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The Midwives: reality TV, but painfully real

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

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

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.