by KARA VANDERBIJL
Call the Midwife
creator Heidi Thomas
The year is 1957. It will be another four years before Britain’s Family Planning Association adds the pill to its list of approved contraceptives, and fifteen years before all women in all U.S. states will have access to it, thanks to Eisenstadt vs. Baird. Commercial ultrasound machines won’t be available for another twenty years. If you’re lucky, you might get a gulp of laughing gas to manage the pain, but on a normal day in the impoverished East End of London, giving birth looks a lot like lying on a rubber mat in your own bed, hoping that you and your baby will come out of it relatively unscarred. If not, it’s just as well—you probably have four or five others to feed, anyways, and without contraception, it won’t be long before you’re back on that rubber mat.
Enter the midwife: your best friend, your lord and savior, your own personal Florence Nightingale.
Directed by Heidi Thomas, Call the Midwife follows nurse Jenny Lee (Jessica Raine) as she disembarks from a life of relative comfort into London’s rough-and-tumble Poplar neighborhood. She, along with three other RNs — Trixie, Cynthia, and Chummy — live and work at Nonnatus House, an Anglican nursing convent which provides medical care of all sorts for the community.
When the phone at Nonnatus House isn't ringing in some new crisis, the nurses navigate their life in Poplar as any young woman in the late 1950s would: making friends, listening to records, smoking, and going to dances. But with the post-WWII baby boom still in full throttle, the nuns and nurses spend most of their time staring down a birth canal.
The BBC drama is based on Jennifer Worth's bestselling memoirs, and has proved to be a runaway hit in both the United Kingdom and the United States, its number of viewers surpassing even that of Downton Abbey. Since I started watching it several weeks ago, I’ve been trying to put my finger on what makes the show so very appealing (besides the British accents). I must admit that I was also looking for something to assuage my massive guilt, as I gave up television for Lent and still returned home every night to watch Call the Midwife.
For starters, it’s a medical drama, which people love, and it's a drama set in the late 1950s, which is terribly in vogue right now. However, as it's set in a poor neighborhood, there's very little of the glamour we associate with the time period; instead, it only serves to remind us of all the medical problems that had not yet been solved, and the comforts that were not yet available to expectant mothers. For example, let's all be grateful that hot soap and water enemas are no longer de rigueur before childbirth.
And for a medical drama, Call the Midwife isn't very dramatic. There are no mystery illnesses to solve, no adrenaline needles being shoved into the nearest unsuspecting patient's heart. In fact, the show relies on the same plot device over and over to keep it going: some poor woman goes into labor and phones Nonnatus House to send over a midwife. The midwife spirits away on her bicycle in the dead of night, arrives at the scene, and delivers the baby with or without incident. Crying ensues on everyone’s part. Even the lack of modern technology, which does add to the suspense, cannot conceal the fact that the show revolves around a process with limited outcomes that is as old as the world.
Childbirth. Do you remember that episode of Friends where Chandler finds a tape of what he thinks is lesbian porn, but what is in fact a video of a woman giving birth? His reaction to it is basically how I imagine every human has been conditioned to react to childbirth: disgust, horror, pity, and fear. Childbirth is violent and should be hidden; childbirth is shameful, and it should belong to women, and women only, and even women should only be allowed to talk about in terms of pain, and fear, and horror, especially to one another. As soon as a woman gets pregnant, she should know immediately what she’s in for: hell. With a pink bow on it.
Maybe this reaction to childbirth is relatively young itself, born along with the generation that is being born in Call the Midwife, once contraceptives became widely and legally available and childbirth became a choice, not a consequence. So much good has been gained from the introduction of the pill that it’s hard to see what we lost with its arrival: namely, the knowledge that women are strong, that women shelter and give life, that childbirth is a raw, mysterious, beautiful thing that belongs only to women in the sense that women, and only women, will ever be able to do it.
Granted, the women of Poplar do it because they have no choice; that’s the sad irony, one that Call the Midwife examines with grace. The forty-two year-old mother of eight who simply can't have any more children, yet finds herself pregnant despite all her precautions; the fifteen-year-old prostitute who will get kicked to the street if her condition is discovered, and who will lose her baby as soon as it's born because she is considered unfit to raise a child; the two women who deliver black babies, because they had an affair, and will do anything to keep their jubilant husbands out of the room; the many twentysomething women who are already on their third or fourth pregnancies, aged beyond their years, and now destined to spend the rest of their lives in an endless cycle of washing, cleaning, drying, soothing, and cooking. Each woman is different, but when they are in labor or holding their babies for the first time, they are all the same. They are universally and absolutely Woman; they have accomplished a terrible, wonderful thing and they know it. It's nothing short of mesmerizing.
When the pill was introduced, Jennifer Worth writes that childbirths in Poplar went from somewhere around 80 to 100 babies born each month to 4 or 5. "Now that," she writes, "is some social change!" Women were not only able to choose when they'd have their families, but they were also able to begin pursuing the things that society frowned upon once they'd become mothers: careers, or further education. The fabric of the neighborhood began to change.
When babies aren't being born, the rest of Call the Midwife is full of what you'd more readily expect to see on television: romance, friendship, and copious amounts of tea-drinking. But the female friendships are anomalies as well: they're completely natural, and provide the foundation for a show that is as much about the community of women as it is about womanhood in general. Jenny, Trixie, Cynthia and Chummy form a solid bond despite their differences in personality and taste, which may seem like the most rudimentary definition of friendship you've ever heard until you think of all the friendships that have dissolved, or have never happened, for much less.
This may have happened because, as Jennifer Worth writes, the world of men was still very closed off to women, and there was nothing else for them to do but band together. But who would accept such an explanation? Throughout history midwives were often the community eccentrics, trained only by experience, and the bringing of life into the world happened behind shut doors, underneath the gentle ministrations of sisters, mothers, and aunts. Women banded together because they knew what they were doing, who they were, had the power to change everything.
You’d be hard-pressed to find another show on television right now that celebrates women from all stages, walks and choices of life with as much compassion and humor as Call the Midwife does. It honors the aged, the infirm and the unlovely just as much as it honors the strong and the gorgeous. It deals with religion, politics, race, handicap, age, sex, education, beauty, parents, money, and eating cake, all without stooping to moralism or ridicule. In fact, I’m tempted to send it in a care package to Lena Dunham right now.
"How Can I Drop You Without Gravity" - Plainfire (mp3)
"All So Nostalgic" - Plainfire (mp3)
The new album from Plainfire is entitled But When Words Fail, and you can find his bandcamp here.