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  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

Photo: Getty
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear