Call the Midwife, the Old Wife, the Young Wife, the Never Wife–Gather the Women ‘Round

It is a beautiful afternoon in western New York; it’s one of those wonderful days that make me want to stay there forever, to say, ‘Oh,hang the snow in February. This is perfect.’  There’s a lake breeze; a few torn clouds scud across the sky; the sun is warm and friendly. And the women are gathering at Teri’s house for Sarah’s shower.

Long tables stretch beneath a white tarp; they have crisp paper tablecovers emblazoned with funny little raccoons and owls.  Every three feet, a bowl of M&M’s beckons. There is a place of honor set up, and already, the gift pile grows.  There’s special seating for the soon-to-be mama. There are places for the grandma and the great-grandma to sit close, places from which they can help with bows and bags and torn wrapping, with moving clunky boxes to places of honored display.

A huge basket of freshly harvested tomatoes sits on the steps of the deck, leading to the pool. It warns the children away–no swimming today. Today we have the seriously fun business of helping Sarah get ready for her first child.

The future-funny disasters that will mark the day in our memories bubble up. One car-full of guests is stranded when the brakes fail. They are young and fluttered; they call, in a panic. The matrons put their heads together; a plan is hatched and a rescue party dispatched.  A mother and daughter pair rush in late, their GPS having, they wail, failed them.

Teri tells a funny story about cleaning up an explosion of black nail polish in the master bathroom; she brandishes her black-spotted arm as evidence.  Teen-aged Grace, long-legged, long-haired,—and black nailed,—rolls her eyes.

We women sit and catch up.  I haven’t seen Karen since her kids were babies, toddlers, first-graders; they are now in college or high school seniors. There are stories to hear about the years in the interim.  How have those little bundles of possibility fulfilled their potential, to date? It is wonderful to listen.

Karen is entering the launching phase.  She is gleaming, excited, and also very, very nervous.

JoAnne pulls out her phone, and we look at pictures of the grandkids.  We look, also, at her pictures of a pair of black bears enjoying, one early morning, the suet she left on a hook on the deck.  (Sorry, you birds.)

Sarah, tiny but for her pronounced baby bump, weaves among the guests, her long striped dress brushing the top of the grass, one hand on her belly.  She smiles and laughs; she giggles, sometimes, a little nervously.  She makes sure to stop and talk with each and every woman, to say a word to each little girl who accompanied her mama to the ladies’ gathering.

We eat a lovely lunch, chicken salad with grapes and walnuts on croissants that flake and explode, scoops of sweet, fresh fruit, a handful of chips for that necessary crunch; iced tea.  And then the chairs pull in closer, and Sarah, flanked by Teri and by her grandma, begins to open the gifts.

There are books and socks and onesies; there are binkies and knit caps and packages of diapers.  We sigh over gadgets that didn’t exist when our big kids were little ones–a rubber duckie with a heat sensor in the bottom, so mama can tell if the water’s too hot or too cold for baby.  A one-swipe, non-invasive thermometer.  A state of the art stroller that folds into a car seat and then morphs into a nip-nap. We sigh and tell war stories about how tough it was bringing up baby back in the technology-challenged days of our young motherhoods, when we had to push heavy carriages to the supermarket in snowstorms, three miles, uphill both ways.

The young women smile indulgently and roll their eyes.

********

It is ironic that the book I brought on this trip is Call the Midwife, Jennifer Worth’s memoir of working as a midwife in London’s East end in the 1950’s. Worth was an impassioned young nurse who decided to make midwifery her calling; she was fleeing an irredeemable love affair and running toward a vocation.  She threw in her lot with the nuns of Nonnatus House, the other young midwifes who worked there, and the women of the East End.

It was an altogether different time to be a young mama. Home births were the norm; the stability and safety brought by the midwives–home visits, pre- and post- natal counseling, advice about cleanliness and feeding–were new phenomena.  Women went to the hospital only for chancy births or emergencies.

Worth writes about visiting bombed-out hovels and working at a home where the mother was looking forward to birthing her 24th child. She writes about straightforward, joyous births; she writes about times when a woman’s infidelity was writ large in the skin color of her child–where society crashed down its gates and a man gave his wife the choice–the baby goes or he does.  She writes about another, similar birth where the husband falls in love with the baby as he holds him in his arms and opens his heart without reservation.  That baby grows up never doubting his place in the community.

She writes about women who did not want another child, and the lengths they went to to prevent or remove that chance pregnancy.

Worth writes about early births, tragic losses, the hard struggle to raise decent children in a world recovering from a war that took place on its doorstep.  She writes about changing times.  She writes about parental love and parental rejection.

But mostly, she writes about the sisterhood of women in the time of birth and  promise.

***********

The gadgets have definitely changed.  And now, ironically, the midwife birth is the radical new thing, the hospital stay the norm.  Our homes are groomed and cozy; our families, not quite so large (usually) as families were in the Fifties.  Birth control is widely available; women (at least here in the United States) have many more choices.

But the company of women still meets and still supports; the young mothers are hammocked in the knowledge and the confidence of the moms and grannies and greatgrannies who surround them.  They are hugged and whispered into the same rich sisterhood; they have iron arms to hold them up when things do not go as the storybooks predict.  A sick child, a still birth; Down’s syndrome; autism; unexpected physical defects.  So much can, and sometimes still does, happen; but the gathering of women, and then the presence of their love and care in good times and in hard, makes it possible, in Worth’s day and in ours, to find the indelible joy.

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