April 25, 2013
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.
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.
Call the Midwife cannot be accused of portraying a whitewashed version of history, but it infuses all of its stories with glimpses of joy, celebration, and hope. Jennifor Worth, in her life and her writing, had a real sense of the “now” and the “not yet,” the kingdom of God in the East End of London. For every tragedy, the nurse midwives and the nuns experience miracles too: healthy babies, families reunited, marriages celebrated, good choices made. For every situation in which it seems the devil has won, there is also an example of love triumphing and breaking down barriers. I am reminded of Paul’s words from 2 Corinthians 6:10: “… sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet having made many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” This approach to telling stories about life on the margins of society inspires me, and I suspect it has the potential to inspire any mission-minded believer who finds themselves caught up in both the miracles and the mess.
The church is central to the stories of Call the Midwife. This is significant since various religious orders have positioned themselves to be incarnational presences in neighborhoods of extreme poverty and hardship around the world. One of the most important lessons incarnational practitioners can learn from Call the Midwife is the value of legitimacy and long-term relationship. Though distrustful of doctors and hospitals (many of which were converted work houses, which were notorious “prisons” for the poor) the people of the East End embraced the sisters into their lives. The sisters were allowed into homes and lives due to their unwavering commitment to help where help was needed.
In the 1950s, the last decade before the introduction of “the pill,” it was common for women to bear ten children or more, usually in crowded conditions. The nuns, and eventually the nurses they hosted in their convent, assisted women by providing the safest, and most dignified births possible. They did this strenuous, demanding work out of no special calling beyond their desire to obey God.
This is where the show and the memoirs on which it is based are most inspiring to me. Being “incarnational” has many pitfalls, not the least of which is forgetting we are not actually Christ—we only are called to obey and point to him in word and deed. As someone who for years has tried to be “Jesus with skin on” and a recent transplant to an unfamiliar neighborhood full of the same situations as seen in the show, I find myself scouring Call the Midwife for tips and tricks.
I enjoy watching Nurse Lee and her friends relish the distinct culture and flavor of the East End, and I identify with how much pleasure they find in simple rituals: riding bikes on the docks, drinking tea with the locals, and providing quality services to their patients. I love watching how time, coupled with a capacity to listen without judgment, opens many closed doors to the nurses and nuns, allowing them to speak truth when needed. I appreciated the overall hopeful outlook and the dignity of life represented, balanced with the devastating effect of sin in our world and the violence it causes in our neighborhoods. But most of all, I love the basis for why they do their work.
From love of God to love of people
In her book, Jennifer Worth describes a conversation she had with Sister Monica Joan, the oldest (and not always lucid) nun in the convent. Nurse Jenny asked the sister about her decades-long ministry with the poor in the East End (Sister Monica Joan grew up in an affluent aristocratic family in which she felt bored and stifled). Wondering about the underlying reasons for her work, Nurse Jenny asked Sister Monica Joan, “Was it love of people?”
"Of course no," she snapped sharply. "How can you love ignorant, brutish people whom you don't even know? Can anyone love filth and squalor? Or lice and rats? Who can love aching weariness, and carry on working, in spite of it? One cannot love these things. One can only love God, and through his grace come to love his people."We cannot and should not pretend to love the horrors of the world. We should grieve them just as God does; we should be close enough to experience the realities of the world. Call the Midwife is an excellent period piece that brings to light the realities of the working poor in England in the 1950s, but it also tells us about the ageless factors of the human condition. The show, ostensibly about birth, is really about life, and choosing to experience the fullness of God’s love by loving and serving our neighbors. This way of life, both in the books of Jennifer Worth and in the television series, is never easy.
But it is worth it. Being in the thick of it always is.
D. L. Mayfield lives in the exotic Midwest with her husband and daughter. Recently they joined a Christian order amongst the poor, where they are currently seeking life in the upside kingdom.