Understanding Serena Waterford

Serena Waterford in a tense scene with June in The Handmaid’s Tale

I love The Handmaid’s Tale. Serena Waterford, the Commander’s wife, is a rather controversial character. One sentiment you commonly see within fan groups for this show is “THAT BABY IS NOT YOURS SERENA”. I am an adopted child into a transracial family (a family whose race is clearly not my own). I come from the Romani tribe. While I understand why someone might feel that way about Serena and her wanting the child, I feel I must provide another angle to the story.

*Warning: This does discuss some pretty heavy subjects in regards to child kidnapping and the like, if this material makes you uncomfortable, read on with heavy caution*

Let’s be real — children are kidnapped always around the world and then put up into the foster care and adoption system. This happens a lot in Africa and southeast Asia (particularly around the poorer nations). Time and time again there have been stories of parents who looked more at the personal history of the child that they adopted and found out that the child’s parents (or one of them) was actually still alive and they ended up adopting a kidnapped child.

Human beings are biologically programmed to love human babies! I am not stating this as ‘this must happen in every human on this planet’, I know very well many are adamantly childfree, and that is fine! That is why if we start caring for one child or another for long periods of time, we naturally grow familia like bonds with the child. This is our brain biochemistry (releasing feel good hormones and bonding hormones when we gaze upon the face of an infant, regardless if it is “biologically ours” or not).

Let’s look at Gilead. Gilead’s setting has it so the Commanders and their wives very rarely conceive naturally on their own. This is why they use handmaid’s. Whenever the handmaid gives birth (yes via trauma, but I am focusing solely on the child here), the child is “given away” to the Commander and the wife, effectively becoming their parents. Personally? I see a parallel to the real world with adoptions that happen within moments of a child being born.

Yet, in the real world, we never scream at a woman “YOU ARE NOT THE REAL MOTHER”. We just accept the adopted child into the family unit as the child of the one (or two) adults in the family. Are the children in Gilead born out of tragic circumstances? Absolutely, but so are many children in the real world (where the biological mother has had a bad set of life circumstances such as substance abuse or child born from trauma).

Adoption is often painted as an “all happy” event. We very rarely (as a whole) look at the circumstances regarding the child and their biological parent(s). Society never sees the child as being ripped away from their personal culture, heritage, and family tree.

My point here is this: if you don’t scream “that is not your baby!” at adoptive families, then don’t be screaming “that is not your baby!” at Serena. In this dystopian society, Serena and Fred are the adoptive parents. Serena bonded with this child so easily because of her own strong desires to be a mother (as well as her body’s own natural biochemistry).

Child kidnapping and forcing a mother to give up her baby via coercion happens all the time in the real world, but we do not want to look at it this way because it is too physically painful. It is too physically painful for these people to begin to even grasp at the idea that their adopted child was ripped away from their family’s community, culture, lifestyle, and heritage. Yet we aren’t screaming at these parents “THAT IS NOT YOUR CHILD”.