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.

Show Hide image

Robin Ince: Stephen Hawking made science relatable – why is it still so misunderstood?

We need more science and scientists in popular culture, so that children don’t give up on it as only for “boffins”.

I was 18 when A Brief History of Time was published. I had grown uninterested in science during the latter half of my secondary education, but I bought it anyway. I had fallen into the trap that Schopenhauer warned of, the failure to recognise that buying a book is not the same as reading it or indeed understanding it.

I read a little, then it went on a shelf. I read more of it than the surprise publishing hit of the previous year, Spycatcher. That book remains pristine in the shed, unlike A Brief History of Time, which is now pencil-marked, question-marked and annotated, if not fully understood.

The chuckled aside of “but no one’s actually read it” is really just another version of “what are those boffins on about, eh?”

The problem with popular physics books is that they are unlikely to be easy, especially if the last time you thought about physics was when you were using a bunsen burner as a weapon while distracted from discovering the energy of a peanut in class 3B.

Contemporary physics is counter-instinctual and eager to refute common sense. It takes time. If time exists, obviously.

As thrilling as it can be, you cannot read it at the speed of a thriller because it’s introducing you to a reality that appears so different to your reality.

It is easier to understand the actions of international spies in a Robert Ludlum novel than it is to understand the behaviour of particles and the curvature of space-time because we observe human fear and desire every day, even if we are not a rogue CIA agent.

Good physics books require frequent rest breaks – after all, they may well be turning your universe upside down, inside out or surrounding it with infinite other universes. There is no shame in being flummoxed by quantum indeterminacy and spending a while in a cool, dark room as you contemplate.

Carl Sagan, who wrote the original introduction to A Brief History of Time, wrote that children were born scientists, but they had it beaten out of them.

We are all curious, but with adulthood, our fear of embarrassment grows, and we temper our curiosity. Some close it down all together and embrace dogma and tribalism. At the time of birth, we all have potential to be scientists. Then culture, encouragement or lack of it, and expectations shape what we become. We do not have to give up on it; we just have to find the way in.

The connection with Stephen Hawking for many began with the peculiarity of his story. Here was a man who was physically immobile while his mind traversed the universe. Before you even tried to approach his science, there was a story.

People need stories to engage, facts are not enough.

Visiting schools during Science Week, I hear the frustration from teachers that they do not have time to tell the stories of science, just the information that came from them. They have to deliver the facts at a speed that reaches the target required for the next assessment. The lessons that show the passions and drives  and intrigue, the stories that can inspire, are a rare possibility. The curriculum needs space to enthuse.

Despite living in a world powered by scientific and technological innovation and in a civilisation whose future will be secured and enhanced by these innovations, mass media still treats the subject of “how the universe and everything in it from tadpoles to supermassive black holes came to be and where it is all going” as a niche subject.

We need more science and scientists in popular culture, more daily coverage so it does not become some otherness created by strange people who are not like us.

Let’s have more scientists with cameos on The Simpsons and Star Trek. Let’s not just have Benedict Cumberbatch on the chat show couch because he’s playing a scientist in a movie – let’s have the scientists on there, too.

It seems a pity to ignore the universe when there is so much of it.

It seems a pity to have a brain that has evolved to be curious, but not feed it questions – even if it does make it hurt sometimes.

Guinness World Records: Science & Stuff is out now.

Robin Ince is a writer and comedian. With Brian Cox, he guest edited the 2012 Christmas double issue of the New Statesman. He's on Twitter as @RobinInce.