The Gospel Lessons of 'Call the Midwife'
There was no way I was going to miss the American debut of the BBC television hit Call the Midwife. Not only am I fascinated by birth in general (as Her.meneutics readers know by now), I gave birth to my second child in a small town in Scotland, with midwives in attendance. "Community midwives" oversaw all of my prenatal care, and for 10 days following the birth, they "popped 'round" to see me and the baby. In the United Kingdom, it's not unusual or trendy to have a midwife rather than a doctor at birth—nearly every woman with an uncomplicated pregnancy does. British bottles of Johnson & Johnson's baby wash declare that it's the brand that "more British midwives use" on their own children; there's nothing countercultural about them. This helps to explains why, in the UK, Call the Midwife surpassed even Downton Abbey in popularity.
while Downton is a story of life among Britain's very wealthy, Midwife offers glimpses into life among London's urban poor. It's based upon three (somewhat fictionalized) memoirs by former midwife Jennifer Worth, who interned with an order of Anglican nuns who provided community-based maternity care in the populous East End. A little universe of its own, the area was home to dockworkers and other laborers and their families living in crowded tenements—10 or 12 children in two-room flats. Access to contraception was rare, families were large, and births were frequent. In the 19th century, to give birth was to put your life in the filthy and ignorant hands of an untrained midwife, like the Charles Dickens character Sairey Gamp, a gossiping drunk who was more liability than asset at a birth.
By contrast, the midwives of Call the Midwife are spiritual giants. Anglican nuns in the order of St. Raymond Nonnatus, they campaigned for decades for proper training and legal oversight to regulate the practice of UK midwifery. In so doing, the aimed to make birth safer for the least of these. Their advocacy went beyond working for policy change; they lived and made their home among the people they served, in "working conditions so disgusting, and […] work so relentless, that only those with a calling from God would wish to undertake it," wrote Worth. From the mid-19th century until the founding of the National Health Service in 1949, St. Raymund's sisters were the only reliable midwives working among this population. In the first episode, newly trained midwife Jenny Lee (Jessica Raine) joins the sisters in their work, if not their religious commitment.