The Owulum family and their experiences are dramatically influenced by the forces of the colonialist world in which they live. Emecheta portrays colonialism ambiguously in The Joys of Motherhood. It forces native populations to adopt and adhere to systems and beliefs foreign to their own. Capitalism, Christianity, and European notions of education and conduct all effectively alter and threaten traditional Nigerian culture. The effects eventually touch all levels of society, eroding tradition and trickling down to harm both families and individuals. Without the changes colonialism and its practitioners ushered in, Nnu Ego’s joy as a mother and the cohesive and interdependent family she long desired could have remained intact and uncompromised. The tragedy of Nnu Ego’s story is that she cannot recognize and embrace change—and that these changes themselves, embraced or not, are not entirely positive forces.
In Nnu Ego’s traditional vision of the family, individual concerns are secondary to the livelihood of the group. Several times in the novel, Emecheta portrays the family as a small corporation, each member contributing to the success and well-being of the “company” as a whole. The younger generation, however, views the family arrangement quite differently. Oshia’s love of learning and desire for an education take him the farthest from the family fold. He makes a severe break with tradition when he accepts a scholarship to study in the United States, where he eventually marries a white woman. Adim, in his own right, retaliates against the strict hierarchies implicit in the family structure. Traditionally, as the second son, his own interests and desires are squelched so that the eldest and the family as a whole can be supported and lifted up. Adim similarly throws off the mantle of tradition and pursues a path much like Oshia’s. The change appears just as dramatically in one of Nnu Ego’s daughters, Kehinde, who desires to break with traditional and societal taboos. Rather than accepting the course that would be best for her family, she asserts her right to happiness and her right to select a mate of her own choosing.
In the rapidly changing world of Lagos, traditional Ibo culture struggles to continue, and Nnu Ego must find a new and different form of pleasure in her honored status as a mother. Her children’s education and achievements are now becoming the benchmarks of good parenting rather than threats to the repressive traditions that required the next generation to forgo their own goals in service to and respect for the family. The traditions and rituals of the past provide balance, order, and security in a changing world, but those unwilling or unable to compromise or to accept change end up broken and alone. Nnaife is literally punished, with imprisonment, when he cannot accept his daughter marrying into a Yoruba family. Nnu Ego’s punishment is more psychological and emotional, culminating with her dying alone at the side of a road.
In The Joys of Motherhood, motherhood is the source of not only Nnu Ego’s greatest joys but also her greatest defeats. As a girl, she is taught that her sole functions are to bear and raise children. Her initial struggle to conceive and her utter self-defeat when she is unable to exemplify how strongly she believes in this uniquely female destiny that her culture has prescribed. The idea of motherhood informs her fantasies and her dreams. Yet when Nnu Ego actually becomes a mother and struggles to raise her growing family, her idealism begins to change. Nnu Ego ultimately regrets having so many children and investing so much of her life in them since they seem to have little concern for her well-being. She forces herself to accept a vision of motherhood that has been radically modified from the ideas she once cherished. Instead of an honored and revered figure, Nnu Ego becomes a sacrificial lamb, one who gave to her family selflessly while receiving little, if not nothing, in return.
Nnu Ego and Nnaife, who embody the stereotypical roles of Ibo men and women, represent the traditional thinking of their society and their generation. Yet their world is in flux. The old, formerly unquestioned attitudes have begun to change. Boys do not necessarily serve as their family’s main support. Girls gain respect and power for their skills and education, not just an increased bride price. For the older generation, these changes in perception are often startling and unsettling, as once-solid gender definitions become more fluid. Nnu Ego reacts unfavorably to the fact that her husband is employed washing the personal garments of a woman. She feels such subservience “[robs] him of his manhood.” At the same time, Nnu Ego herself is not untouched by the transformation and blurring of gender roles. While her identity is almost entirely dependent on her status as a mother, she occasionally assumes the traditionally male role of provider and breadwinner to support her family.
