Barbara Kingsolver explores the themes of motherhood and relationships of children to parents in this and other stories in her collection Homeland, and Other Stories (1989). In “Islands on the Moon,” one senses Annemarie’s ambivalence about her own status as a mother. Although she undoubtedly loves her son with all of her heart and wants another child to cuddle now that he dodges her kisses, she envies Kay Kay and her lover their freedom, happiness, and courage. “Their relationship is a sleek little boat of their own construction, untethered in either direction by the knotted ropes of motherhood, free to sail the open seas.”
More knotted ropes appear later when Annemarie brakes to allow three women to cross a road. They appear to be mother, daughter, and granddaughter, and their identical braids remind Annemarie again of braided rope. To the protagonist, motherhood is difficult and complicated. She worries about her son and recognizes that she is a worry to her own mother. Motherhood is also strong, however, like a strong, knotted tether, sometimes even stronger than natural laws.
Another favorite theme of Kingsolver’s is the strong, unattached woman. Kingsolver’s best women never need a man, although they are desirable to men and like them well enough. Annemarie has married the same shiftless man twice but has spent most of her adult life independent of him and is unattached at the time of the story.
At the other end of the spectrum are Kay Kay and her lover. They have flouted convention and spurned parenthood for an untethered existence and are described as free, courageous, and happy. The unconventional lifestyle and the character who stands out in a crowd, as Magda certainly does, are common Kingsolver themes.