Anyways, they're doing it for us all, said Cora, or so they say. If I hadn't of got my tubes tied, it could have been me, say I was ten years younger. It's not that bad. It's not what you'd call hard work. (1.20)
Cora's comment reveals a problem built into this new society, which is the lack of respect between Marthas and Handmaids, and the idea that the Handmaids have it easy. But the pressure to have a child by men the Handmaids don't love, only to be torn apart from that child after it's born, certainly seems like hard work, both emotionally and mentally.
The Commander's Wife directs, pointing with her stick. Many of the Wives have such gardens, it's something for them to order and maintain and care for.
I once had a garden. I can remember the smell of the turned earth, the plump shapes of bulbs held in the hands, fullness, the dry rustle of seeds through the fingers. (3.2-3)
The garden works as a metaphor and substitute here for childrearing. The narrator "once had a garden," just as she once had a child. She was able to care for both of them, and both of them represented her "fullness" and maternal nature. But while the narrator cared for her own garden—and by extension, her child—the Commander's Wife does not. She "directs" someone else to take care of it, just as she directs the Handmaid to produce a child for her.
One of them is vastly pregnant [...] There is a shifting in the room, a murmur, an escape of breath; despite ourselves we turn our heads, blatantly, to see better; our fingers itch to touch her. She's a magic presence to us, an object of envy and desire, we covet her. She's a flag on a hilltop, showing us what can still be done: we too can be saved. (5.18)
Imagine a world in which pregnancy has become so rare and celebrated that a woman who accomplishes it becomes a "magic presence." For the Handmaids in particular, this pregnant woman represents not only the future of the human race, but the idea that "[they] too can be saved." Becoming pregnant is the one thing they can do to rescue themselves from death.
Sterile. There is no such thing as a sterile man anymore, not officially. There are only women who are fruitful and women who are barren, that's the law.
"Lots of women do it," he goes on. "You want a baby, don't you?"
"Yes," I say. It's true, and I don't ask why, because I know. Give me children, or else I die. There's more than one meaning to it. (11.18-20)
Aside from the whole problem of putting all the blame for sterility on women, there's an even more troubling idea here. "Give me children, or else I die" doesn't just mean the childless mother will suffer from grief and anguish. Death is literal here: if a Handmaid doesn't get pregnant and provide the Republic with at least one child, she's a goner.
It's a Saturday morning in September. I'm wearing my shining name. The little girl who is now dead sits in the back seat, with her two best dolls, her stuffed rabbit, mangy with age and love. I know all the details. They are sentimental details but I can't help that. I can't think about the rabbit too much though, I can't start to cry, here on the Chinese rug. (14.38)
Here the narrator displaces her grief about her daughter onto the "stuffed rabbit, mangy with age and love." Just the thought of the rabbit, a stand-in for her daughter, is enough to choke her up.
Aunt Elizabeth, holding the baby, looks up at us and smiles. We smile too, we are one smile, tears run down our cheeks, we are so happy.
Our happiness is part memory. What I remember is Luke, with me in the hospital, standing beside my head, holding my hand, in the green gown and white mask they gave him. Oh, he said, oh Jesus, breath coming out in wonder. (21.24-25)
Here the narrator celebrates something it seems like she'll never have again. Even though she and the other women "are so happy," that happiness doesn't have the "breath coming out in wonder" that Luke had when they made a baby together, out of love. As magical as this new life is, no more babies are being created out of loving unions.
You were a wanted child, God knows, she would say at other moments. [...] She would say this a little regretfully, as though I hadn't turned out entirely as she'd expected. No mother is ever, completely, a child's idea of what a mother should be, and I suppose it works the other way around as well. (28.102)
While everyone else in the book is focused on producing more children, here the narrator thinks back to what it was like to be a child herself. She imagines what it would have been like to continue growing as a mother, a future she'll never know.
She'd like me pregnant though, over and done with and out of the way, no more humiliating sweaty tangles, no more flesh triangles under her starry canopy of silver flowers. (31.46)
A successful pregnancy for a Handmaid means a release, not just for her but for the household she serves. In a moment of businesslike empathy, the narrator understands that Serena Joy would be relieved if she got pregnant and they could stop having Ceremonies. But these "tangles" are "humiliating" and "sweaty" for the narrator, too.
But she exists, in her white dress. She grows and lives. Isn't that a good thing? A blessing? (35.36)
The narrator wonders here whether she's better off knowing that her daughter is still alive. On the one hand, she's fed and clothed and won't end up like the narrator. Yet she may as well be dead as far as she is concerned. The girl lives, but she's not her daughter anymore.
I put his hand on my belly. It's happened, I say. I feel it has. A couple of weeks and I'll be certain.
This I know is wishful thinking.
He'll love you to death, he says. So will she.
But it's yours, I say. It will be yours, really. I want it to be. (41.29-32)
So is this pregnancy "certain" or "wishful thinking"? Is the narrator really pregnant, or does she just want to be? These questions never get answered, and even if the baby is Nick's, he wouldn't get to be the father any more than she can be the mother.