This summer a family from England lived on our street and, because our children were the same age, we got to know them. When they returned home in August, they left a gift on my front step: a book called “Tales From a Midwife: True Stories of the East End in the 1950s” by Jennifer Worth.
I am humbled lately by the many discoveries in the birth world I am making just now that others probably made years ago. “Tales From a Midwife” is not just one book, but three, pulled together originally as “The Midwife’s Trilogy.” The first book of the three was published in 2002, yet I’d never heard of it until now. As a die-hard birth junkie who loves any TV, movie, book, or play about birth, I usually scour the new and used bookstores for anything on the topic. I assume this book never showed up because it is English. You know, British.
And the book is extraordinarily British. There is even a full chapter (which I mostly skipped) about the Cockney accent. But I still felt as though I were holding a precious piece of MY history in my lap as I read this book. This book helps me imagine the early to middle years of the twentieth century, that time when hospital birth started to overtake and then eventually did overtake homebirth. Until the end of WWII, there were still more babies being born at home than in hospitals. Yet, somehow, I could imagine midwives during the Revolutionary War (thanks to Martha Ballard’s diary) and I could imagine midwives around the turn of the twentieth century (thanks to Amy McKay’s “The Birth House”), I somehow lost a vision of midwives between about 1920-1970. I thought of them as “underground.”
But “Tales From a Midwife” helps me imagine a time when homebirth and hospital birth (in England, anyway) were living side-by-side. A young girl could go to special training to become a nurse and midwife. Hers was a respected profession, especially where Jennifer Worth was working, among the poorest of the poor.
I love the birth stories here! On the one hand, I feel nostalgic for the ease with which these midwives worked. The doctors seem to respect their work and seem happy that someone is serving these poor women. On the other hand, the 1930s-1950s were a time when everyone, including the homebirth midwives, were giving enemas and shaving women and making them get into specific positions to push properly. Jennifer Worth comes out clearly on the side of breastfeeding, but reminds us that in the 1950s, bottle-feeding was the height of scientific fashion. She just knows that her poor clients probably cannot afford to buy formula and eventually concludes that this is for the best.
Like “The Birth House,” “Tales From a Midwife” is full of wonderful characters. The midwives, some of whom are single, young women and others of whom are nuns, are quirky individuals (hmmm, like most of the midwives I know today!) who are fun to read about.
In short, I am so happy that we had English neighbors for two months and even more happy that they left this remarkable book on my stoop for me to enjoy for many years of re-reading ahead!