The Joys of Motherhood

By Buchi Emecheta

5,698 ratings - 4.16* vote

Nnu Ego is a woman who gives all her energy, money and everything she has to raising her children - leaving her little time to make friends.

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Book details

Paperback, 224 pages
February 4th 1994 by Heinemann Educational Books

(first published May 17th 1979)

Original Title
The Joys of Motherhood
043590972X (ISBN13: 9780435909727)
Edition Language

Community Reviews


“Yes, life could at times be so brutal that the only things that made it livable were dreams.”- Buchi Emecheta, The Joys of Motherhood

It's been a while since I've read an African novel that has touched me this much. This is a story that had me transfixed from the start, a tale of heartache, hope, and change. The book’s structure is reminiscent of "Things Fall Apart" in that the early part of the book takes place in an African village that still followed its traditional ways, while the latter half has all the marks of colonialism and the struggle the locals went through to keep up with the changing society.

I've always felt that the most fascinating books about Africa are the ones about transitional periods because they offer so many contrasts. Emecheta uses her novel to look at colonialism, an important backdrop to the story of the female protagonist, Nnu Ego, with a critical eye. It was interesting to see the clashes between the African and the British ways; I couldn't help but imagine what might had been had the colonialists been a little bit more culturally sensitive.

This book is rich with sociological detail. I enjoyed reading about how the migration of Nigerians from the villages into the cities created a complex society. Not only do neighbours speak different languages coming from different parts of the country, the inhabitants have to forget their village ways if they are to remain sane. The realization hits the newcomer (Nnu Ego) to the city that she has to change her ways:

"She had been trying to be traditional in a modern urban setting. It was because she wanted to be a woman of Ibuza in a town like Lagos that she lost her child. This time she was going to play according to the new rules."

And the new rules are the British colonialist rules. I know colonialism did so much damage in Africa but it's mainly books like this that help me understand to understand the extent to which the societies changed. Even simple things like the materials used to build a house, or the type of jobs men took to be considered "men" changed with colonialism, and these often had their repercussions:

“Things have changed a lot. This is the age of the white man. Nowadays every young man wants to cement his mud hut and cover it with corrugated-iron sheets instead of the palm leaves we are used to.”

I'm currently interested in the participation of African soldiers during WW2 so I read with interest the portions that described the Nigerian men being forcibly conscripted into the army. They went to Burma to fight yet they didn't even know who they were fighting, why they were fighting, or where Burma was. That was one of the most upsetting parts of the book for me. When Nnu Ego said, "There is nothing we can do. The British own us, just like God does, and just like God they are free to take any of us when they wish", I was stunned because the Nigerians, like all Africans at one time in their history, really had no power over their own country.

“It’s unbelievable…Why can’t they fight their own wars? Why drag us innocent Africans into it?”

Soon you realize the title of the book is very ironic. What are the joys of motherhood when your life is dependent on producing children, preferably sons; when you have to share your husband with another woman; when you can't afford to feed or clothe your children, send them to school? Yet, motherhood was what made an African woman at that time a woman. No other choices were really available to her. She strived to be a complete women,” i.e. women with children.

This book was sad to read on so many levels. I was able to feel the repression Nnu Ego faced as she struggled to be “a full woman, full of children." I felt frustrated with her at times, sometimes I just wanted to hug her when I could feel how much she was hurting and how few options she had. Emecheta showed the pressure and the strain that women were often under to be perfect, the effect that patriarchy has on women. Perhaps not much has changed.

"I wanted to die, because I failed to live up to the standard expected of me by the males in my family, my father and my husband—and now I have to include my sons. But who made the law that we should not hope in our daughters? We women subscribe to that law more than anyone. Until we change all this, it is still a man’s world, which women will always help to build.”

I definitely plan on reading more books by Emecheta this year.


If Lagos had been a mistress (Ona), her lover (Agbadi) would have been the British, and had they produced a child, that child (Nnu Ego) would have been Nigeria. That child would have married her first husband (the British protectorate - colonization) but would have borne no children by him (Oluwum), so he would have abandoned her. She would have married again (post-colonization- Independence), this time producing offsprings with her second husband (Nnaife) and together, they would have fought to overcome marital struggles (polygamy, patriarchy and more). That is, if you were looking at this book through symbolic lenses, which, if you've read post-colonial writers like Wa Thiong'o, Achebe, and Soyinka, you'll find it difficult to avoid doing this.

However, the story centers around Nnu Ego, whose parents are Chief Agbadi and Ona (the chief's mistress and the love of his life). Though the chief has a few wives (the setting is that of a polygamous society), everyone is aware that Ona has his heart. Yet Ona refuses to marry him because her father will not allow it, and also because she fears that once she is his wife, she will lose his love and respect: "she suspected, however, that her fate would be the same as that of his other women should she consent to become one of his wives."So when they have a daughter, Nnu, Ona makes the chief promise to "allow her [Nnu] to have a life of her own, a husband if she wants one."
"He who roars like a lion."
"My sons, you will all grow to be kings among men."
"He who roars like a lion."
"My daughters, you will all grow to rock your children's children."

