Source: Flickr by Victoria Pickering

Whilst ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is a dystopian novel/ TV series, how accurate are the themes of perceptions/ expectations of modern-day motherhood?

A succession of waves of feminism has brought women much-needed rights and autonomy. However, it is true that not all of society has fully embraced this hard-won autonomy; those old ideas about a woman’s role still exist.

A comparison between Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale and a study on “Gender and Maternal identities”, shows how identities are defined. Although Atwood’s account is purely fictional, it is still useful for examining the different identities. That of the women able to become mothers and then of those who are unable to bring children into this world.

Atwoood’s idea of the “Unwoman”

In The Handmaid’s tale, many references are made to the term “unwoman”. This term is used to describe the women who were unable to have children before surrogacy was put into place for those women. It is used to suggest that childless women were in some way not feminine. Atwood suggests that this dystopian society (which has become very male-centered) has a negative view of the identity of women who cannot be mothers.

How do women see their identities as mothers in our modern patriarchal society?

In “Gender and Maternal identities” (Holloway, W, 2020), Holloway questions whether girls are socially conditioned for motherhood. Through examining case studies of 1st-time mothers, she demonstrates how family ties can influence a woman’s motherly identity. However, culture can also play a big part in defining a woman’s maternal role.

Western society and gender equality

Atwood and Holloway both highlight women’s equality, when exploring maternal identity. However, they approach it in different ways.

Atwood flashes back in her book, to a time when feminist activism was the thing, suggesting that women could “take back the night”. Women were depicted as having their own autonomy and a clearly defined identity. Whilst Atwood shows how the character of Offred is shocked by this revelation. It also highlighted the dystopian backward trend, of recreating a fixed motherly role. This in turn showed – that women had been taken back to a time when they were unable to decide for themselves if they wanted to be mothers. Progress had been lost and women had been forced to reassess their identity as a mother and as a woman.

Holloway, however, is looking at the reality of motherhood in contemporary times. She recognises through her studies that class has a big bearing on gender equality. Also that the neoliberal global society has affected the definition of parenting roles too. Cultures have mixed, creating new ideas around parenthood, thus creating new identities around motherhood. Globalised society has put distance between families, and this possibly influences how much tradition gets passed down.

Do women create their own maternal identities nowadays?

Or is it still the case that women are socially conditioned into motherhood from a young age?

As someone who hasn’t had family around, when I was raising my children, I believe that I have defined my own identity as a mother. However, I am sure that societal expectations around motherhood (which have been passed down from generation to generation), have still had some influence on my maternal identity.

Final thoughts on Maternal Identities

I am sure that different people will have totally different ideas about maternal identities. Different family setups create their own definitions of the role of mothers. Society is ever-changing and it is important to recognise and embrace this progress in human development.

Perhaps maternal identity is whatever each individual chooses it to be!

Thankfully we don’t have Atwood’s dystopian times here in western society, and women do still have their own autonomy. Because it truly wouldn’t be good if women were to lose all that they have gained, and in turn lose a sense of who they are. We must however recognise that there are many cultures, across the globe, who do have fixed ideas on the identity of women and their motherhood roles. It can only be hoped that progress will see those women gain a sense of autonomy; rather than Western women seeing their rights eroded.

Published by Karen Burns

A 50-year-old mother of 3. Graduated from Warwick University in 2021 (with a degree in Social Studies). I have chronic illness, which affects my mobility. However, I love writing and I am a prolific writer of poetry as well.

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