The Handmaid’s Tale’s episode Holly offers a refreshing view on childbirth


The Handmaid’s Tale offers a refreshing, empowering look at childbirth. For entertainment, this showed birth celebrated, not dramatized.

Witnessing childbirth should leave you in awe of women. Entertainment has often debased the experience, humiliated the female characters, and shown women as powerless. With The Handmaid’s Tale, we saw an empowering birth within a show about disempowering women.

June finally gives birth in The Handmaid’s Tale episode titled “Holly.” It starts with June alone at the mansion, having just seen Nick carried off by guards. A lone wolf haunts her to highlight her loneliness. (anyone else get some serious little red riding hood vibes?) She scavenges the mansion for supplies and is determined to escape by car but a frozen garage door stalls her long enough to go into labor.

June reacts to this as you would expect. Denial, some desperate anger, but slowly, and with some encouragement from wolfy, you see her gather herself together and find this immense inner confidence and strength. She signals for help, somehow lights a roaring fire, and braces herself.
In flashbacks, we see similar journeys, pre and post-Gilead.

Before the era of Handmaids, we see June discussing her pregnancy with BFF Moira and her mother, Holly. Despite her mother’s encouragement to give birth in a trendy looking birthing center, June is afraid. She lacks any confidence in herself to actively be the driving force in the birth of Hannah. She isn’t comfortable with a birth that doesn’t have doctors and nurses medicating her, treating the birth like a condition that she will passively be led through. Of course, June learns this isn’t how any birth works. She has to take an active role.

Switch to Janine. We remember her very weird, public birth in which all the Handmaids and Aunt Lydia gather around her with chants of “Breathe” and “Push.” There are many horrors in this birthing scene, and the wife playing pretend and copying Janine’s contractions is nearly comical. Yet there is sisterhood and teamwork. Janine doesn’t have an epidural; instead, she has mothers and potential mothers as active participants, helping her through.

Finally, we see June at the mansion. She is in labor, but confident and strong. Her naked, sweaty body is hunched over the sofa, ready. June talks to herself to keep herself going. She knows exactly what to do. She has done it before, she has seen it before, and now that she’s alone there isn’t any fear. Just focus and determination. Birth isn’t just a noun but a verb, and Gilead cannot change the reality that June has the gift of an awesome power its commanders will never know.

It was like how I fantasized my birth going. I’d be strong, alone, squatting over, screaming in triumph! But pre-Handmaid’s Tale, there weren’t many positive and inspiring “I want that to be me” examples out there when it came to viewing childbirth. Sure, some women see Katherine Heigl in Knocked Up and think, “that will be me,” but is that what you want to be? Also, why watch someone give birth under the delusion it will be a simple task — you scream, you push, done. Spartan women were considered warriors for giving birth after all! Where is my glorious, bloody and raw birth? “Holly” was a beautiful break from the terrible birth scenes we have come to accept in entertainment.

During my pregnancy, I was fortunate enough for my bestie to also be a newly minted obstetrician (who are more and more being trained by midwives). Throughout my pregnancy, I flooded her with questions, mostly about birth itself. In one particularly sleepless hormonal moment, I hatched a campy scheme to go with her to work disguised as a nurse to see childbirth. I was temporarily impeded enough to believe it would work. She gently declined and said, “I know it’s scary that your birth will be the first one you see.”

This could be partly why the depictions of childbirth are so warped. How many writers and actors have witnessed childbirth themselves? Not to say this is a full-on requirement, but it definitely changes one’s perspective. Up until now, I’d never watched a birth scene where the mother was actively birthing her child. Rather birth was some event that was happening to her, that was overwhelming her, that took over her.

Often birth is included in a show or film due to necessity, for comedic effect, to emphasize an important character, or to offer an exciting introduction or dramatic season finale. It is always a relief when we are spared the over-the-top wailings and cliches of birth, particularly for those of us in our childbearing years. It’s embarrassing to watch. Is that what you really think of us?

I remember instructing those few I asked to be part of my birth,”Remember, I am a warrior goddess!” My husband, my sister, and the only mean maternity nurse in the world (tough love) were by my side. My OB bestie was off delivering other babies.

Having a high-risk pregnancy, I frequented the maternity ward once a week for the last two months of my pregnancy. Not only was every nurse kind and calm, but the floor was always dead silent. No screaming, no running, no panicked doctors and fathers to be.

I don’t know if “pain” is the proper word to describe the feeling that every atom in your body is simultaneously exploding. Whatever it was, it was not something being done to me but something I was doing. I felt stronger than I ever felt, I was proud to have witnesses, and I felt empowered the whole way through. I wish that everyone’s experience could be as wonderful. And I wish it could be better explored with television and film.

Related Story: The problem with The Handmaid’s Tale’s Serena Joy

Thank you to The Handmaid’s Tale for decided to break from the misery and constant misogyny of Gilead, and to make this childbirth moment one of power and blessings. It was a gift to celebrate birth as empowerment.