One evening recently, in the midst of a tiring and stressful week, my wife and I sat down to watch some TV after getting the kids to bed for the night. She asked what I wanted to watch. I said I wanted to watch something cheerful and lighthearted. She held up a DVD box she had borrowed from our local library and recommended we watch it. It was something I'd never heard of called: "Call the Midwife".
At first I was skeptical. I am a man who hunts and kills woodland creatures for fun. (Let's face it though - mostly it's hunting and not so much killing. Those animals are pretty crafty.) But watching a show about a group of women from the mid-fifties practicing the art of midwifery didn't seem all that interesting. On the other hand what could be unhappy or heavy about a show with babies right?
"Call the Midwife" is a BBC TV mini-series (like Sherlock or Downton Abby) based on the real life best-selling trilogy of memoirs by Jennifer Worth. Mrs. Worth was a British nurse and midwife during the fifties in London's impoverished East End after the close of World War II. Each episode of the show, as well as the chapters in the books, covers the often traumatic birthing experiences of different mothers along with the more lighthearted experiences of the nurses/midwives with whom Worth worked.
It is primarily shown in the point of view of Jennifer Lee (Mrs. Worth's maiden-name), who grew up in an upper middle class lifestyle and struggles to adapt to the abject poverty, filth and uneducated people of Poplar, a borough of East End, London.
It is a strong drama, and extremely powerful. It is superbly written, and each episode begins and ends with a voice over reflection from Vanessa Redgrave who voices the mature Jennifer Worth.
Oddly enough, it's the sort of show I could never have really enjoyed or even connected with before the birth of my own children. There is something that changes inside the heart of a man when he lays eyes on his child for the first time. Something that says you must grow up, face the world and take on responsibility. Something that says you must become a protector, a provider. And something that says you're about to lose a lot of sleep for the rest of your life worrying about this little screaming puddle of flesh and goo.
What's the show really about?
The show is really and truly all about love. Now hold on, don't freak out fellas. It's not about the "Ross-and-Rachel" sort of love. In fact, romance and relationships don't play much of a role in the show at all. While it is a subplot, it's not even a primary one, maybe tertiary at best.
When I say the show is about love, I mean each episode focuses on some aspect of love that is almost never related to romantic love. Instead it looks at the good and the bad that is linked to love. Love between siblings, love between a mother and child, between close friends. Love that is withheld, abused, manipulated. It's about people who have never been loved, never been appreciated or looked after. It's about what happens to people when love is tainted and dark, pure and lovely and all manner of things between. It's about the loving bond that develops between people who have endured terrible hardships together and only had one another to cling to when the days were dark and cold.
When we think of love, we often first think of romantic love. Beyond that, for most of us love is simply a concept we affiliate with positive emotions. We see it with rose-colored glasses, as though the notion of love that seems to uniquely human could never have anything negative associated with it.
We forget the wars fought over love, the jealousy, the murders. We forget about the spouse weeping in a dark, lonely bed because the person they committed their love to has broken that sacred bond and sought the pleasures of another lover. We forget about those poor souls who grew up without parents, alone, abused and taken advantage of, who ultimately allow some other damaged soul to beat them, steal from and manipulate them all because they have no idea what real love is. We forget about children who did grow up with parents, but the sort of parents that abused, neglected or even profited from them. We forget about women with so few options in life they are forced to sell love to men to feed themselves or their own children; children whose mothers would sell their very own dignity, self-worth and even their very souls to protect and provide for.
We forget how easily love can be used as a tool to hurt, manipulate and even sometimes destroy. How it can drive a person crazy, push them to irrationality and desperation.
What the show does really well.
Midwives excels at taking a story's antagonist and developing them to the place where you really understand WHY they are doing the things they do. Consider a scenario where a prostitute would steal another woman's newborn. At first glance it would seem impossible to ever sympathize with anyone who would steal a child, much less an infant.
But Midwives is written so wonderfully that by the end of the episode you UNDERSTAND why the people acted the way they did. You may never agree with the struggle in each episode, but the 'villain' morphs through the show from the 'bad guy' into just another character weaved into an enthralling story. You get a glimpse into a life you've never experienced (at least I haven't) and you begin to see how blessed you are to have not lived through the things those folks did on a daily basis.
For me, it made me appreciate more the life I have lived, and the love that surrounds me each and every day.
It also excels at depicting how dark and ugly our world can be. This is not a show full of rainbows, baby giggles and laughter. Though those elements are certainly there, Midwives focuses on the depravity Mrs. Worth witnessed in the filthy, dank alleys and squalid, bug infested slums of Poplar. Midwives makes no excuses for things that occurred, it does not sugar coat them. It does not excuse terrible actions of its characters, or make rationalizations. Instead, it works hard to stay true to life and the memoirs. And yet in spite of the darkness Mrs. Worth's memoirs remind us all of love's ability to shine in dark places, and life's power to overcome incredible obstacles to thrive.
Call the Midwife may not be for everyone. Like I said, as a teenager or twenty-something man I doubt I would have stuck it out beyond the first episode. But now that life and experience have changed me in a million little ways, I can appreciate the struggles and trials depicted in each episode.
But above all, it makes me thankful for the people in my life who have loved me, nurtured me over the years. For the positive and healthy examples of love I have been blessed to witness. Close siblings who care for and respect each other. Husbands who love and appreciate their wives, and the wives who do the same for their husbands. Parents who have stuck around through great adversity to raise their children and keep their families together.
It makes me thankful that though love can sometimes be unhealthy, it can also be wholesome, wonderful and positive.