Call the Midwife

January 31, 2013 at 11:04 am

Call the MidwifeCall the Midwife offers an engaging, realistic memoir of Jennifer Worth’s career as a midwife and district nurse at the age of twenty-two in London’s East End Slums in the 1950s. Worth trained with the Midwives of St. Raymund Nonnatus, a pseudonym for a religious order of Anglican nuns devoted to bringing safer childbirth to the poor.

During the 1950s, few women went out to work. When a young woman “settled down” and the babies starting coming, she was busy with cleaning, washing, drying, ironing, shopping, cooking and child-rearing, often with 13 or 14 children in a small house containing two or three bedrooms. Midwives often had to navigate their way through a maze of flapping linen to find their patients.

The St. Raymund midwives worked among the poorest of the poor, offering the only reliable midwife service for about half of the nineteenth century.  During the Blitz with its intensive bombing of the docks, the Sisters delivered babies in dugouts, church crypts, air-raid shelters, and underground stations. They also labored tirelessly through epidemics of tuberculosis, polio, cholera, and typhoid. Worth described her time with these Sisters as the most important experience in her life.

Her book encompasses charming tales of the Sisters, including Jenny’s first day at the convent when she meets Sister Monica Joan who convinces her that it’s acceptable to eat an entire cake before the other Sisters return, and in turn lets Jenny take the blame. Sister Evangelina’s coarse, but effective way of convincing a homeless woman to talk to her describes a method that will never be used in today’s clinics. Sister Julienne’s appearance in chapel after helping the handyman with his pigs provides an example of the long-suffering acceptance of the other Sisters.

Dramatic, touching stories of nursing care in patients’ homes provide tales of resilience under circumstances unimaginable today: Conchita’s premature birth of her twenty-fifth baby with only Jenny in attendance and how the baby survives, a breech delivery during a family Christmas party, and convincing a patient with pre-eclampsia to go to the hospital when her mother thinks otherwise. The midwives handle many difficult situations with aplomb, grace and compassion including three stories of mixed descent births unexpected by the fathers.

We become more acquainted with Jenny and her life during the 1950s. She shares how she sneaks two intoxicated male friends into the nurses’ training school so they can sleep it off in the drying room. On another date, she and her friends drive to an early morning swim in an obsolete 1920s London taxi nicknamed Lady Chatterley. Dressing for dates was rather formal then: long, full skirts flared outwards at the hem, nylon stockings were fairly new then with seams that had to be straight, accessorized with shoes designed with five to six inch steel-capped stiletto heels and narrow, pointed toes. This creates a problem when Lady Chatterley breaks down and everyone, including the girls in their heels, has to push the car to get it started.

Call the Midwife doesn’t flinch in telling stories of gritty realism about life and death in a poor house, slums where prostitutes struggled to survive and domestic violence was common. Yet, Worth never heard of gratuitous violence toward children or the elderly. There was a certain respect for the weak and definitely considerable respect and protection for the midwives who were revered by the people who lived in the docks.

Worth also describes how she regained her faith through working with the Sisters and experiencing the daily miracles in her career as a nurse and midwife.

PBS began broadcasting the highly acclaimed series in September, 2012 and season two begins March 31, 2013.

Debbie L. Fuehrer, L.P.C.C.
Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program

Entry filed under: Book Notes.

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