When Doing Our Best Doesn’t Feel Like Enough

Last Updated by Andrea Altomaro on
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Becoming emotionally attached to a family is inevitable in midwifery, but Andrea Altomaro discusses how to cope with this obstacle. 

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this blog post are solely those of the author.

Spoiler Alert: This post discusses events in Call the Midwife Season 5 Episode 4

Even before blogging gave me a reason to faithfully and carefully devote time each week to Call the Midwife, the show’s exceptional storylines, acting and cinematography drew me in. Each episode has brought me through a range of emotions, and more often than not, I find myself weeping at some point in each episode.

This week was no different. We were confronted with yet another baby born “so very unwell” as Sister Julienne carefully stated. With hindsight in our favor, we know that thalidomide is the link between all of these mothers — between Susan Mullocks and Baby Cottingham.

I cannot imagine the shock, sadness and fear that the Sisters and midwives at Nonnatus, along with Dr. Turner and Shelagh, have felt. They realize that something is affecting the development of unborn babies in Poplar, but cannot yet pinpoint what it is.

At the time, no one knew how widespread the reach of thalidomide was and how many babies had been — and would continue to be — affected. Dr. Turner and Shelagh felt an immense amount of responsibility to get to the bottom of this unknown threat.

Although this is a television show with scripted events, I can’t help but feel that this episode in particular beautifully illustrates that we are all placed in situations that we may not understand at the time, but can later realize it was meant to be.

Nurse Crane had remarked that perhaps one of the younger midwives would be a more appropriate choice for the hospital assignment instead of Sister Julienne. If one of the younger midwives had been sent, Ruby Cottingham would not have had that familiar, trusting face in her time of need.

Sister Julienne could not change the outcome for Baby Cottingham, but she was able to be there for the baby and for Ruby during their times of need. My tears were freely flowing when Sister Julienne found Baby Cottingham by the open window in the sluice room. Whether we consider ourselves to be religious, spiritual or otherwise, I think we would be hard pressed to disagree that this baby, no matter how deformed, deserved to feel love and warmth during its short time on this earth.

Sister Julienne was able to bring immense comfort to Ruby by sharing that she was there to comfort the baby, pray over the baby and show it love during its final moments. Sister later states, “I’m not sure if I did enough.” It’s hard to feel like one could ever do enough in a difficult situation such as this. But Sister Julienne did as much as she could in that moment, and that is what mattered.

I’m sure most midwives and nurses have been in circumstances that make us wonder, "Why me?" We have all been through stressful labors, emergency situations, or needing to talk someone through their abnormal test results. If we have been practicing long enough, we have probably also cared for someone who has lost a baby.

These experiences leave us shaken and weary, and we sometimes wonder how we can ever come back and do it again. How can we go from the room where a grieving mother has just lost her baby, into another room and rejoice in the birth of a healthy newborn? The answer is that we just do it. We do our best, give everything we can to each family, and sometimes it will not be enough.

We have to remember that each woman, family and baby that we care for needs us in some way. Much like Sister Hildegard inspired the midwives at Nonnatus House, we will continue to be inspired by the tireless and unwavering care and support that has been provided by midwives for generations.

Midwife means “with woman." “With woman” does not just mean “with women for easy, fast labors where everything goes perfectly according to plans and expectations.” It means we are with women through it all: through the anxieties of an upcoming labor and delivery, support and reassurance through two days of prodromal contractions before labor starts, through abnormal test results, or through their first pelvic exam.

I continue to be inspired by the midwives who guided me through my schooling, my wonderful midwifery partners at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital, and now inspired by the fictional, yet compelling midwives of the Nonnatus House. 

Altomaro_Andrea_posts.jpg Andrea Altomaro (MS, RN, CNM) has been nurse-midwife for the past three years and is currently working for the Henry Ford Health System. Before becoming a midwife, she worked as a nurse in the emergency department and also in labor and delivery.
Read More About Andrea |  Read All Posts by Andrea

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PBS and Detroit Public Television have partnered with experienced midwives to discuss their role in modern obstetrics and how things have changed in relation to Call the Midwife, which takes place in the 1950s and 1960s. Learn More