Group photo. Dr. Hanna Katan with her family

Dr. Hanna and her 13 children

Fertility specialist and mother of 13 explains why having a large family is ideal reality and why she, as a doctor, believes family comes before one's career

We have just finished reading the Passover Haggadah about Pharaoh (the bad guy) and the Hebrew midwives (as the good fairies) saving newborn babies from a cruel fate. But on second thought, could it be that Pharaoh did win after all? Especially in light of the Western perception which supports reducing the birthrate.


Dr. Hanna Katan, the mother of a large family and a fertility specialist, believes the answer is yes.


I know this is a personal question, but for the sake of this discussion, how many children do you have?


"I have, thank God, 13 children, seven grandchildren, and several on the way."


Where did the decision to have a large family come from?


"I immigrated to Israel from the United States at the age of 15. My family was defined as 'modern Orthodox', but that didn't stop my mother from raising eight children gloriously. This is where I believe I got the model of a large family.


"I began my academic course studying Judaism at a college in Jerusalem, and went on to study medicine at the Hebrew University. I specialized in gynecology at the Shaare Zedek Medical Center. My sub-specialization today is fertility."


So how does one combine a big family with a demanding career?


"I wouldn’t recommend it. The list of priorities was always clear to me: My family comes before my career. When my daughter expressed an interest in medicine, I suggested that she study nursing and become a nurse. It's very difficult having such a demanding profession as a woman: The unending duties on Shabbat and on holidays as well, the kindergarten birthday parties I missed.


"Today the profession is becoming increasingly feminine, but as a mother it's frustrating, and it can definitely come at the family's expense. In addition, you need an extremely supporting husband like my husband, who was ready for a 'crazy' road of life for us to be able to maneuver. In any event, I didn't recommend to any of my children to study medicine."


How did your colleagues respond to your unusual family?


They always view religious people as 'weirdos'. I remember that at my Ph.D. ceremony when I went on the stage, the dean extended his hand, and naturally I refused to shake a man's hand. So I came up with an 'elegant' solution in advance: My husband was on reserve duty at the time, so I got on the stage with my two small children, holding one in each arm, and the dean was forced to 'give up' on the handshake."


Let's talk about stigmas: Is there less personal attention in a large family?


Definitely not. There is extra attention from the older siblings which smaller families lack, and it's as important. The siblings provide deep friendships and emotional support. Children from large families learn important social skills of sharing, respecting the other and making concessions."


Is the image of the ignorant, poor and ill multipara wrong?


"Most scientific studies conducted on multiparas surveyed hard-working populations where reproduction is unplanned. Women who gave birth simply because they did not know about birth control. But simultaneously, in recent years a large population has grown with a lot of awareness, and a lot of 'family planning' in terms of expanding the family rather than reducing it.


"Today in the modern medical literature and in studies conducted at the Shaare Zedek, Bikur Holim and Maayanei Hayeshua hospitals, which serve many religious and haredi mothers, it has been shown that being a multipara is not a risk factor under the conditions of a modern medical treatment."


As far as you are concerned, is having many children always an optimal thing?


"In families from the national-religious sector, the idea of a large family comes by choice and awareness. This is not a public one can refer to as ignorant, poor or as contributing to the country to a lesser degree and not being involved in all areas of life. One of the outstanding examples is the significant military service in combat units.


"Starting a large family is a matter of priorities and of desire, and an understanding that this is the ideal reality. Sometimes, people from different publics find it difficult to understand how 'enlightened' people, academicians, choose to have many children of their own free will.


"My mother, who also had a Ph.D was 'reprimanded' by her gynecologist, who was also a religious Jew, for choosing to give birth to so many children despite being such an educated woman…"


Doesn't a prolific mother pay a price in terms of her health?


"Just the opposite. Being a multipara contributed greatly to a woman's body. There are lower rates of uterine, ovarian and breast cancer among prolific mothers. In addition, being a multipara testifies that a woman is healthier, and points to a longer cell life."


In your clinic, as a fertility specialist, you work mainly with haredi patients.


"I have in my waiting room mothers of eight children crying, asking for fertility treatments in order to have their ninth child. I don't tell a woman how many children are 'enough'. If the woman is young and healthy and is interested in becoming pregnant again, and there are good chances medically for the treatment to succeed, who am I to stop her from being treated?


"According to the Torah, a woman is not obligated to keep the mitzvah of giving birth, as she is not to be commanded to do so. For the woman it is a 'built-in desire' and a basic need, even if she attempts to repress it.


"The problem is that what every woman who graduated from high school knows, that from the age of 35 the chance of becoming pregnant drops significantly, educated women with academic degrees don’t understand. And then at the age of 40 they begin the crazy race for a child, and there is a lot of grief and suffering. Instead of planning in advance to have children at an earlier age, even if this would mean spreading out your studies over a longer period of time."


You were a member of the "governmental committee for demography" – a committee appointed by Prime Minister Ben-Gurion . What were your objectives at the time?


"Mainly encouraging reproduction in secular families. The average Israeli woman has 2.9 children, a number which means an average of two children in a secular family. Our goal was to make those families decide to have a third and fourth child. This was why we recommended raising the National Security pension significantly for those children only.


"It won't matter for families aspiring to have their eight child for ideological reasons, but for those small families an enlarged allowance may change the picture and provide the 'missing push'.


"An interesting piece of research I discovered while working on the committee was the fact that a sweeping majority of older couples regret not having more children, regardless of the number of children they've had in practice.


"It seems that only when we're old, with the race of life and our career behind us, we have the ability of comprehending the importance of the future generation. Not ideologically or 'for the country', but for personal selfish reasons, because children are indeed the source of happiness."


פרסום ראשון: 04.15.09, 09:41
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