Characters in The Joys of Motherhood often have difficulty understanding one another. These communication barriers suggest a world of division and separation, where English, Hausa, Yoruba, Ibo, and the various other native dialects of Nigeria intersect. Mrs. Meers and Nnaife are deeply connected in their relationship as employer and employee, yet language separates them as much as race and class do—they cannot even pronounce each other’s names correctly. When soldiers enter the Yaba compound to evict Nnu Ego and Oshia, the sharp, foreign words they shout at her are as frightening and daunting as the yelps of the snarling dogs. Language divides and alienates individuals as well as families, communities, and the nation as a whole. In the novel, language barriers and lapses in communication suggest a deeper problem infecting Nigerian society: they indicate an inability to connect to and understand the outside world. Even when characters speak the same language, they still fail to fully comprehend one another’s actions and intentions. For example, Nnu Ego has no idea that Oshia does not plan to stop his schooling so he can return to the family and support them.
Nnu Ego’s vision of the world, as well as her literal vision, frequently falter as she loses her illusions in the face of new realities. References to imperfect or unreliable sight abound, particularly in the first half of the novel, when Nnu Ego is most mired in her illusions. When Nnu Ego gets married, her vision of the world is distorted by her unrealistic ideas about motherhood and her duty as a woman. During Nnu Ego’s desperate suicide attempt, Emecheta calls attention to her distorted vision. When Nnu Ego first appears, she is stumbling about, blind with grief, “her eyes unfocused and glazed, looking into vacancy.” Later, Emecheta equates Nnu Ego with the blind Hausa beggar whom she nearly knocks over in her hasty retreat from the site of Ngozi’s death. She runs straight into the man “as if she too was without the use of her eyes.” Nnu Ego’s impaired vision suggests her lack of insight. By the end of the novel, realization settles on her, and, for better or worse, Nnu Ego is finally able to see her life for what it is.
The pervasive image of the child in The Joys of Motherhood represents the destiny and supposed common goal of Ibo women. Children represent a complement to a woman’s identity, and her life is viewed as incomplete or unjustified unless she has had children. The child is consistently and idealistically portrayed as an image of completion and female self-fulfillment. These abstract notions of motherhood and its attendant joys inform Nnu Ego’s early years. Her dreams are haunted by visions, including images of babies in peril or children being taken away by her chi. Nnu Ego conjures fantasies of kidnapping Amatokwu’s son and running off to raise the child alone in bliss. As the novel progresses, however, the iconic significance of the child changes. Children are still viewed as a delight, but they are also a source of agony and deep emotional pain. When Nnu Ego slowly strips away her illusions about motherhood and her unrealized expectations, she is left with the unadorned reality of her life as it is, not as she wants it to be.
Palm wine suggests Nnaife’s refusal to confront reality and his failure to be an active force in shaping and guiding his family. On one level, palm wine represents the negative influences and social ills of life in the city. It also stands for a shirking of male responsibility, and drunkenness becomes emblematic of Nnaife’s detachment as a father. He prefers intoxication to the living reality of what his family has become. At one point, about to drink a glass of palm wine, Nnaife states that the wine in the glass is the only truth he knows. His drinking only masks other problems, and his alcohol abuse plays a key role in sealing his fate during his trial for attempted murder.
In addition to the account of Nnu Ego’s actual suicide attempt, references to Carter Bridge appear in the novel both explicitly and teasingly in Nnu Ego’s random thoughts and memories of the past. The bridge serves as an ambiguous or double symbol, standing for various impressions and emotional states at the same time. On the one hand, Nnu Ego sees it as salvation, a gateway to freedom. Suicide is the only way she can address the pain of losing her child, but it is also her frantic response to the claustrophobic and predetermined role she finds herself cast in as an Ibo woman. At the same time, the bridge stands as an emblem of shame. Shame lurks in Nnu Ego’s irrational response to the death of Ngozi and in her desire to seek death as a means of accepting her “failure” as a mother. Shame also lies in her desire to sidestep the expectation that she would bear male heirs. For Nnu Ego, the edge of the bridge represents the precarious intersection of failure and freedom, life and death.