Belying a title that sounds like the sequel to What to Expect When You’re Expecting, Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood is hardly an elegy to the miraculous nature of the mother-child relationship. Instead, it chronicles how the shifting sociopolitical climate of colonial Nigeria during the World War II Era leaves those brought up in the traditional way of life struggling to cope with their new reality. In classical African society, family and fertility are central to a woman’s identity and status in society; sons, in particular, are expected to provide for their aging parents. However, the consequences of modernization upend this tenet.
Nnu Ego is the daughter of a fierce Ibo village chief and his favorite mistress. Tribal belief maintains that every individual is born with a chi, a personal god that is the spirit of a deceased person, who influences his or her destiny. Nnu Ego’s chi is that of a slave woman who was buried alive against her will in the grave of her father’s eldest wife per tribal stipulation. When Nnu Ego comes of age, her father arranges for her to be married to a farmer from a prestigious family in a nearby village. Though Nnu Ego is happy with her husband and determined to be an ideal wife, she is unable to get pregnant, despite prayers and sacrifices to her vindictive chi. Upon the advice of his family, her husband marries a second wife who gives him a son. Initially, Nnu Ego is permitted to stay on and even assumes some child-rearing responsibilities for her co-wife’s baby, but is later sent back to her father’s compound in disgrace. Her father finds her a new husband, a man who works in Lagos—an urbanized city with a heavy British presence.
Thus, Nnu Ego is relocated to Lagos where she marries Nnaife, who works as a launderer for a wealthy white scientist and his wife. Even though her husband succeeds in impregnating her nine times, resulting in seven surviving births, Nnu Ego takes an immediate dislike to him. “She was used to tall, wiry farmers, with rough, blackened hands from farming, long, lean legs and very dark skin. This one was short, the flesh of his upper arm danced as he moved about […]” She resents Nnaife for his subservience to his white masters and dislikes that she is dependent on him for money. She also has no relatives nearby to help with domestic duties. The death of Nnaife’s older brother means that Nnaife inherits responsibility for his wives, one of whom he takes to Lagos to live with Nnu Ego and her children. This wife, Adako, gives birth to two children, but they are daughters.
When World War II breaks out, Nnaife’s employer returns to Europe to fight in the war. Nnaife, himself, is eventually conscripted into the army and sent away from his family, despite having no knowledge of why the war is being fought. Unfortunately, his departure coincides with Nnu Ego’s two older sons turning the age at which it is necessary for them to begin attending school. Nnu Ego trades small goods in a marketplace stall and manages to scrape together money for food and her sons’ school fees, while also receiving sporadic payments from the government for Nnaife’s army service. Adako abandons the family, feeling inadequate because she has not given birth to a son. She vows to become a “public woman”, but instead becomes a successful merchant in the Lagos marketplace.
Nnaife survives the war and is reunited with his family, receiving payments and a promotion to a covetable workshop job, thus bringing some stability to the family. However, this constancy is short-lived as Oshia, Nnu Ego’s eldest son, announces his intention to attend college and expects his parents to supply the funds for him to do so. At this point, Nnu Ego is forced to confront the misalignment of her expectations for her family. Up until now, she has believed that education is crucial for her children to be able to secure better jobs and contribute financially to their family. Yet the higher the degree of education her son pursues, the greater the expense burden for his parents, while he is still not earning money on their behalf. By contrast, Adaku, who “[Nnaife] dismissed […] as an evil woman […]”, earns enough money on her own to send her daughters to a convent school.
In addition to her sons, Nnu Ego’s two older daughters—four of her seven children are girls—are causing problems of a different nature. While Taiwo agrees to an arranged marriage to an educated clerk, her twin sister Kehinde falls in love with a boy from the Yoruba tribe, a traditional rival of the Ibos. Nnaife flies into a rage and seeks vengeance on the family, but is arrested by the police and tried for attempted murder. As Nnu Ego testifies on behalf of her husband, trying to explain what was at stake in her family, the prosecutor responds, ‘“But the trouble is that we are now in the twentieth century and in Lagos.’”
These words encapsulate the unbearable crux of Nnu Ego’s situation. From the time she was a child, she was raised to believe that if she made sacrifices for the sake of her people, they would sacrifice in turn for her. However, the modern values pervading society emphasize the will and autonomy of the individual. In this context, her husband is depicted during his trial as a greedy alcoholic whose violent actions are only meant to protect his daughter’s bride price, while depriving her of the right to marry a spouse of her own choosing. Her sons emigrate to the United States and Canada, but neglect to keep in-touch with her. “[…] when they predicted that soon her son would be back and driving her about in a big car, she knew that they had all missed the point. She was not destined to be such a mother.” After her death, Nnu Ego never grants a child to anyone who prays to her requesting fertility. It is unclear whether she is channeling the punitive nature of her own chi or trying to protect naïve young women from stumbling down the same path she did.