Nnu Ego starts out as an innocent, somewhat naïve girl filled with hope and anticipation of the joys and rewards motherhood will bring her. Unlike her mother, Ona, Nnu Ego is not a radical or antagonistic presence, and she dutifully accepts and fulfills her role as a woman in Ibo society. Her initial quest is for justification and validation. When she cannot conceive with her first husband, Amatokwu, the marriage is dissolved and she is filled with apprehension and shame. When her second marriage, to Nnaife, produces a highly prized son, she realizes the happiness denied her, only to have her joy shattered when Ngozi dies in infancy. The death of the child becomes, by extension, the death of Nnu Ego. She sees no reason to live if she cannot succeed in the single role of bearing and rearing children. Slowly, she comes to new realizations about what is truly important to her, and these epiphanies force her to re-examine her role and function as a woman in Ibo society.
Though she is distraught over the death of Ngozi, Nnu Ego feels guilty relief when, later, a daughter arrives stillborn. She begins to examine her essential worth as a woman. Although she becomes a vital economic force in the community, essentially setting up her own business to help her family survive, she is seen as merely an economic unit, a machine for producing and rearing male heirs. Nnu Ego comes to believe that aspirations of being solely a mother and provider are too limiting and dispiriting. Rather than looking forward to a quiet life where she will be well provided for by her sons and daughters, she is a victim of her times, caught at a critical turning point in West-African social history. Rather than serving the collective unit of the family, her children pursue their own courses and seek to place their own self-fulfillment and individual destinies before their family responsibilities. Nnu Ego’s hope and joy become disillusionment as she dies, alone, at the side of the road, an ambivalent figure with little to show for her years of selflessness and sacrifice.
Nnaife, Nnu Ego’s husband, is the chief male presence in The Joys of Motherhood, the counterpart and mirror reflection of his wife. The two stand on opposite sides of a similar conflict. While Nnu Ego must reconcile her own disillusionment with motherhood, Nnaife faces his own struggles in the wake of evolving tradition and the slow dissolve of their family structure. Nnu Ego calls Nnaife’s masculinity into question from the early days of their marriage. Nnaife is filled with pride at the responsibilities he has as a launderer in the Meers household, a role no Ibo man would have filled in previous generations. Nnaife is forced to compromise in a world where capitalism reigns and where power is in the hands of white colonialists. Still, despite changing with the times, Nnaife retains his traditional notions of his role as father, husband, and man. But in his modern urban context, he is viewed more as a functionary, a mere figurehead of a family that is mostly supported and held together by the efforts of Nnu Ego.
Nnaife is a passive, ineffective figure whose lack of ambition or connections does little to further the livelihood of his family. He allows others to control or intercede for him, all the while believing he is a figure of power, strength, and action. As traditions and times change, they render Nnaife increasingly ineffective in his role as a male authority figure. In the end, he simply playacts at the part of the blustering patriarch rather than truly embodying or living up to the duties he is expected to fulfill. He emerges as an emasculated figure and is unmasked as a poor provider and a drunk, the equivalent of a deadbeat dad. As Nnaife’s traditional male identity grows weaker and more threatened, he descends deeper into alcoholism and an aloof, willful detachment, both of which serve as safeguards and antidotes to reality. In a final act of desperation, he threatens to kill his own daughter and her new father-in-law. In his skewed vision of the world, individual lives and the happiness of his daughter are secondary to more abstract notions of family reputation, honor, and tradition. His subsequent imprisonment serves as symbolic punishment for a man who has grown so out of step with the world around him.
Oshia, Nnu Ego’s oldest surviving son, is an emblem of the new order, the next generation that would alter the nature of modern Nigerian society. However, he is not a radical figure, out to break entirely with traditional modes or to topple the institution of the family. Through most of his formative years, he is the ideal and dutiful son, fulfilling the high hopes Nnu Ego cherishes of the honor and comfort he will eventually bestow on her. Although he and his brother, Adim, obediently tend the family stall in the marketplace, they later lament the time they were forced to sacrifice from pursuing their studies. Caught between two worlds, Oshia must live up to the expectations his parents place on him while satisfying his own desire to better himself through education.
Oshia’s ambition and intelligence eventually overpower his obligations to the traditional order. He represents a general shift in Nigerian society as new influences and new options became available to Ibos such as Nnaife. Oshia chooses his own individual destiny over his responsibilities to the collective, which makes him a failure and a disappointment to his parents. Ironically, while Oshia works as a research scientist and wins a scholarship to study in the United States, his academic achievements do not make up for his failure to remain in Lagos to support his family. Still, Oshia never completely turns his back on his origins. He honors his culture and pays homage to the sacrifices his mother made by funding an elaborate funeral service for her.