Call the Midwife! Birth Through the Generations of the Mass Observation Project
This blog includes temporary free access to the Autumn/Winter 1993 directive from Module II of the Mass Observation Project and observer G1483âs response to it. Click on the links above or on the relevant images below to view these documents for free until 9th April 2021.
âIn a pandemic, babies donât stop comingâ commented a midwife from Bradford Royal Infirmary in a 2020 BBC interview. Itâs a simple statement, and one which resonates with the prosaic incongruity of everyday life in the midst of so much uncertainty - there seems no better time than womenâs history month to turn to narratives regarding this constant of human experience in the 1993 directive on âBirthâ from the newly released Mass Observation Project Module II: 1990s. The directives are letters sent out by the Mass Observation Panel several times a year, asking participating members of the public (the âobserversâ) for their thoughts and feelings on particular subjects. Often, these subjects relate to current events and trends, but the âBirthâ directive takes a more personal approach.
In their exhibition for the new collection, Jessica Scantlebury and Kirsty Pattrick of the Mass Observation Archive note that the 90s saw some changes in the shape of the project. Dorothy Sheridan had taken over the running of the archive at the start of the decade, and one of the first directives she issued was on the topic of âClose Relationshipsâ. This was to be the first of more âlife story narrativeâ directives which, alongside others on events which we now consider to be key historical, political and cultural moments of the decade, ranged from nostalgic questions about âGrowing Upâ to the rather scandalous directive on âHaving an Affairâ.
The âBirthâ directive takes a deep dive into multi-generational experience. It asks after the respondentsâ own births â what were their mothersâ experiences, their own? What advice did they give or receive, and how did they approach parenthood? The responses, from men and women alike, are frequently shocking, hilarious, and deeply touching. If babies donât stop coming during a pandemic then neither, apparently, do they stop coming through air raids, dog walks, family holidays - or even tours by the housing association, as responder H2577 can attest regarding the birth of her first child in 1985.
T1826 has a bracing response to the directive which resonates with those of us who struggle with societyâs assumptions about maternal instinct, and her frank approach to the universal appearance of a new-born infant is emblematic of the blunt humour which runs through the entirety of the Mass Observation Archive.
Many observers, however, had more personal narratives to share, and some of their stories now date back over a century. M382 relates the story of her own birth during an air raid in 1916 and describes her experience of pregnancy during the Blitz.
Nor is this the only dramatic wartime birth story. G1483 gave birth to two of her four children during wartime, one during the Battle of Britain, and another on a night with a heavy air raid when âincendiary bombs were falling aroundâ.
There are many light-hearted moments in the responses - M1171 recalls her waters breaking at 2:00am and by the time the ambulance arrived she was taking the dog for a walk, much to the consternation of the emergency responders. More canine exploits feature in B1509âs response: he and his wife had sent out his stepdaughter for a dog walk when she went into labour with her second child â and the baby enjoyed a very warm welcome from the family pet.
For some Mass Observers, however, the birth directive proved a difficult topic. Many women write in about their experiences with stillbirths and abortions or struggles with fertility. B36 writes about losing her three children, two just after birth and one during pregnancy. âThis directive has made me cryâ, she writes, âbut I had to answer it. So perhaps someone else somewhere can understand the heartbreak.â
B36 went on to adopt two children and writes that âit all ended happilyâ. It is a reminder, however, that it is not just the process of birth that makes a parent. Observers write frankly of their fears about parenthood, their relationships with their own parents and siblings, and the struggle of balancing childcare with a job or partner. As Motherâs Day draws close, still as strange and socially distanced for many of us as it was last year, itâs good to have a reminder that some things remain universal, and that the highs and lows of human experience donât stop coming, even â or especially â during a pandemic.