Penguin Books USA|September 4, 2012|Trade Paperback|ISBN: 978-0-14-312325-5
Jennifer Worth was just twenty-two when she volunteered to spend her early years of midwifery training in London’s East End in the 1950’s. Coming from a sheltered background there were tough lessons to be learned. The conditions in which many women gave birth just half a century ago were horrifying.
At Nonnatus House lived a long list of midwives and was situated in the heart of the London Docklands. The practice covered a wide area from Stephney to Limehouse to Millwall to the Isle of Dogs and beyond. Family life was lived in close quarters and children brought up by a widely extended family of aunts, grandparents, cousins, and older siblings, all living with a few houses of each other. Often families of up to nineteen lived in 3 rooms and the conditions were deplorable. Fleas and lice were common pests. There was no transportation in those days so the midwives rode bicycles to the homes of their patients to deliver babies. Riding a bicycle through rain, thick fog, and freezing temperatures at two or three in the morning was no picnic I’m sure.
Children were everywhere, and streets were their playgrounds. In the 1950’s there were no cars on the back streets, because no one had a car, so it was safe to play there. In some very overcrowded houses, domestic violence was expected. But gratuitous violence was never heard of towards the elderly. People worked hard for their money, working long eighteen hour days unloading crates at the docks. Employment was high, but wages were low.
Early marriage was the norm and most families had fourteen to nineteen children until the introduction of the pill in the 1960’s and the modern woman was born. Women were no longer tied to the cycle of endless babies. In the late 1950’s there were 80-100 deliveries per month and in 1963 that number dropped to 4 or 5 a month! Nursing and midwifery were in a deplorable state and was not considered a respectable occupation for any educated woman. In the nineteenth century no poor woman could afford to pay the fee required by a doctor for the delivery of her baby. So she was forced to rely on the services of an un-trained, self-taught midwife, or “handywoman.” Finally in 1902 the first Midwives Act was passed and the Royal College of Midwives was born. The work of the Midwives of St. Raymund Nonnatus was based upon a foundation of religious discipline.
Jennifer Worth first met with the Midwives of St. Raymund Nonnatus in the 1950’s and it turned out to be the best experience of her life. At first, Jennifer wondered why she’d ever started this midwifery thing – she could have been anything: a model, air hostess, or a ship’s stewardess but there she is at 2:30 in the morning riding her bicycle through the rain soaked streets on her way to a delivery after a 17-hour work day and only 3 hours sleep.
As she arrives at the home of her patient, she is greeted by a congregation of women –the patient’s mother, two grandmothers, two or three aunts, sisters, best friends, and a neighbour. In the middle of this gaggle of women is a solitary man. The patient is, Muriel, a girl of twenty-five who is having her fourth baby. Jennifer realizes quickly that Muriel is nearing the end of her second stage of labour. As Jennifer prepares to conduct an internal exam, she sees another pain come upon her – you can see it building in strength until it seems her poor body will break apart. Jennifer readies her tray of equipment – scissors, cord clamps, cord tape, fetal stethoscope, kidney dishes, gauze, cotton swabs and artery forceps. Muriel’s pains are coming every 3 minutes now and suddenly her water breaks and floods the bed. With the next contraction Jennifer can see the head. More and more contractions come and the head is coming fast, too fast! She tells Muriel to pant, the head is out and she is just delivering the shoulders. Finally the baby slides out and it’s a boy! Jennifer is excited, she now understands why she does this job. She steps outside in the bright morning sunlight with plans to return to see the new mother again at noon hour and once more in the evening. However, as you will read, not all her deliveries go quite so well.
Jennifer’s life developed from a childhood disrupted by war, a passionate love affair at only age sixteen, and the knowledge three years later that she had to get away. So, for “purely pragmatic reasons, my choice was nursing.” Does she regret it? “Never, never, never. I wouldn’t swap my job for anything on earth.”
Call the Midwife is an honest look at midwifery in the 1950’s and 1960’s and the deplorable conditions that these women were forced to bear their children under. Without Midwives, I don’t know what these women would have done. I thoroughly enjoyed this memoir and read it in one sitting.