“Ye know not what ye ask. Are ye able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” — Matthew 20:22 (KJV)
We’re now four episodes into Hulu’s marvelous adaptation The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, and the show is hitting me hard in ways both expected and surprising. For instance, I had no doubt that systematic, institutionally-endorsed rape would be disturbing on a whole host of levels, but I’m actually seeing the sinister aspects of Scrabble, macaroons, and Latin primers.
There is much to explore in this show, but one thing I’ve found particularly compelling is the interplay between two groups of “legitimate” women in Gilead’s hierarchy: the Wives and the Handmaids. The Wives are taking quite a bit of heat from viewers (and rightly so). One author calls them the true “gender traitors”; another says they are “cruelly complacent.” And it is impossible to deny either of those descriptions when several of the scenes involve Serena Joy clutching cruelly onto Offred’s wrists during “the ceremony.”
Breathe. Hold. Push.
But the scene that throws this relationship into sharpest relief happens in episode two, “Birth Day.” I’ll give you a brief run down. In one room of a palatial estate, the Wives sit around Naomi, the Wife of Ofwarren’s Commander. She is in labor, but hers is of the faux variety.
Dressed in an elegant white nightgown, she reclines against a nest of pristine pillows on ivory carpet, sunshine streaming through the windows. A harp plays soothing music in the background. The Wives, in their standard blue attire, encourage her through her false pains—the only experience of childbirth she can ever have since she is sterile—all the while drinking tea from prim china cups, feasting on nibbles, and quietly repeating the word “breathe.”
The rhythmic chanting is also going on upstairs, but the words “hold” and “exhale” are added to the mix. Here, the handmaid Ofwarren (A.K.A. Janine), assisted by several of the dismal brown Aunts and a passel of red-clad Handmaids, is doing the real teeth-gritting work of birth—complete with the screaming, panting, and valor it requires.
Offred, via voiceover, sums it up perfectly: “There’s a smell coming from that room, something primal. It’s the smell of dens, of inhabited caves. It’s the smell of the plaid blanket on the bed where the cat gave birth before she was spayed. It’s the smell of genesis.”
Despite the vast number of people in the room, we recognize the moment for what it is. And that makes it one of the most “normal” scenes in the show…until, well, things get very weird and very Gileadean again.
When the time comes to push, the Wife is brought in to experience the moment of birth. She sits behind Ofwarren in a birthing chair—an echo of the ceremony that made this baby possible in the first place—and mimes the moment until the child is born. There’s an instant of respectful silence until Aunt Lydia pronounces the baby to be a healthy girl.
All the women celebrate, and for a fleeting second, there’s harmony. Then the cord is cut and the girl is wrapped up in a clean blanket, but rather than be handed back to the woman who carried her and brought her into the world, she is given to Naomi who has settled into her “rightful place”—the bed Ofwarren previously occupied. As far as the Wives and Aunts are concerned, Naomi has always been there. The birth mother doesn’t exist.
As they coo and carry on over the little miracle, the Handmaids are left to look on from a distance and care for Ofwarren who sobs into her hands. In a moment of solidarity (that also bears a striking resemblance to another, less lovely group scene in the first episode), they wrap arms around the poor woman to comfort her.
It’s very easy to hate the Wives here. After all, they’ve done none of the sweating, bleeding, or suffering. They’ve sacrificed nothing for this moment—only swooped in to capture the prize that makes it all worth it. Yes, they are part of the evil system that made this all possible. Yes, they are cruel and capricious and oppressive. Yes, they are preying on those weaker than they. But—and hear me out here—they are victims too in a way. Like the Handmaids, they endure the ceremony designed by men. They live within the tight confines of the caste system. They feel fear, loss, and shame.
In the hierarchy, they have greater power. Yet when it comes to childbirth—the great pinnacle of achievement for women in this dictatorship—they are powerless. They can do nothing to make themselves (or their husbands) fertile. For that reason and others, theirs is a hollow existence, and all they can do is watch and yearn and covet. Say what you will, but that’s a lousy place to be.
What’s Yours Is Mine
Unlike the women of Gilead, I never needed to give birth. I likely never will. I am, however, a mother of two young boys my husband and I adopted from the foster care system. I didn’t go through the months of pain and suffering it took to bring them into being. The State gave them to me.
It must be acknowledged that my sons’ birth mother made poor choices. She didn’t see to their welfare and, at times, even put them in danger. Despite multiple opportunities to change, she did not. She has yet to do so. And yet…
Once the adoption was finalized, we applied for updated birth certificates, ones that show their new names. When they arrived, our lawyer advised me to check over everything and make sure all the spellings were correct and the dates accurate. That’s when I saw something that left me dumbfounded. In the section labeled “mother,” my name was written. My birthdate. My address at the time of the delivery. My state of birth.
All evidence of their biological mother is gone.
Her name and information is buried in court records and electronic details, but as far as this piece of legally binding paperwork is concerned, she’s a ghost.
At each stage of the adoption process, I never lost sight of her. I always reminded myself that my good days—ones where the legal system did its job and brought the kids one step closer to being ours forever—were likely her worst.
I didn’t “steal” her children as Naomi and the Wives did, but some tiny part of me understands their joy. I have children to love and care for, to raise and celebrate. Their base hits in little league are mine. Their science fair wins and good report cards. I’m the one they run to now saying “Mama!” with their little arms outstretched. And while I relish every moment of it, a piece of me knows it came with a price.
So no, I can’t fully hate the Wives though they are petty, heartless creatures. In some ways, I even pity them. Their children and mine became ours as a result of a broken world, one filled with hate, heartache, and sin. But thankfully, a better day is coming—not in the form of a bloody coup, but in the One, the pioneer of our salvation who drank the cup of suffering and died to bring many adopted sons and daughters to glory.