Film & Television

Women’s Work Continues on ‘Call the Midwife’

As season six begins, it’s 1962 and we’re back in London. Nonnatus House faces new challenges including a strict new matron, Sister Ursula, portrayed by Dame Harriet Walter. A harsh contrast to the all-knowing and always-maternal Sister Julienne, she runs a tight ship, sets a sparse table, and warns the staff that they are nurses, “not nannies.” A champion of tough love (heavy on “tough;” light on “love”), she threatens to dock the pay of one nurse who has shown more compassion for a patient than strictly necessary, and coldly ignores the needs of one of the nuns who is suffering from PTSD after a violent assault. Wth two episodes of the current season aired to date, the stage is clearly being set for either a dramatic turnaround on the part of their new captain or a mutiny. I’m not sure which I’m rooting for quite yet. That said, Sister Ursula had better be prepared.

The women of Nonnatus House are formidable. Virtually every resident of the East End (and over the years, we’ve met some very tough characters indeed) affords them the utmost respect. In their precisely starched uniforms (and, for the nuns, wimples), the women bike through busy dockyards and filthy alleys. They often deliver babies in the worst of conditions amidst abject poverty. And they don’t hesitate to give orders to expectant fathers, men who wouldn’t accept authority from women under any other circumstances, even as they praise their patients in delightfully British ways. “I know you’re tired, but you need to push now,” they enthuse. “There now! What a clever girl!”

For Anglophiles (and your local PBS certainly counts on the support of admirers of all things England), Call the Midwife is a fascinating counterpoint to ballgowns, drawing rooms, and riding to hounds. But, amidst the harsh reality, you’ll still find moments to delight. Afternoon tea may not be as richly appointed as it is at Downton Abbey, but it’s still an important ritual. Holidays are celebrated with a tin of Quality Street or a nice pudding. And amidst the varied accents of the East End’s growing immigrant population, a nurse’s clipped voice asserts that “Doctor will arrive soon to make sure everything is ship-shape with Baby.” I’m not sure what the English have against the article “the,” but lines like that are so completely un-American that they just add to the whole experience.

Watching Call the Midwife is a wonderful experience for anyone. But, I can’t help thinking that it is all the richer for those of us who are women and mothers. Every episode resonates. Each time I watch the midwives deliver another baby, I have renewed gratitude for the maternity nurses who helped me through my own 14-hour labor. Several hours (and about a million ice chips) into it, my (male) obstetrician was convinced I would need a C-section. When he left the room, one of the nurses leaned down and asked me to trust her. “Work with me,” she said, “We can make this happen.” Sure enough, with her firm but kind coaching, no surgery was necessary.

Birth is women’s work. And Call the Midwife celebrates it in all it’s painful but ultimately beautiful glory.

 

Call the Midwife airs on PBS Sundays at 8:00 pm EST. You can watch this season’s first two episodes online on or demand. Seasons 1-5 are available on Netflix.

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