I’m sitting in front of my computer right now as Eggs sits in his highchair snacking on Cheerios. I’m exhausted after staying up too late and then enjoying the wonders of the 8-month sleep regression. Monkey is asleep for his only nap of the day. It’s too early, but I was desperately hoping both boys would nap at the same time so I could catch a couple of winks myself. It worked for about half an hour. I’ve wriggled my way into a new pair of jeans, the first non-maternity clothes I’ve worn since 2014. My soft belly doesn’t fit in them the way it used to.
So when I say that I thoroughly enjoyed watching a show about mothers and babies, you’ll understand why.
Call the Midwife follows a group of nurse midwives living in the East End of London in the late 1950s to early 1960s. Based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, Call the Midwife is a story about women, childbirth, and love. It addresses issues about faith, unwanted pregnancies, birth control, poverty, and economic privilege.
I’ve watched the first three seasons in quick succession on Netflix (Canadian, of course), and I’m heartbroken that there isn’t more. There are five seasons, plus holiday specials, that have aired on the BBC and there is promise of another season next spring. I hope that the next two seasons are quickly added to the Netflix line up so that I can devour more of this show.
The episodes are somewhat formulaic. We follow, for the most part, Nurse Jenny Lee (played by Jessica Raine) as she tends to the needs of the soon-to-be mothers of the neighbourhood called Poplar. She is joined by Nurse Trixie Franklin (played by Helen George), a playful blonde with a big heart and a sassy streak; Nurse Cynthia Miller (played by Bryony Hannah), a quiet, gentle soul who feels for each of her patients; and Nurse Camille “Chummy” Browne, a clumsy, often foolish woman who is both lovable and hilarious. There are also several nuns, each with their own distinct personalities and flaws. Each episode usually has one birth and one death, both sprinkled with the drama of the ongoing lives of the nurses and nuns who inhabit Nonnatus House.
While the story itself is not that complex, its characters are. Each woman is unique and contributes something invaluable to the show. And it is mostly women. There are only three men who have made continual appearances throughout the three seasons I’ve watched: Fred Buckle the handyman (played by Cliff Parisi), Police Constable Peter Noakes (played by Ben Caplan), and Dr. Patrick Turner (played by Stephen McGann). All are satellites in the world of these women. All other male characters are love interests or fathers of children. And even Mr. Buckle, Constable Noakes, and Dr. Turner fall into those categories. While I know Call the Midwife is targeted at women, it’s not often that we see a show so completely populated by them.
Sadly, there is something else that one can see when looking at that cast photo: the overwhelming whiteness. There are exactly three episodes in the first three seasons that have people of colour and two of those episodes are about white women that have slept with black men and produced darker-skinned children. The third is about a black, immigrant mother and how she is treated by the women in London, though not by our heroines. I think it’s supposed to be progressive, but mostly I felt a little nauseated. Oh look, a white woman being praised for actually treating other people with respect. I don’t know how many immigrants came to London post WW2, but I feel like 3 in sea of people is a little off.
What the show lacks in racial understanding, it excels in other areas. The neighbourhood is a very poor one and we are constantly confronted by how truly awful the conditions are. Nurse Lee, who hadn’t ever seen such poverty, acts as the audience’s avatar, emoting exactly what the viewer feels when she enters a home where bugs feast on the biscuits offered to her or a prison that doesn’t get cleaned nearly enough. We see the near hopelessness of families who cannot feed the child that is about to be born and the brokenness of prostitutes who find themselves pregnant. We shudder at their circumstances, but they find strength to go on each day and, yes, experience joy at the birth of a new life.
There is something honest and human about this show. A woman begs for birth control after her eighth pregnancy and, refused, seeks to sterilize herself at home. Another woman, who lost her child to an orphanage after being deemed unfit, kidnaps another woman’s child to replace the one she lost. And yet another is afraid and desperately in love with an abusive husband, one that causes their children to nearly die. There are no pretty births here. It’s not graphic, but it is realistic (at least in my experience).
There is also a strong Christian influence on the show. There are nuns, so I’d say it makes sense. It’s not a preachy, unapproachable Christianity that we so often see. It’s one that serves with no thought of return. It’s focused on duty to mankind, not judgement. In fact, we see nuns ignore the sins of others in an effort to love and serve them instead. I think it’s beautiful.
It is strange that a show centred around the beginning and the end of life should make me proud to be a woman, but it does. Proud to be another in the long line of those that struggle and fight to bring life into the world. Proud to be in that sisterhood of women. Proud to be the daughter of a nurse and inspired to help others in any way that I can.
I know that I’m in Call the Midwife‘s target demographic, but that doesn’t stop me from really loving this show. For my mother friends, I think this is something you’d enjoy. For my non-mother friends, I’m not sure. You might get turned off by the birth stuff, it’s not the most… dignified. But if you like shows that are women-centric and well-written, I’d say this is a good watch.