Yorkshire Midwives on Call (BBC Two) is absolutely lovely. It’s a documentary about – and you may be ahead of me here – midwives (specifically the team supporting home births) in Yorkshire (specifically in and around Bradford) on call. It is set in an idyllic world where you see the same midwife – or at the very least, a member of her team – throughout pregnancy and they attend the birth too. All is calm, the midwives are all caring, experienced professionals and the greatest stress in anyone’s life is the Bradford traffic.
Laura leads the team of about half a dozen midwives covering 120 square miles and about 160 pregnant women at any one time. They discuss home birthing plans in detail with each one, from playlists to possible interventions, to what happens to the afterbirth (Keeleigh, at 36 weeks, is clear – “I don’t want it in my wheelie bin”) and how to get an overdue labour going. Sex is one way because semen has prostaglandins in it that soften the cervix, says Gemma. “So go for it. If you feel like it. Lots of women at nine months pregnant don’t,” she adds. You’re better off with Michaela doing a sweep, to be honest (for the uninitiated this is the insertion of a determined finger into the cervix, which is then run round the base of the amniotic sac to send the message that time’s a-wasting). “Nobody can measure up to her hit rate,” says an admiring colleague. “She’s the best. We call her the supersweeper.” The midwives palpate bumps to check for problems, engagements and other signs that the convulsive day (or night) might be nigh. Then, of course, they attend the births and deliver the babies. For viewers and midwives alike it is a sight that never fails to take your breath away. “Every time I see a birth, I think women are incredible,” says Gemma. “Men aren’t bad either, but women are incredible.”
The men are not generally keen when the subject of a home birth is broached. Rebecca and Tim are junior doctors and about to have their second child; Tim is decidedly anti. “It’s not Tim pushing it out of his vagina though, is it?” notes one of Rebecca’s colleagues, so a waterbirth in the front room it is. “One of my quickest and best births ever, that!” says Michaela afterwards with delight. The supersweeper has done it again.
As I say, it’s lovely. The women are incredible, the babies arrive safely and their little starfish hands start clutching for their mothers as they bring them to the breast and you start crying like a baby yourself from the blessedly non-visceral surrounds of your sofa.
As television, it’s little more than filler, stretching the definition of documentary to its limits. Does it matter that the subject matter is so sanitised it feels more like watching Springwatch with human babies than anything else? Does it matter that there’s less truth in it than the average episode of Call the Midwife? Should we just appreciate it on its own terms and not consider the wider effects of such idealised portraits of birth and all that surrounds it?
There aren’t many honest takes on childbirth in the media. I’ve never seen, for example, an account from someone like me who, 10 years on from her experience, still wouldn’t piss on any of the medical professionals involved in getting her baby out if they were on fire. Keeleigh is taken to hospital with a minor bleed, and in the second episode there is an unseen moment of emergency (resolving happily) but we have no culture of acceptance around dealing with tears, incapacitating damage or any of the other messy, awful parts of it.
I would almost like to see the kind of “Making of” coda that David Attenborough documentaries began to include after he and his teams were lambasted for giving less than accurate impressions of where and how every polar bear in Frozen Planet was filmed. Show me how many pregnancies you followed before you were able to get three palatable outcomes an episode. Tell me whether or not a beautiful, complication-free birth protects you against postnatal depression. How’s the lochia for everyone? Why don’t we know that word for something all women experience after birth? Who is using frozen sanitary towels to help with the bruising? Why are you pulling that face? Women are incredible. But not until you know the actual truth do you realise exactly how incredible.