Call the Midwife: A True Story of the East End in the 1950s
by Jennifer Worth

[2007, London: Phoenix, 376 pages, hardcover.]

[Review first published in Midwifery Today Issue 87, Autumn 2008, © 2008, Midwifery Today, Inc. Review by Michele Klein.]

Call the Midwife reveals a district midwife’s training by Anglican nuns, her spiritual journey and a gripping eye-opener on the challenges of midwifery among the urban poor, without running water or electricity. It’s about a midwife’s work half a century ago in London’s dockland slums; but although these particular slums were demolished and midwifery moved into hospitals, this memoir will touch the heart of any midwife—anywhere in the world today—and every expecting or new parent.

I read Jennifer Worth’s book from start to finish in two nights; it left a profound impression. She writes movingly about not only about her female heroines, but also about the fathers. I was with her as she cycled alone in the cold foggy night to do her duty and as she caught a baby whose skin wasn’t the color that she had expected. I feared for Conchita, pregnant with her 24th baby, who fell over in the icy outhouse and lay unconscious. I shared Worth’s admiration for Conchita’s faith and determination that her premature infant would survive sheltered between her ample breasts, not in any hospital. I cried, as the retired midwife must have done, when she wrote about the fate of 14-year-old pregnant Mary, whom she thought she saved from prostitution and abuse and who had been so happy to be a mother. I worried about the screaming girl who didn’t want her baby ever to come out of her womb. Each of Worth’s many tales ring all too true.

Today there are still many women and situations like those in Worth’s narrative. Women still conceive from rape, teenagers still delight in becoming mothers without thought for the future, women with deformed limbs sometimes give birth naturally and safely, some preemies survive outside incubators in their mothers’ embrace, and the adulterous fear discovery—just as in the 1950s. We can learn from Worth’s experience and from her ability to find goodness and human strength in places where they aren’t obvious.

Call the Midwife subtly challenges the medical model of midwifery. It highlights what the nuns did to improve midwifery service and to help the most destitute. It reveals the advantages of community midwifery, of continuity of care, and of knowing the family and the neighbors of the pregnant and birthing woman.

Only 50 years ago, a midwife could ride alone at night, fearless and respected in her starched uniform, in the streets where Britain’s most notorious gangsters roamed, and where policemen dared go out only in pairs. This may be the most impressive point in Worth’s book, which challenges us to find ways to reinstate the midwife’s status as one of the most respected citizens in the community.

Reviewer Michele Klein is the author of the award-winning A Time to be Born: Customs and Folklore of Jewish Birth (Jewish Publication Society, 2000).

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