Art Imitating Life in the Dystopian Delivery (Adoption?) of The Handmaid’s Tale

I read The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985, a few years before my first adopted child was born. Today, as an adoptive mother who dealt with infertility, whose children are all adults, I find it hard not to watch The Handmaid’s Tale through the lens of adoption, taking in the inequity of it all, the oppression of the fertile handmaids, the desire and need for children to keep the dystopian world of the novel functioning, the distorted imbalance of wealth and power. It’s a surreal world–and yet it’s not at all.
I recently watched the first three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale, based on the book by Margaret Atwood and now available as a miniseries on Hulu. The handmaids are fertile women, who may have had their children taken by the corrupt government or may get pregnant (via state-sanctioned rape) by the Commander to whom they are assigned. The commanders’ wives are infertile, and healthy babies have become a rare commodity.
There is a provocative scene in the episode “Birth Day,” where a handmaid goes into labor, surrounded by other handmaids. Meanwhile, the Commanders’ wives surround one wife who stages her own false labor of sorts, in the comfort of her lovely home. The wife sits behind the handmaid as she gives birth. When the baby girl is born, she is placed immediately with the wife, who rests with the baby, surrounded by the other wives.
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This is, of course, fiction, right? Yet it is uncomfortably close in some ways to current adoption practices. In the US, some adoptive parents are present in the delivery room when their to-be-adopted child is born, and they take the baby home from the hospital. We always hope that the birth/first mother has received thorough and appropriate counseling, before and after her decision to place her child. For the record, I am opposed to in-hospital placements. I believe the mother should have adequate time to let medical and emotional issues to settle after her child is born. The amount of time during which a mother can revoke consent to adoption varies widely by state.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, there is no time given to the handmaid. There is no notion of consent. She is subjugated, oppressed, essentially enslaved. Her fertility keeps her viable.
In our current world, economic disparity exists in a daunting way between mothers who place their children for adoption and mothers who become adoptive parents. I wrote about it in my post “International Women’s Day and Economic Equity in Adoption.”
Liz Latty, an adopted person, recently wrote a thoughtful and thought-provoking essay about economic issues and feminism in adoption in The Establishment: “Adoption Is A Feminist Issue, But Not For the Reasons You Think.”
In adoption, the scales are clearly tipped, in terms of money, education, stability, insurance, and more, in favor of adoptive parents. We, after all, are the ones who can provide a “better life.” Indeed, that can be true. “Better,” though, is a relative term. If life is better solely due to annual income, well then, all children should go to our wealthiest citizens. No one would buy that possibility. Right?
In the Birth Day episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, the handmaid is kept in the commander’s house to nurse the baby. She calls the child Charlotte, though the commander’s wife has named her Angela. The handmaid literally bites the wife’s hand, when the wife takes the baby away too soon. The handmaid loses her grip on reality.
In our current world, some adoptions are open, with ongoing communication (letters, Skype, visits, birthdays, emails–many variations). The adoptive parents hold the power here, as there is no legal enforcement for any openness arrangements once the adoption is full and final. The arrangements must operate on everyone’s good faith.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, any babies born are the biological children of a commander and a handmaid, so there is a genetic connection for both, unlike a surrogate mother, for example. The wives (adoptive mothers?) are considered the only mothers, and the handmaids are essentially forgotten–until they get pregnant.
In our current world, the United States ranks 142 in terms of fertility. Of the top 15 countries, 13 are in Africa. (Of course, child morality rates and poverty levels there are high as well.) Adoption policies are in flux. International adoptions have declined dramatically. More adopted persons and birth/first mothers are speaking out. More laws are changing to allow access to adoptees’ original birth certificates. DNA technology is the ultimate game changer. I doubt many people envisioned the role of DNA testing in adoption even a decade ago. At the same time, some states are considering changing the amount of time a birth mother has to revoke her consent to adoption. Those times can vary from
 In The Handmaid’s Tale, the main character (played by Elisabeth Moss) keeps her memories of her daughter Hannah close at hand, as she works to cope with her status in the odd oppressive new world. You’ll have to read the book or watch the whole miniseries to see what happens.
It’s easy to see The Handmaid’s Tale as a story of oppressive patriarchy, of feminism under attack, and of reproductive justice gone harrowingly wrong. It’s easy to dismiss it as fiction. The handmaids’ voices are limited, and their conversations filled with religious phrases like “Praise be,” and “Blessed be the fruit,” and “May the Lord open.” The handmaids are the hope of the future of the wretched state, and the most disdained.
It’s just a disturbing, intriguing science fiction story, right?

6 thoughts on “Art Imitating Life in the Dystopian Delivery (Adoption?) of The Handmaid’s Tale

  1. Amazed that an adoptive mother could see this. As I watch the mini series and when I read the book I felt deeply connected to Offred because I am a first mother. I relinquished solely due to money. I searched and searched, called a huge list of churches to try to get help but couldn’t get anyone to help me. I just needed $800 to get my car fixed so I could get back and forth to work. The adoption agency wouldn’t give me any living expenses until after I signed and admittedly I would not have signed had they given me the money before relinquishment. Three months after my son was born I found a decent paying job and with my bf’s (now husband) income we actually made more than my son’s adoptive parents did that year. If I had just waited and not been in such a panic. If I didn’t have a birth mother counselor that harassed me non stop at the hospital, had I actually been given honest and fair information, my son would be here with us and his siblings having a perfectly happy and normal childhood and never wondering why I gave him away.

  2. Have you heard of the Baby Scoop Era? Many of us are all too familiar with the story of the Handmaids because for us it was a reality. Between the time after WWII and the 80’s millions of women were forced to surrender their newborns to adoption simply because they were single. I was one of them. We were forced by our churches and parents. We were sent away to maternity homes. Some had their clothes taken away, forced to wear what was given to them and their names changed. Some were made to wear fake wedding rings before leaving the house on errands so no one would suspect. Some were strapped to the beds they labored in to keep them from protesting. Some had their faces covered so they wouldn’t accidentally see their own baby.
    I was sent away, my newborn daughter was taken from me in the delivery room. They wrapped her in a blanket and whisked her off because I was not allowed to see her or hold her. I was told not to name her. They wouldn’t even tell me if I had a girl or a boy. They told me my baby would go straight to an adoptive family but they kept her in foster care for 3 months first.
    We were punished for the sin of sex before marriage. After the births we were told to never speak of it again. We were supposed to just forget about our children- we were fertile so we could just have more. It took me 22 years to find my daughter. For those 22 years I had no idea if my child was alive or dead, sick or healthy, being loved and cared for or abused by the family that got her.
    I’m terrified that we’re heading back in that direction. I’m sure adoption industry players would love to see a return to that time- that’s where the money is.

    • Yes, I am very familiar with the BSE. Outrageous and sad beyond words. I wrote this post because I share your terror about the direction we are headed in. Too often, it is the exploitation of vulnerable women, with far-ranging ramifications. I am glad you found your daughter, and I hope the complexities of reunion have not been overwhelming. I hope there has been some healing, and wish the years of suffering had never occurred.

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