Hazel McHaffie

Call the Midwife

Looks like I missed a trick! In 1998 a nurse/midwife/midwifery lecturer, Terri Coates, pointed out that midwives are virtually non-existent in literature. Doctors and nurses yes, – in abundance – but not midwives. Given that they’re at the centre of one of the most spectacular experiences common to all human beings, why is this so?

‘The responsibility they carry is immeasurable. their skill and knowledge are matchless, yet they are completely taken for granted, and usually overlooked … Why aren’t midwives the heroines of society that they should be?’

Jennifer Worth, reading about this in the Midwives Journal, picked up the gauntlet and in 2002 the book, Call the Midwife, was born. It reads rather like a novel in places, but it’s actually based on the true story of life in the East End of London in the 1950s. And of course it rose to fame when Heidi Thomas serialised Worth’s books on BBC TV, series 1 beginning in 2012, and series 7 recently ending on a tragic note which suggests it’ll be back to heal the wounds. And yes, Thomas has indeed signed up for another two series.

The experiences Worth relates rang very true to me. I trained as a midwife myself in the 60s (third from the right in the photo below, taken outside the world’s most famous maternity hospital) and remember vividly that era. Abortion was illegal, premarital sex and illegitimate children were stigmatised, the Pill wasn’t available, racial prejudice was rife, soap and water enemas and pubic shaving were common practice. I too worked in homes where the kiddies ran around in vests and nothing else, free to urinate anywhere without making washing. I learned to take newspapers with me to provide a sanitary base for my bag and coat. Young women did die of eclampsia, infections, undiagnosed complications, back-street abortions. Naive and relatively inexperienced, we accepted the responsibility of being alone in houses with no telephones, few mod cons, but the legendary lashings of boiling water on standby! We too worked long unsocial hours and attended lectures on Saturdays. We too sallied forth anywhere at all hours confidently, wearing our uniforms with pride, and turned our cloaks inside out to parade through the wards in festive red, singing carols at Christmas time.

But Jennifer Worth worked in post-war London; I in Edinburgh and Paisley. She saw a level of poverty and degradation below that I encountered. Prostitution, meths drinkers, homeless immigrants, drug addicts, huge families living in condemned buildings. Mothers desperately trying to keep their families together with no regular income, no benefits, selling hair and teeth as a last resort before being taken in by the workhouse. This was her world.

My own mother regaled me with plenty of stories of those same years and i could only admire the strength and courage of these families who took adversity in their stride and showed such fine examples of parental love and integrity.

It’s a fascinating read, and the success of the BBC show indicates that the topic has widespread appeal. The book includes a potted history of the professionalisation of midwives for those unfamiliar with developments, but the real meat is in the characters and experiences Worth grew to love and appreciate. And the enormous privilege it is to share this most miraculous experience of new birth.

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