The Value of “Call the Midwife”

I don’t know about you, but whenever I open Netflix, I’m overwhelmed by all the choices.

Do I want to watch a baking show, or a stand-up comedy special, or a true crime documentary, or another episode of The Office I’ve already seen a dozen times? Sometimes my circuits overload, I can’t decide, and I end up randomly choosing a show just to try it out. Usually when this happens, my pick doesn’t go well. But sometimes, you stumble onto something special.

One of those special shows is Call the Midwife. My wife Alex and I tried it out, unsure if we’d like it. Now, we’re hooked. For me, what Call the Midwife gets right is the history—not necessarily that everything in the series is 100% accurate, but that it represents the values of history.

I’ll come back to those history values in a bit. But first, some background on the show.

Call the Midwife is a BBC drama about a group of nurses and nuns in London’s East End during the late 1950s and 1960s. The East End was (and remains today) a working-class neighborhood with a high poverty rate and huge population. The story is based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, who wrote about daily life in the East End from her point of view as a midwife working through a convent. Each episode contains interlocking stories about the midwives and the families they help throughout the East End, weaving together stories about marriage, pregnancy, childbirth, disease, addiction, poverty, and community.

In one episode, midwife Jenny Lee helps a mother give birth, but a few weeks later, someone kidnaps the baby from a stroller. A whirlwind search takes place throughout the East End, and Jenny eventually discovers the kidnapper. Jenny brings the baby back to her parents, and the neighborhood breathes a sigh of relief.

In another episode, a teenage girl keeps her pregnancy secret, and after giving birth, leaves the baby outside the door of the convent. Again, another whirlwind search takes place, and the episode ends with the mother and baby reunited.

And in my favorite episode so far, the pilot episode of Call the Midwife, Jenny Lee confronts the destitution that many women live in. Soon after Jenny unfairly judges a pregnant woman for the situation she’s in, she learns a lesson from a nun, Sister Evangelina, who tells Jenny the women they help are heroines for how they conduct themselves amid so much hardship. Jenny examines her prejudice, and at the end of the episode when a woman asks Jenny, “Bet you think we’re all slatterns around here, don’t you?” Jenny replies, “As a matter of fact, I think you’re all heroines.”

This episode—and the show as a whole—has stayed with me since I’ve started watching it. Maybe it’s because my wife and I are expecting our second child. Or maybe it’s because I’m inspired by watching a community come together over and over again, when our current society is so polarized.

But I think the main reason I’ve fallen so hard for Call the Midwife is because of how it unfolds history. Not only is the show based on primary sources and actual events, but it also puts viewers in the shoes of the nuns, midwives, mothers, fathers, and children who lived in London’s East End over half a century ago. This isn’t just a show you watch, but because of the history, it’s a show you experience.

One of the key values to history is empathy, a feeling you get when you put yourself in someone else’s shoes to understand their motivations and choices. I’m sorry to say I’ll never know what it was actually like to be a pregnant mother-to-be in the East End in 1957, but by watching this show, I’ve come closest as I’ll ever get.

Another value of history is that it offers perspective. It may be obvious, but my opinions and viewpoints about the world are not the only ones. When I watch Call the Midwife, I gain perspective by following other people through their daily lives, making decisions and forming thoughts that I would not. Frankly, watching this show is humbling, but it’s also inspiring to move beyond my own limited perspectives.

So, the next time you can’t decide on what to watch, try Call the Midwife. I can’t guarantee you’ll like it as much as I do, but you’ll meet some heroines.

This article appeared in the Cortland Standard on November 27, 2020 in my monthly column, “A Historian’s Take.”

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