The Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times by Jennifer Worth

Jennifer Worth leaves her home and comfortable middle class existence at the tender age of eighteen  to become a nurse and midwife. Part of her training is at Nonnatus House, a convent serving London’s poverty-stricken East End, after World War II.  She arrives with no particular belief in God and suffering from the loss of a man whom she never talks about explicitly but whom she loved deeply. While serving a rotation in the East End, Worth encounters unimaginable poverty, and harsh environmental and economic living conditions – all exacerbated by the bombings that have taken place around the city. She has definite ideas and feelings about all that she encounters, but ultimately grows and changes as her training in midwifery, and exposure to the nuns and other co-workers, teach her to go beyond her own limited understanding of others’  circumstances – enabling her  to experience empathy for those who come from different environments, and whose levels of privilege are not as great as her own.

I loved this book! I was hooked immediately by Worth’s voice, which was easy to read and connect with.  She is engaging while at the same very informative. She gives you facts, but they are never dry. This was one of those stories where as I turned the pages, not only could I not wait to read more about midwifery, the nuns and patients, but also had a soundtrack in my own head going, “this is so good, I can’t wait to see what happens next”.  Strange, but true.

Worth is such a wonderful storyteller.  She is straightforward in her narrative, but also in the way that she presents herself truthfully as the person that she was and the influences which made her into the person that she became.  I think that one of the most valuable experiences that you can get from any memoir is the truth of that person’s experience, and that’s something that is lost when people aren’t able to present a three-dimensional portrait of themselves, warts and all.  Worth succeeds in doing that here.  She descriptively shows her readers what she saw when she entered people’s home and how she felt about what she saw there.  Sometimes she admits to being disgusted by the personal hygiene of her patients and the cleanliness of their environments. Some patients she dislikes as soon as she meets. In her judgment of the things that she sees, she shares her background and how her  religious experiences have been different from the the nuns and others around her.

Her detailed commentary illustrates practices that used to be standard in midwifery, and show how they have evolved to the system of hospital practices present in London today. I was blown away by how different the childbirth experience was, and that just 60 years ago in London, most women were expected to give birth in their own home, and without the presence of a doctor, unless complications were anticipated or the home proved to be an unsuitable birth environment.  Women were also required to stay in bed, at home or in the hospital, for 10 days.  I know that time in the hospital after childbirth has decreased drastically in the past years, but 10 days seems to be such a long time to be immobilized.

As much as I enjoyed the narrator and the narrative, there was  a wonderful cast of characters to be enjoyed. Sister Monica Joan- always good for a making a little trouble with her high-handed and incorrigible ways, the gentle guidance of Sister Julienne was often an example for Worth as a young nurse and midwife, and the money-making schemes of the convent’s janitor, Fred are just a few of the people whom you’ll meet.  Worth also illustrates her chapters not only with some of the medical conditions that she encountered such as eclampsia, rickets and breech deliveries, but the heartbreaking and heartwarming stories of Len and Conchita Warren, who had 24 children; Mrs Jenkins who mysteriously haunts the places where women give birth; and what happened in several instances when white women didn’t give birth to white children.

Anyway, time to reign this in.  I could  go on and on about all that I learned and the people that I enjoyed. It’s rare to  read something that I feel like most people I know would enjoy, but this book was so interesting, well-written and real that no matter what you normally read, I think you will enjoy this book. Highly Recommended.

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