Unless they are busy birthing babies, a special group of “Call the Midwife” fans will be glued to their televisions on Sunday night.
“We love it. Midwives all over the state have cocktail parties watching the show. We’ve had midwives actually write blog articles about episodes,” says Susan Rannestad, vice president of the New York State Association of Licensed Midwives.
The 75-minute holiday special will air at 7:30 p.m. on WMHT-TV. For devotees of the British medical drama, it’s a must-see prelude to the hit series’ third season on PBS, which will begin March 30.
“It is a rich story in the history of midwifery in a country that accepts midwifery in the true sense of the word. Midwives are not replacements for physicians; they have their own place in the medical society,” says Rannestad, a midwife of 30 years who has her own home birth practice, River and Mountain, in New Paltz.
The New York State Association of Licensed Midwives was an underwriter for the first two seasons, and a notice about the holiday show is posted on the organization’s website.
Based on memoir
Based on a memoir trilogy written by Jennifer Worth, a British nurse who worked in poorhouses and asylums, the BBC series tells the story of a small group of young women and Anglican nuns who practice midwifery in the 1950s in East London’s desperately poor Poplar District. The women live together in a convent called Nonnatus House and travel by bicycle to dreary flats to help women give birth and care for their newborns.
’Call the Housewife Holiday Special’
WHEN: 7:30 to 8:45 p.m. Sunday on WMHT-TV. Third season of show begins at 8 p.m. Sunday, March 30.
MORE INFO: www.pbs.org
The award-winning drama has attracted more than 10.8 million viewers in the United Kingdom, outranking “Downton Abbey,” and there are 3 million viewers in the United States.
“Women all over the English-speaking countries have taken to the show magically,” says Rannestad.
“It’s about what women have always done: taking care of other women, keeping women’s secrets, helping the poor, helping women be strong who don’t know they can be strong and helping women become mothers.”
In Latham, Sister Joyce Gadoua has seen every episode of “Call the Midwife” since it first aired on PBS in the fall of 2012, a year after author Worth died at age 75.
A retired educator and pastoral associate, Gadoua is a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet and lives in St. Joseph’s Provincial House.
Local nun’s take on the TV show
A local nun offers her thoughts on TV counterparts. Click here
As a nun, she has an interest in the sisters of Nonnatus House, but she has always been a huge fan of British actors and dramas on PBS.
“ ‘Call the Midwife’ outshines every other popular medical drama,” says Gadoua. “It has joys and sorrows, successes and disappointments, tough and tender moments, conflicts and resolutions, all in the service of poor women and their families.”
The characters in British dramas are more developed and the scripts are not focused only on sex, she says.
“American writers of TV and movies today are enamored with fast speech, fast acting and fast living in which the product is more important than the persons involved.”
Rajani Bhatia, an assistant professor at the University at Albany, in the department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, believes the show’s popularity is tied to our difficult economic times.
“We are drawn to narratives of people facing difficult conditions and figuring out a way to survive,” says Bhatia.
“Nowadays, recessions are often accompanied by a drop in fertility. Many would-be parents put off childbearing when times seem hopeless. We are fascinated by this moment, in which the strength of the midwives and the community converge in the making of babies, and the state assists through the newly instituted National Health Service. Indeed, babies seem to always represent hope.”
The power and strength of love is also a compelling theme, she says. “The show offers up hope and love as two elixirs to overcoming hard times.”
Rannestad, whose practice delivers about 50 babies per year, says that the TV birth scenes, which use dolls and human infants, are quite realistic.
“They do better than most TV shows in portraying what really happens in a labor. It’s pretty darn correct.”
Medical equipment and procedures have improved, she notes.
“We’ve come a long way. When they do the urine test, they have to heat it up with a candle in a test tube. And they do enemas. We never do that anymore.”
When midwifery in Great Britain and the United States are compared, there’s a big difference.
“They have a National Health Service. Midwives have their proper place. Midwives deliver 70 percent of the babies, and the doctors come in when there’s a complication. In this country, it’s only 14 percent, and it’s mostly poor women or really rich women who choose midwives or really educated women,” Rannestad says.
“In England, she might be having her baby at home, in a birthing hospital or a regular hospital. She is assigned a midwife and only if she becomes ill will she graduate to a doctor. And she gets home visits for the first two weeks.”
Gadoua, who this year celebrated her 50th year in religious service, likes the idea of sisters and lay midwives working together but says this would be unusual in the United States.
“Vowed religious with the calling to be midwives was not common then and nor is it now. Some sisters who are nurses in hospitals may have had a taste of this kind of ministry, but it was not their raison d’être by a long shot. Although this was an unusual ministry, it could be compared to other communities in the ’50s that were generally tied to schools or a hospital nearby, and in some cases, an orphanage.”
Bhatia observes that conditions for women, as depicted in “Call the Midwife,” have both improved and perhaps declined since the 1950s.
“In spite of the impoverishment of east London, there is a sense of community in Poplar, and even safety [the midwives regularly ride out on their bicycles at night]. Some of us may have readier access to safe forms of abortion, contraception and options for education and work outside the home, but we cannot presume progress in all areas. Even with its association with lower infant mortality and a feminist model of care, there are many more barriers to midwifery practice today than existed during the show’s period,” she says.
Bhatia, a 44-year-old mother of two, has her own midwife story.
“My first child was born in a freestanding birth center in Baltimore run by three midwives. By the time I was having my second, it had closed. Many states in the U.S. do not grant certified professional midwife licenses, and some midwives have to practice illegally or underground. Most midwives cannot afford the heavy burden of malpractice insurance. They rarely receive the support and gratitude they deserve.”
Relating to characters
Despite the differences in midwifery in England and the U.S., Rannestad says today’s midwives can relate to the TV characters.
“I love that they have young women doing it. And all kinds of women: the geeky one, the awkward one, the cute one, the smart one, the smoking cigarettes one.”
Gadoua enjoys all the characters so much, she couldn’t pick a favorite.
“Each one brings color and definition that make for a marvelous human, a believable lived experience. I often I cry for the beauty of what they do for the women and one another.”
Rannestad read Worth’s “Call the Midwife” book several years ago. She has watched every episode of the TV show. She bought a CD featuring music from the show.
On Sunday night, in Ulster County, she will be glued to her television.
“I’m watching it at home, but I’ll probably be texting with other people about the show,” says Rannestad.
“I don’t want to be out on the road unless I have to be delivering a baby.”
Reach Gazette reporter Karen Bjornland at 395-3197 or firstname.lastname@example.org.