Nnu Ego leaves her village to be with her new husband Nnaife in Lagos, after she failed to conceive with the first one. The tragedy of her first child amplifies her need to be a mother, for where she comes from, motherhood is the most honourable badge for a woman to wear. Her prayers are answered when she starts having children, but Lagos is not Ibuza and the more children one has is not quite the blessing she had anticipated.
In this wild beast of a city, having more mouths to feed means sinking deeper into the abyss of poverty. Nnu Ego’s whole life becomes defined by motherhood and wifehood, both incredibly demanding. With the impending war, the peasant life under British rule, and the weight of tradition, Nnu Ego’s circumstances don’t seem to have a chance at improving.
The Joys of Motherhood is both exquisite and devastating. I recently read Second-Class Citizen, also by Emecheta and so far, she and Mariama Bâ are the only authors who have truly impressed me with their clear depiction of motherhood and marriage, and the traditions and difficulties tethered to them. Nnu Ego is the daughter of an important person, yet there are things that are expected of her behaviour as a woman, wife and mother, that influence her decisions to stay and push through deprivation in its many forms.
The story doesn’t focus solely on the struggles of women, but with the state of the country we also get to see how men who tradition upholds as superior, become emasculated by oppression, and end up doing everything to reclaim their manhood at home. From beating their wives to taking more wives even when pockets don’t allow it. This then creates even more unfavourable conditions for women.
The value of girls is also one of the important subjects in the book and shows how considering boys more important than girls pours into different aspects of life, such as education, parenting, work, and marriage. Emecheta also shows us the loss of self, the individual, when becoming a mother and a wife.
This novel is a compelling piece of literary art, not only is it a voice for women in Nnu Ego’s time, but it does so for many Nnu Egos of today.