The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta (1979) is about Nigerian tradition versus a modern and Western lifestyle, but it’s also about a woman coming to terms with her role as woman and a mother. I found myself viewing the main character, Nnu Ego, with conflicting emotions throughout the novel.
From a modern, feminist perspective, Nnu Ego appears to be a repressed woman, living according to male-dominated traditions in an increasingly modern world much to her detriment. Lagos, Nigeria in the 1930s and 1940s was becoming increasingly modern, and had Nnu Ego abandoned some of her traditions, her life may have been a lot easier. But on the other hand, Nnu Ego is an impressive personality. Despite the social pressures and customs that shock me and seem to repress her, she was proud to follow tradition and she resisted being “modernized.” She was dedicated to her husband, who she did not like from the first, and stood up for him despite modern society’s ways. And as a mother, she did all she could.
Being a mother, and one who reads parenting books occasionally, and so forth, I realized reading this book just how impossible and unfair it would be for anyone to judge another mother: how can anyone say what makes a good mother or not? Although her children lacked tender loving care because she was so busy trying to keep them fed amidst the poverty of their little home, Nnu Ego, for example, tied up her entire existence in her children. She loved them, she loved being a mother.
From the surface, I didn’t see much “joy in motherhood” in The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta. Nnu Ego’s story was rather heartbreaking. The traditions of her rural tribe in Nigeria were foreign to me. Things like burying a servant in the grave with her deceased mistress, the brother inheriting his dead brother’s wives as his own, and the simple fact that her identity from the start of her life was supposed to be on her children, I felt uncomfortable. Women and girls were nothing until they produced a bride-price for her father and then had children (preferably a boy) to carry on her husband’s name.
Although Nnu Ego strove to uphold the traditional Nigerian way of life, Nnu Ego’s children eventually branched away into a modern world. They had no intention of caring for the parents in their old age, and Nnu Ego’s story ends with her alone.
Such solitude broke my heart. It made me think of women today who stay home with their children and yet lose their minds. I know it happens, and I can relate. Although I love being a stay-at-home mom to my preschooler, I need interaction with adults in some way. I need to have friends, and I need to talk about something other children at some point. I haven’t lost my mind yet, but the possibility is always there.
Nonetheless, despite the tragedies of Nnu Ego’s life I also think that looking deeper into Nnu Ego’s story there is some satisfaction and joy for her. She does get to see her children growing up and succeeding in ways she couldn’t have imagined. She brags to her friends with pride about her son in “Emelika.” In some respects, her brags are empty: she does not really feel satisfied with her children since they have departed from tradition and fail to respect her as she dreams they would. But when I think of Nnu Ego, I do think she was successful mother. In the midst of an environment where she had to hurdle two strong ways of life, she was able to feed her children alone, raise them to be independent and intelligent, and to love them. The “joy of motherhood” is her ability to survive even when she doesn’t think she can. She is stronger than she had ever realized.
For me, the most tender scene was toward the end. After seven pregnancies (two sets of twins in the mix), Nnu Ego wondered if she had wanted the last child, knowing the difficulties that would come. She realized that yes, even then she had looked forward to becoming a mother yet again. In the midst of her small and large frustrations, Nnu Ego still found a small measure of “joy” in her calling as mother, despite the seemingly crushing weight of traditions that subjugate women.
To me, as a woman and as a mother, she is a woman to emulate and revere for her strength. I hope I, too, can enjoy my calling as a mother even in the midst of my small frustrations, especially since my society treats me comparatively well.
This is the first novel and the first book I’ve finished for my African Autumn, and if this and the other books I’ve begun is a good indication, I’m going to have an enjoyable few months reading these African classics. The problem may be: where do I stop? A new world of literature is opening up to me.