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.