Reading Readit: Outback Midwife

Jennifer Worth was a British nurse whose trilogy of memoirs, based on her years as a midwife in the poverty-stricken areas of East London in the 1950s and 1960s, became the highly acclaimed BBC series Call the Midwife.

Beth McRae is an Australian nurse whose memoir Outback Midwife is based on her 40 years as a midwife, from her first delivery through to the present. Hope springs eternal that Beth’s story will be picked up by television and receive similar acclaim in the Australia and the overseas markets.  Outback Midwife

This memoir is excellent and tells a story many women will recognise; we will giggle at some stories, grimace at others and wonder at how far giving birth has come in the last few decades.

Beth McRae was born in Corryong and raised on a farm in nearby Cudgewa in Victoria, near the New South Wales border. Hers was a loving, albeit strictly traditional family and Beth and her sister were keen to gain a bit of freedom. In those days nursing required you to live in the nurses’ home while training and this seemed to Beth a good way of “leaving” home. She hadn’t counted on the doors being locked at 10pm!

Reading the memoir it struck me that good nurses are born, not trained as Beth stepped into her career and never for a moment wanted to leave. Although her first experience of “catching the baby” filled her with terror, being a Midwife is the only career she ever wanted.

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Young women today will not believe the birthing practices of old; no participation, mother and midwife under the “do as I say” instructions of the doctor. A birth plan was not something that existed when most of us baby boomers became mothers; what we as the mother wanted was not a consideration. Beth considers the empowerment of the mother, involving her in a birth plan, is an important change in the birthing suite, even if there is more change needed when it comes to birthing babies naturally.

As a young woman, Beth lost her first child at 26 weeks and was horrified that her baby was whisked away before she held her. While she was still in hospital, the undertaker delivered his bill. Further, she found her daughter’s birth was not even registered, something she had to fight to have remedied. Beth writes, “It makes you feel as though your baby does not matter. As though your baby never really existed”. She never shared her story with other mothers in a similar position, but she was very conscious of their need to hold their babies and for compassion.

Just at the time when retirement was looming, Beth decided instead to seek a new challenge and after a six-month trial in Derby, Western Australia, she moved to Maningrida, a remote Aboriginal community of about 3,000 people in Arnhem Land. Reading her experiences with this community, the number of languages spoken, the cultural adjustments she made, is fascinating. While there are doctors and other nurses in the community, none of them has experience in midwifery and Beth is seen as the expert, a responsibility she loves.

In the five years she has been in Maningrida, Beth has been accepted by the community. She has gone fishing with the women, learned to hunt mud crabs, collected pandanus for weaving and watched the women find the roots they use as dyes. More importantly, she has been included in “women’s business” which gives her a better understanding of her community and their needs.

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The great adventure is almost over. In the epilogue Beth says: “When I came to Maningrida I expected to last twelve months. Yet five years later I am struggling to think how I will tear myself away from the remote life. When my contract ends in June 2015 I know I will find it difficult to bid goodbye to the 36 women under my care and my friends in the community. I know I must because I am missing my own expanding family and the chance to see my grandchildren grow up. But many of the people here have become like a family to me”/

One family will enjoy having their mother and grandmother at home; undoubtedly, her second family in Maningrida will miss the woman they call “Pet”.


Random House, via NetGalley, provided me with my ARC of Outback Midwife.


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About the Author

McRae, Beth

Beth McRae began her training as a midwife at Preston and Northcote Community Hospital in Victoria, in the days when birth plans were unheard of, and went on to ‘catch babies’ all over Australia.

After more than 30 years on the job, in her 50s there was one more frontier she was determined to conquer – the outback – where she believed her experience was needed more than anywhere else. So Beth upped sticks to a remote Aboriginal community in Arnhem Land and embarked on a whole new adventure.


Outback Midwife by Beth McRae

Available for $24.50 via Booktopia