Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Midwife

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

I'm completely hooked on the BBC show "Call the Midwife"--in fact, I like it even better than "Downton Abbey." The Midwife is the first in the trilogy that inspired the series. It's much grittier and full of hard details than the show. In reality, the conditions were much starker and poorer than what is shown onscreen. For those unfamiliar with the show, The Midwife is about a young nurse-midwife working in Poplar (the East End of London) during the 1950s in Nonnatus House with Anglican nuns (who are also nurse-midwives). Before watching the show, I was not aware there were Anglican nuns!

"Call the Midwife" main cast
The characters I've come to love--the posh and clumsy Chummy (my favorite), sharp-tongued and beautiful Trixie, kind Cynthia, amazing Sister Julienne, aging and memory-lapsing Sister Monica Joan, ever-enterprising Fred, humble Jane, kind and compassionate doctor, and salty, down-to-earth Sister Evangelina--are all in the book in full color. Similar to another of my favorite shows inspired by a book (Orange Is the New Black), the best part about these stories is not the protagonist--it's all the fascinating people around her.

Two stories in particular make me especially grateful for the many advancements in medical care since the 1950s:

  • In her initial training, Worth saw a young woman and baby die from eclampsia, and later at the Nonnatus Houe, she assists a woman suffering from pre-eclampsia. Even in this day and age, women die from full-blown eclampsia and toxemia. If pre-eclampsia is not halted before progressing into eclampsia, the mom dies and nothing can be done about it.
  • Conchita Warren is the Spanish wife and mother of 25 children. Her 25th is born at around 24 weeks (the same gestation as my oldest son), and against all advice, Conchita insists on keeping the baby with her instead of allowing him to go to the hospital, even if he dies. She cradles him between her breasts for the first several months and feeds him expressed milk every 1/2 hour. Later Worth ponders whether a mother's instinct and ability to care for own child might have been even more effective than high-tech hospital care, in which the baby would have been left alone all day and night in an isolette. She also is convinced that if the baby had died, Conchita wouldn't have been far behind. Her desire to protect her baby made her fight for her own life. Of course now, keeping a baby that tiny at home would never be allowed. In my son's case, he definitely would have died if he was not in the NICU--he was very sick and needed that medical care.

Worth tells three stories of mixed-race babies...one in which the mom is terrified that her baby will be born black, another in which the baby is born black and the husband pitches a fit, and finally the one we saw in the show, in which the husband embraces the baby as his own and seems completely color blind.
Jennifer Worth as a young nurse-midwife

We learn about Irish Mary, who fled sexual abuse in Dublin to arrive in London penniless and end up working as a prostitute in filthy, horrible Cable Street. (Her tale is far grittier and more tragic than portrayed in the show. Cable Street was notorious for its horrific living conditions, opium dens, sex trafficking, and prostitution, and Mary was an easy victim.) She becomes pregnant and has to flee the brothel, and she ends up meeting Jenny, who tries to help her. Her story finishes tragically.

Think that children were separated from their parents only in concentration camps ala "Sophie's Choice" or when Native American children were sent away from their parents off to boarding schools? It also happened in London through the 1940s, as destitute people were sent to live in workhouses with horrible living and working conditions. We learn the story of Mrs. Jenkins, who entered the workhouse with several young children. They were immediately separated, and she never saw her children again...they all died in the workhouse. She was never the same. When Worth first encounters Mrs. Jenkins, who always stands outside the building where a baby is born and pesters the midwives for news of the baby's and mother's health, she is disgusted by her. When she begins taking care of her and learns her story, her compassion and understanding increase.

At times, Worth's youth, impatience, and British snobbery are on full display, even though she is giving of herself to work in one of the poorest parts of London. One thing she wrote really aggravated me, but it's a reflection of her generation and upbringing, I suppose. In a chapter about how some women have affairs (discovered when they bear babies of a different color), she writes:

"I have often felt that the situation is loaded against men. Until recently, when genetic blood tests became possible, how could any man know that his wife was carrying his child? The poor man had no other assurance of paternity than his wife's word. Unless she is virtually locked up, he can have no control over her activities during the day while he is at work."
Jennifer Worth before her death in 2011
"Loaded against men"???? For a nurse who saw exactly what 1950s-era poor women had to bear (no way to maintain a family unless they get married or resort to prostitution, no birth control resulting in way too many births, no help in the house from their husbands who often ruled with an iron hand, no laws against domestic violence, etc., etc.), this is incomprehensible. "Unless she is virtually locked up?" It sounds like she is recommending such a recourse! As another reviewer wrote, "It wasn't just life circumstances keeping women down in this time; it was powerful social control, such as happens when women of higher, more influential classes, make casual comments about locking wives up." The Guardian's obituary of Jennifer Worth (who died of cancer in 2011) describes her as "A strong personality, Jennifer was dynamic and determined, and her lively imagination is apparent in the books."


For that sexist commentary, I'm giving the book four stars. Otherwise, I loved it and will continue reading the rest of the series (and of course, waiting for Season 3 of "Call the Midwife"!).

1 comment:

  1. Conchita's baby is 30 weeks, not 24.

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