The Midwives: reality TV, but painfully real

We watch The Midwives, I think, because it is the story of us.

My birth, I gather, was generally delightful: I was on time, more or less, and caused only the normal amount of stress for my mother, who had had a somewhat difficult first pregnancy with my older sister.

I am one of four children, born in three separate decades - so at the very least, my mother is a piece of living medical history. She was pregnant at a time when IVF was new, men paced hospital corridors and women were generally told a pint of Guinness was good for the blood, and then again in the 1990s, just after Demi Moore’s much-copied nude cover for Vanity Fair. Back when my mum was pregnant, there were videos, functional and terrible (to my inquisitive child’s eyes), on the business of birth, but they were never on television. That’s all changed. We’ve come a long way, baby.

I’ve been watching the second series of The Midwives (BBC2) for the last few weeks. I have no special interest in the programme content - I am not pregnant, nor am I in the process of becoming so. But every time it’s on, I can’t look away. It is rich with stories.

There are all sorts here: first time mums-to-be and experienced mums-to-be, older-than and younger-than-average mums-to-be, sick mums-to-be, natural births, epidurals, gas and air births, water births, babies with 50/50 chances of inherited genetic conditions... Then there is the extended personnel of the birthing suites - the worried-looking partners, the smiling and encouraging mums and dads, the grannies whose eyes tell a story all of their own, the sisters (I haven’t seen a brother yet, I don’t think), the friends, the already-here children. Some of the mums come in alone, either by choice or necessity. Finally, there are the facilitators of this grand circus, the titular midwives. They are everything you would hope them to be - capable, calm, warm, and always with that special voice that comes out when dealing with a woman pushing something large out of a small place. I have come to a startling conclusion: having babies is a mental business. Why do it? Answers on a postcard, please.

Babyhood is one of the few things we have in common; we’ve all been there. And pregnancy in the current culture is still a little special - we talk about ‘bumps’ like they’re a separate entity to the woman carrying it, we speculate (still) on due dates and birth weights and the baby shower phenomenon has leapt from American telly to our front rooms. Even so, having babies for television viewers’ pleasure is one of those recent TV trends.

It’s reality TV, but really, painfully real - what is more authentic than an angry, bloody newborn baby, already mad at the world, being placed on a crying woman’s chest? So of course we watch The Midwives now, the same way we watched four series of the Bafta-winning One Born Every Minute (Channel 4); we can’t get enough of that reality. We love it so much we’ll even take it slightly dramatised, and set in the 1950s, in the form of Call The Midwife (BBC1).

We watch these programmes because of the compelling drama they contain. But on another level, I think, we watch because it feeds the human need to have ever more knowledge. We are among the first generations able to go into a doctor’s office with a printout containing the results of a Google search: “Here’s my problem, give me these treatments.” We watch babies being born, and we listen to the midwives as they tell us what a suddenly slowed heart rate means, or how they monitor pregnancies in which the mother has diabetes or what pethidine does and how long it lasts, and we take mental notes.

These facts may come in handy, either in a pub quiz at the weekend or in a few years’ time, in a maternity unit just like the ones on screen. It matters. That’s why we watch The Midwives, I think - because it is the story of us.

A baby boy is held by a midwife after being born in an NHS maternity unit in Manchester, England. Photo:Getty

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis