I’m wearing one of my old cotton dresses and a pair of worn down Crocs, trying to pick up from breakfast and discouraged that three cups of coffee have done little to wake me up. There’s a knock at the door. “May we come in?” “Yes, but the house is a mess; I’m so sorry” I say like all the women do, even though their flats always look reasonably presentable, usually just a few magazines around and some clean laundry to be put away just to show that they are a bit overwhelmed. “Now now, don’t you worry about a thing, we’ll tidy up. We’re here to help you – that’s what our job is. Let’s get you a nice cuppa, we’ll make it well-sugared – get you some sustenance like you need.”
I don’t mention I’m a coffee drinker, don’t take sugar or need much nourishment since I just ate. “I don’t have the energy for anything right now, not even the things that usually bring me joy: writing, cooking, gardening, exercise, let alone what needs to be done on a daily basis…” Unlike most of their patients I know I am lucky to have a spouse that does a big share of childcare and housework, I should be able to keep up with the rest but I’m struggling, I try to explain, at a loss for words and relieved to listen to theirs. “You’re clearly exhausted. Your only job is to rest. All you have to think about is getting better, and getting your strength back.” And silently and without judgement someone props me up in bed and hands me tea and biscuits and they set to work cleaning up and caring for me.
I am not nine months pregnant and it is not 1959 but I do often fantasize about living in the world of Call the Midwife, which has become my go to show for a dose of kindness and generosity of spirit. Others lose themselves in dramas swirling through mansions or castles or alternate worlds entirely but for me impoverished post-war East London will do just fine.
People who know of the BBC show (available on Netflix) say Oh, that’s the one about the nuns or the one with all the babies being delivered, which makes sense given the title, but it really is about so much more, about nurses who help people of all ages and conditions, who feel a sense of community and commitment to making things better for others.
It’s seen as a comfort show but as a critic in the London Guardian explains it’s really quite subversive, as “the series centres women’s stories, giving a voice to the poor, the sick, the old, the ignored and invisible,” which makes it timely for this period of pandemic, racist brutality, and people in power without a shred of compassion.
It is not overtly a political show although it has been called the best advertisement ever made for universal healthcare. I would add that it is one of the best depictions of what the social contract really looks like: the compact that we help each other regardless of circumstance, help which our current administration and many of its followers see as a sign of being weak or lazy when really most people in need are anything but. The patients on the show have huge demands on them and limited resources and they tend not to complain – this being England after the war there are plenty of people in poverty or at best working class and yet they get the same treatment as anyone else in better circumstances.
There is plenty depicted that has changed drastically.for the better. Doctors and patients regularly smoke during appointments, they prescribe medications we’ve since learned result in birth defects, contraceptives aren’t given to single women, lesbians have to hide their love, there are endless preventable tragedies and states of ignorance. Based on the real life experience of one of the midwives, who captured these compelling true stories in book form, it follows a trajectory from post-war Poplar, London to the early swinging 60’s, in which the protagonists address much of their ignorance and learn to change with the times, to keep expanding the circle of compassion to include all of God’s children, as the nuns would say.
It’s not like there aren’t caring people out here now – lots of them – but we don’t always support systems that help everybody equally; we easily judge and blame why people can’t elevate their lot in life as if we all had that much freedom or there wasn’t rampant discrimination based on gender, race and immigration status that hindered progress for many. A sense of community is a form of religion in itself in the show, the spiritual practice of feeling a calling to help everyone who needs assistance or guidance.
So I find that even though I have watched the entire eight seasons, and there are so many shiny new options available for my streaming pleasure, I have returned to the world of Poplar for a nightly dose of old tenements and modest wardrobes on clotheslines and big families sharing one pot of food and nuns and young nurses who would enter my house without judgment and pick up a rag and a broom and put on the kettle and tell me that everything was going to be alright, and even if it wasn’t we’d get through it together.