Published by Heinemann in 1979 and set in colonial Nigeria, Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood is a satirical look at the supposed thrills of motherhood. Her focus is an Ibo woman, Nnu Ego who through endless pregnancies, toil and degradation and a Nigeria in transition, struggles with a motherhood role defined for her by tradition, patriarchy and superstition.
Nnu Ego’s story begins in a village in western Iboland where she’s the daughter of an influential chief and is expected to one day have a man and home of her own. But her first marriage – into a respectable family – yields no children, yet the husband must continue his family line through the birth of sons. Nnu Ego’s co-wife yields the desired sons and when she’s caught trying to ‘mother’ one of them, she is returned to her father’s village in disgrace.
Her father then arranges a marriage for her with a man in the city of Lagos whom she has never met but comes from a decent family in the village. She is disappointed by her husband’s “jelly”- like appearance and his unmanly laundryman’s job in a white man’s home, but he is able to make her pregnant – with a boy child, for that matter. It’s proof that her personal god has sanctioned the union and she must endure everything that comes with it. Moreover, her father would never have tolerated her return. When her first child dies unexpectedly and she feels she can’t go on, she is reminded of her obligation to her husband’s immortality – through the procreation of more sons and ensuring a good education for them. Her daughters’ bride prices will go towards their needs. Her reward will be when her male children grow up to look after her.
More children come rapidly after that – seven in all – three boys and two pairs of twin girls. And with each new birth, the family is plunged into more poverty and Nnu Ego must constantly leave her petty trading – often the family’s lifeline – to nurse her children. With the coming of the second World War, her husband’s financial contributions, never consistent or sufficient, become even more unreliable. His forcible recruitment into the war and the shortages caused by the war, plunge the family into further crisis as does the arrival of other co-wives at different intervals. Nnu Ego finds it increasingly difficult to be a traditional wife in the city. But she continues to scrimp and save to feed the family and ensure the education of her male children while putting on “shows of motherhood” to make others jealous. However, she finds herself constantly relying on friends and neighbours who don’t have her ‘assets’ but are freer and better off.
The signs of constantly changing values and expectations are all around, the result of Christianity and increased educational opportunity. Nnu Ego feels trapped by her sense of responsibility and frustrated by the notion that because she’s the mother of three sons, she is supposedly “happy in her poverty, in her nail-biting agony, in her churning stomach, in her rags, in her cramped room”. She longs to break free.
When a co-wife flies the nest, because she won’t be turned into “a mad woman” simply because she has no sons, and is determined to set her own standards rather than live by imposed ones, Nnu Ego can only envy her, her freedom. The co-wife goes on to do well for herself as a single mother of two daughters.
Meanwhile, Nnu Ego’s eldest son, Oshia and one of the older girls, much to the husband’s chagrin, prove completely unpredictable. They won’t act according to expectations. Then a rash act on the husband’s part leaves the family reeling. Nnu Ego’s pent up frustrations gradually rise to the surface and spill over. She can no longer contain them. The result is tragic.
Echemeta’s The Joys of Motherhood is an insightful story into the crippling burden of expectation placed on a woman never strong emotionally, and the price she pays for her own unfulfilled expectations.