Writer and broadcaster

Is Call the Midwife anything like the profession today? Published in The Guardian

If the snow makes you feel like snuggling up with your loved one in front of the fire, and if you think that snuggling up may lead to sex … stop! The birth rate in the UK is the highest it has been in 40 years and there aren’t enough midwives to catch those babies. But wait: last year there was an 11.6% rise in midwifery students at one university, thanks in part to the very popular BBC series Call the Midwife. Given that 9.3 million people watched Sunday’s episode, there may be lots more about to sign up. Viewers who fancy being at the other end of the conception journey, though, should proceed with caution.

“Being a midwife today is very different to how it is on Call the Midwife,” says one community midwife from the east Midlands. “We don’t go out on bikes for a start.” Although if you do fancy a bike, some midwives in London’s East End have electric bikes for quick home visits. Longer visits need lots of equipment: Sonicaid and pinards to listen to the baby’s heartbeat, resuscitation and emergency equipment, oxygen cylinders, entonox cylinders, the sphygmomanometer to measure blood pressure, blood forms, urine sticks, leaflets to give out and lots and lots of paperwork. “I look more at forms than I do at people,” says another midwife who works in a large hospital in Cambridgeshire. Get that lot into your Pashley wicker basket and your back wheel wouldn’t touch the tarmac.

In Call the Midwife, when a baby is due every passing person gets involved: the police officer, a random delivery boy, perhaps even the milkman. But today, mobile phones have largely put paid to that community involvement (although the Guardian did recently feature a woman who gave birth outside Waitrose, where lots of people did get involved).

Midwives today also don’t live in nursing homes, or usually wear uniforms outside of hospitals. “But the camaraderie among my colleagues is exactly the same as in the programme,” says the Cambridgeshire midwife (none of the midwives I spoke to could talk to me on the record without prior permission and, very likely, more form-filling). The threat of litigation has also, largely, put paid to a midwife presiding over a breech or a twin birth, far less a twin breech birth.

Finally heed this: “People go into midwifery thinking: it’s about babies,” says one midwife. “It’s not. It’s about pregnant women giving birth. You don’t get to cuddle babies very often.” The good news is that you’re with women at the most intense, exhilarating, mind-blowing time of their lives. And “there’s far fewer pubic lice than in the 1950s. There was a lot of that in the episode I watched,” she adds.


This was first published in the Guardian’s G2 on 21st January 2013.