Call the Midwife: Always Sorrowful, Always Rejoicing
What the nuns and midwives of the 1950s taught me about living among the poor.

Whoever heard of a midwife as a literary heroine? Yet midwifery is the very stuff of drama. Every child is conceived either in love or lust, is born in pain, followed by joy or sometimes remorse. A midwife is in the thick of it, she sees it all.

-Jennifer Worth, The Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times

It's hard to talk about poverty. It's harder still to write about it. To convey the experience on film is nearly impossible—without resorting to stereotypes, tropes, depressing statistics, or wildly unrealistic endings. For those who have experienced working and living with people in generational poverty, it can be an isolating. Beyond the challenges of everyday life, many enthusiastic and mission-minded Christians have found themselves stuck when faced with the burden of representing the experiences of their friends and neighbors in poverty. How do you do it well?

I recently found a show—on television!—that seemed to answer this question better than most. Call the Midwife, a PBS show based on the experiences of nurse midwives in the East End of London in the 1950s, succeeds in presenting the facts of poverty without sensationalism, evoking an emotional response without resorting to stereotypes. Call the Midwife has consistently impressed me with its attention to detail; its refusal to tidy up the mess of poverty; and its underlying emphasis on mission, purpose, and communicating love through word and deed.

The show is based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth (Jenny Lee in the show), a nurse midwife stationed in a nunnery called the Nonnatus House. In the early 20th century, the poor of the East End of London were assisted in birth by friends or neighbors. Hospitals were grossly expensive, and women and children often died in childbirth (the show is quite realistic in this regard—this is a trigger warning to anyone who has experienced a fraught pregnancy). To remedy this, the church trained nuns, who had committed to lives of poverty and charity in the neighborhood, to become midwives. Jennifer Worth was paired with the nunnery in the East End, where she learned how to do her job in a variety of extraordinary circumstances, meeting characters that defy imagination.

How to portray poverty

Beyond any other show on television, Call the Midwife portrays poverty in all of its nuance: highlighting both the bad (abuse, addictions, prostitution, squalor) and the good (sense of community, family, belonging, care for neighbors). It is so easy to focus on one or the other, and usually our culture focuses on the negative. Shows like The Wire are recommended viewing, praised for the gritty reality of life in America's inner cities. I cannot count the number of times people have insisted I watch this show, just because I moved into an urban environment.

April 25, 2013

Displaying 1–6 of 6 comments


September 09, 2013  8:10pm

Red raspberry leaf tea wekrod for me too! First labor was 6 hours and second 4 (25 minutes pushing with the first 45 with the second) I also got an exercise ball. I give that thing credit for helping me efface and dilate. I was barely 1 cm at 39 weeks and then got the ball. I felt my boy moving down and my pelvis opening, which made me relax a bit because I am barely 5'3 and was worried my pelvis would have been too small. On my 40 week checkup (on my due date) went in and was checked at 4cm and considered in labor. I didnt know it and refused to believe it. My midwife told me she'd see me later that afternoon and I ignored her and made my 41st week appointment for the next Monday.Well she was right, and my son was born that afternoon. Anyhow . So close! Super excited. You are looking adorable still. Wish I looked that cute preggers!

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May 05, 2013  8:48am

The series can also help USAmerican readers understand why the National Health Service is so valued in GB and why we find it hard to understand why some USA'ns would think it a bad thing.

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April 25, 2013  9:49pm

My mother was a midwife in London in the 1950s, initially I found it hard to watch the show as it reminded me so much about her, she died 5 years ago. She loved being a midwife and spoke well of her clients. She prayed constantly for the mothers and babies in her care, she thanked God regularly that she never lost a mother or baby. God's love is seen when His servants care for others

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April 25, 2013  3:08pm

I caught a couple episodes of this on PBS–really good show. Lovely post. Thanks.

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Out of Ur Editors

April 25, 2013  12:32pm

Simon- Thank you for pointing this out. The article has been edited accordingly.

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Simon Goodfellow

April 25, 2013  11:15am

Your article has really gelled things in my mind. The quote from Sister Monica Joan is important. Christ commanded we love the Lord our God with everything we are and then love of neighbors. In Isaiah 58 it is revealed that God wants to be worshiped in acts of help for those less privileged than us. Worship of God, Love of God, there lies the inexplicable stamina of followers of Christ who tirelessly help the poor. The Nuns are described several times as Catholic, they aren't the Sisters of St John the Divine at Nonnatus House are very much Anglican (Church of England).

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