Not being a huge fan of the mass mechanization of birth that hooks women up to monitors to avoid lawsuits, my heart slightly sinks at the notion of Noelle – a plastic mannequin, flat on her back who allows midwives to practise delivering babies. Her very existence makes me get all defensive on behalf of any woman who has ever felt ‘dehumanised’ during birth: left alone by over-stretched staff or coerced into procedures they don’t really need. Before I even meet Noelle, I fear that she and I aren’t going to hit it off.
Colin Murray and I arrive at Wexham Park Hospital near Slough. Like two expectant parents, we don’t know where to park; we’re not sure we’ve brought enough money for the pay and display and we are hopeless at finding the maternity unit.
“Hello, I’m here to watch a plastic woman have a baby,” Colin tells the receptionist. She pauses – wondering if his face is familiar because he was on the news that morning in relation to an escaped psychiatric patient. Nervously, she points towards a pair of swinging doors and we begin a thirty minute walk past indecipherable medical departments and sixteen coffee shops.
Thankful that we’re not actually in the latter throws of labour, we eventually find the maternity ward and meet the team of lovely birth practitioners who are very proud of their new birth simulator: Noelle.
Now, I am not easily shocked. I don’t embarrass easily and I can list over fifty words to reference female genitalia. But at the first sight of Noelle, Colin and I cling to each other in silent apoplectic disbelief. The designers have made an effort to add ‘realistic’ touches to this piece of training equipment: she wears a blonde wig, her eyebrows are pencilled and her physical proportions are intensely realistic. She’s wearing a hospital gown (to preserve her modesty?) and someone has kindly tucked a blanket around her waist. But she has no lips and stares gaping mouthed at the ceiling reminding me of a recent visit to The London Dungeons.
Quietly and diligently medical professionals buzz around her, pressing buttons on a nearby laptop and observing her vital signs. Even her chest slowly rises and falls. It is spooky beyond belief and when a male midwife pulls back her gown to spray lubricant on the place from which the plastic baby will soon emerge, Colin and I can do nothing but stare; silently hyperventilating.
A midwife explains that the beauty of such birth simulation is that it allows medical professionals to practise unusual situations that might otherwise only happen in a true medical emergency. From a wireless laptop, the metal corkscrew that pushes the plastic baby down the birth canal can be manipulated to enact any number of dramatic scenarios. Noelle is a truly modern woman: she comes with four dilating cervices, four umbilical cords and a set of three interchangeable vulva. What else does a girl need?
Apparently Noelle can be manipulated onto all fours, but she teaches students nothing about the empathy, emotional support, quiet communication and tenderness that labouring women need. My eyes water as I watch a midwife stretch back her plastic vagina to pull out the baby’s arm. And although the computer programme is making her yell, “I need to pee!” like a giant creepy doll, it’s no real substitute for observing real women have real babies.
The midwives maintain that she is a valuable piece of kit that complements their three years of medical training: they believe she is worth every penny of her £26,000 price tag. Personally, I don’t know how they get any work done with Noelle in the building – the potential for childish comedy is enormous.
I explained to Colin that supporting his new wife at the ‘head end’ is all about keeping her calm and reducing her stress. He tells me he knows what he’s doing: she’s not the first plastic woman he has had a relationship with. But as the baby crowns he turns to his Noelle and asks, “Is this a bad time to tell you I want an open relationship?” We’re all laughing too much to notice she needs more lube. Luckily the midwife leaps in with his spray – it’s just as well they know what they’re doing - Colin and I are clueless. We leave Slough determined to carry on talking about babies, but united in a belief that we’ll leave the real job to the experts: they're clearly much more grown up.