‘An Armful of Babies and a Cup of Tea’ provides a social history of a 1950s health visitor, just as the role was created and the NHS took off.
I probably wouldn’t have picked this book up had I not been sent a review copy. I thought my 1950s needs were met by ‘Call The Midwife’. But I’m glad I read it, I learnt some stuff.
Molly Corbally worked in a world before social workers when health visitors were the ones helping families make decisions about teenage pregnancy, crippling poverty and end of life care.
She actually wrote her book well before the ‘Call The Midwife’ craze started and it’s been rediscovered and republished.
Molly is starting out in a small Coventry village with new equipment, a new NHS role and a smart blue uniform, but she’s really treading a path that’s always been there. She’s overseeing the complex ethical and physical dilemmas that face mothers holding families together. An original NHS wise woman.
What struck me most is how much more relaxed life for an NHS worker was back then.
Molly had her dog with her in the car, or walked to appointments, stopping back at home for lunch and getting the shopping done in the middle of the day.
In one chapter, Molly pops in to see a postnatal mother and gets distracted by the rose garden and the new puppies.
As she turns to leave she realises she’s forgotten to do any checks. Rather than going back, she’s waved off by the mother and makes an appointment for a few weeks time.
This is the talk of the village – they find it very funny that the new health visitor forgot to even set eyes on the babies.
But can you imagine doing this today? What on earth would you document? ‘Saw rose garden (gorgeous but weak stems!), will assess twins on next visit’.
I don’t mean to sound critical, the relationship Molly builds with her clients protects them and her skill is immense.
But forgetting to do any of the checks simply wouldn’t be an option today, the risks of litigation are too high.
I guess we could wish we were back in that world of relationships being more important than documentation.
But as twee and heartwarming as the description of village life is, if you read between the lines, you can see oppression.
You can tell Molly is a gentle soul, but there are moments when she directs women a bit more than we’d think was okay. One woman isn’t told about her daughter's diagnosis of Down’s Syndrome until the baby is over 6 months old – something I think is deeply unfair, though Molly suggests this was a good thing for mother/infant bonding. Sexism shows through with most women not able to choose careers over childcare and the cast of characters are 100% white.
There are also no gay people.
I wondered for a little while whether Molly the health visitor might in a relationship with another woman. She lives with a nursing colleague who’s also her best friend. The village and their relatives don’t understand this, worrying about them not being able to balance out their dinner parties with male company.
But as the book progresses I realised that it’s impossible to tell, this information just isn’t offered to us. It’s like a world without LBGTQ people. I guess this is because homosexuality was illegal in the UK until 1967 but I thought health visitors and nurses would have insight and offer support for family members in this position.
I think I’m underestimating quite how much things have progressed since then. Having just watched the epic pro gay rights stand up ‘Nannette’ I can see how much damage this environment must have inflicted on the gay population.
Molly also describes the summer of 1956, which was when the polio epidemic broke out. This section was fascinating and heartbreaking and clearly getting vaccines to the whole of the UK meant every NHS staff member was more or less on active service for a while.
If you don’t know much about polio, you’re not alone, there aren’t many people left who have it in living memory. But it’s a horrible disease which goes for the young and causes the breakdown of muscles. This means death or paralysis. You might have heard about the use of an ‘iron lung’ - essentially if children has muscle weakness around their chest, they needed to be immobilised inside a machine that breathed for them. This could be a lifelong treatment for them.
Good to remember how lucky we are now.
the relationships with the women are what shone through, as with any book on this subject.
Molly follows whole families through their lives and her advice is accepted because she's built genuine, trusting friendships with her clients.
It's this which the slower pace of life prompts. You can see why The National Maternity Review from 2016 is aiming for continuity of care. I think it's really important for all new students to read books like this and see what time spent with clients can do.
The 1950s weren't an idyllic time, no matter how much nostalgia for A-line skirts and nursing hats we have.
The NHS today is more accepting of clients who aren't straight, white and 'normal' and we have better clinical care.
It’d just be nice to remember how important time in the rose garden is too.
What are your thoughts? Have you read this book? Let me know in the comments below!