smarten up and become more assertive.

    • “I hate to bring this up, but one point everyone is missing is that perhaps the role of the father is NOT to sit and learn all day while his wife is out slaving away.”

      I agree with you. Also, as I recall, talmud Torah as the Haredim understand it is not the way that avoteinu b’Sinai understood talmud Torah.

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