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.