‘The Handmaid’s Tale’: What Happens to Handmaids When They Get Old?

Throughout The Handmaid’s Tale‘s four seasons, viewers have seen what happens when a Handmaid gets pregnant, after they have a baby, and what happens if they break Gilead laws. But what happens to older Handmaids has yet to be seen. This is because Gilead has only existed for seven years in the Hulu series. Most of the Handmaids are in their first or second postings when the show starts. It doesn’t seem likely The Handmaid’s Tale will make it far enough to show what an older Handmaid’s life looks like, but Margaret Atwood’s novels provide information about what happens to successful Handmaids.

Brianna (Bahia Watson) and June (Elisabeth Moss) in 'The Handmaid's Tale' Season 3. Five women sit in school desk chairs in an old gymnasium. They wear red Handmaid dresses and white bonnets.
Brianna (Bahia Watson) and June (Elisabeth Moss) in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Season 3 | Sophie Giraud/Hulu

What happens to the Handmaids after they give birth in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’?

In The Handmaid’s Tale, June is part of the first generation of Handmaids. According to the books, each Handmaid is assigned three postings, spending two years at each of them. A Wife and Commander can decide to send a Handmaid away at any time. But Gilead’s practices call for a Handmaid to stay at their posting until the baby is weened at the very least. In season 2, Serena Joy told June she would leave the house once Nichole was born, which is not common but still her prerogative.

While a Handmaid is pregnant, she receives the utmost protection and attention. Aunts track the progress of the pregnancy, work to maintain the Handmaid’s health, and are present during childbirth. Other Handmaids participate in the child-birthing ceremony as well, as do the Wives. If the baby is born healthy, the Handmaid is rewarded with safety and security. But that’s all dependent on her behavior and the baby’s continued health.

Once the baby is weened (or once the Wife and Commander decide they want the Handmaid out), they Handmaid is sent to a new posting. Handmaids are not allowed to see their children once they’ve left their posting.

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What happens after being a successful Handmaid?

June’s first posting was not shown in The Handmaid’s Tale series. Season 1 kicks off with June at the Waterfords’ household, her second posting. And her pregnancy with Nichole marks her first pregnancy in Gilead, second in her lifetime. Janine is the first Handmaid to give birth successfully in the series. And she’s treated with ice cream afterwards and is allowed to stay in the Putnam’s home until Angela/Charlotte is weened.

In The Handmaid’s Tale novel, it’s said that if a Handmaid is obedient and bears children at her various postings, she basically gets to retire. Handmaids are selected from a group of women whom Gilead deemed to be “fallen women.” A fertile fallen woman can become a Handmaid as a way to absolve her sins, under Gilead’s structure.

Giving birth to healthy children guarantees they won’t be sent to the colonies when their work is done. However, Gilead won’t hesitate to kill or otherwise punish a Handmaid for breaking the law. Janine and Emily were still able to carry children when sent to the colonies in season 2. But they were brought back to their old district after Ofglen’s attack on the Rachel and Leah Center killed 31 Handmaids and a group of Commanders.

Given that a Handmaid gives birth to healthy children and doesn’t get into trouble, she will be taken care of by Gilead. Atwood’s book doesn’t explicitly describe what that retirement looks like. But it’s highly doubtful the former Handmaids would be given any real freedom.

Janine (Madeline Brewer), Brianna (Bahia Watson), Ofmatthew (Ashleigh LaThrop), Alma (Nina Kiri), and June (Elisabeth Moss) in 'The Handmaid's Tale' Season 3. A group of about 20 women dressed in red Handmaid dresses and white bonnets stand in five lines with their feet together and hands crossed in front of them. They stand in an old school gymnasium.
Janine (Madeline Brewer), Brianna (Bahia Watson), Ofmatthew (Ashleigh LaThrop), Alma (Nina Kiri), and June (Elisabeth Moss) in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Season 3 | Sophie Giraud/Hulu

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What happens if a Handmaid can’t get pregnant in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’?

Handmaids are forgiven for being fallen women if they bear children for Gilead’s elite. But if they don’t bear any children, they’re labeled “unwomen” and sent to the colonies.

In Gilead’s eyes, fallen women who become Handmaids are seen as forgiven by God if they become pregnant and give birth. Failing to get pregnant (even though it’s likely their Commander’s fault) means God didn’t deem her worthy of redemption. So she’s punished. Suffice it to say the stakes are pretty high.

The Handmaid’s Tale has shown the main characters at various postings. But it hasn’t shown a Handmaid that can go into retirement. The closest thing to that was in season 4, when Aunt Lydia allowed Janine to stay and work at the Red Center rather than be assigned to another Commander’s household.

Atwood’s The Testaments is being developed into a spin-off series by The Handmaid’s Tale show creators. And that story is based in Gilead 15 years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale. This could open up the possibility of seeing a retired Handmaid.