If you've already spotted the injustice within the dialogue, you've unearthed the limitations of the patriarchal society that Emecheta tries to showcase in her fiction. Don't be tricked by the title, for the story is not simply about the joys of motherhood, rather, it is an inquiry into the intersection of womanhood and motherhood, and the setting is a place where women are ostracized for being unmarried and childless.
I am a prisoner of my own flesh and blood. Is it such an enviable position?

In Nnu Ego's culture, a woman could be an ostracized lover, yes, but a barren woman, no. Reading along, you sense the subtle, but clear question that accompanies this ideal: why must it be this way?
But who made the law that we should not hope in our daughters? We women subscribe to that law more than anyone. Until we change all this, it is still a man's world, which women will always help to build.

I read this book years ago, but decided to revisit it after Thiong'o reminded me of African literary prowesses like Emecheta and Dangarembga, when I attempted his book, Wizard of the Crow. Emecheta is the author of more than ten novels, some of which are semi-autobiographical. It is alleged that she started having children at age sixteen and when her first husband burned her first novel after he refused to read it, she left and tried to raise her children on her own. While reading this novel, there were moments when I was reminded of So Long a Letter, and yet the distant narration and simple-sentence structure that relies on dialogue, is much different than the intimate first-person voice that empowers Ba's novel. What Ba does well in that book is address a reader who may not have a shared community, but shared values; a sort of universality that appeals to the non-Nigerian or African reader. The Joys of Motherhood is very region-specific, and although they were only sprinkles, there are words or descriptions that could prove offsetting to some Caucasian readers. However, there are important themes embedded within dialogue (something Emecheta does better than others), which makes me plan on visiting more of her works this year.
…If you don't have children the longing for them will kill you, and if you do, the worrying over them will kill you.


Nnu Ego's father is a great man, so much so that when his senior wife dies, her burial is a grand affair. She must take everything she will need in the afterlife with her, including her personal slave, a beautiful and vivacious young woman captured from another tribe. The woman begs for her life, but to no avail, she is executed. Her restless soul bonds with the recently conceived Nnu Ego and becomes her chi, her personal god.

The great father, Agbadi, feels compassion for the slain slave and to placate her angry spirit, frees all of his slaves and bans the practice of enslaving captives taken in conflict, but the legacy of slavery is not so easily expunged: Nnu Ego suffers the rage of her chi. Another character later comments on the irony of white settlers banning slavery and continuing to employ native black workers in conditions indistinguishable from slavery. This agitated, complex, multivalent engagement with troubled histories of slavery is characteristic of Buchi Emecheta's fictional biography of an Igbo woman born to a prosperous, highly respected family in a village where pre-colonial lifestyles seem undisturbed. In contrast to this setting is the British colonial city of Lagos, where Nnu Ego, having not conceived a child by her first husband (due to the machinations of her chi) is married to a washerman. Having lived in comfort in Igbo villages, she spends her years in Lagos locked in a constant desperate struggle to earn enough money to feed her ever-expanding family, consoling herself with the knowledge that she has fulfilled society's expectations of her as a mother and wife.

Recently I have been reading a lot of books by women that I find to be strongly feminist, and have what strike me as silly, patronising cover notes that are rendered ironic by the content. John Updike reckons, approvingly, that this 'graceful, touching, ironically titled tale... bears a plain feminist message'. Although this is praise, I actually feel it creates a false and belittling impression of the work, which is not simple, in its structure or in its feminist 'message' . The book appears to reach a conclusion when Nnu Ego asks
God, when will you create a woman who will be fulfilled in herself, a full human being, not anybody's appendage?
and Emecheta elaborates in Nnu Ego's thoughts as she names her younger twin daughters
The men make it look as if we must aspire for children or die. That's why when I lost my first son I wanted to die, because I failed to live up to the standard expected of me by the males in my life, my father and my husband -- and now I have to include my sons. But who made the law that we should not hope in our daughters? We women subscribe to that law more than anyone. Until we change all this, it is still a man's world, which women will always help to build.
But there are several chapters to go, Emecheta is not done here exploring her interlocking themes. Significantly, Nnu Ego's struggles are shaped by the contrasting environments she moves through. Emecheta suggests that the pre-colonial context offers a better way of life to Nnu Ego and to most others. It is impossible not to wonder what would have happened to Oshia, for example, if Nnu Ego had not been forced to return to Lagos. However, Emecheta employs images of healthy female and especially male bodies to complicate this point, when Nnu Ego contrasts the younger and older Nnu Ego, or Nnu Ego herself with Adaku, and contrasts her first husband with Nnaife. The colonised body is shown as distended, aged, faded, odorous, somehow unnatural. Even more significantly, the colonised body loses its gender. Nnu Ego's constant gender-normative criticisms of Nnaife's work and body reveal how her socialisation in the village structures her critical, attritive, but overall solid acceptance of patriarchal gender roles. In fact, Nnu Ego's trans-phobic horror of Nnaife's job, and Adaku's decision to seize independence by becoming a sex worker, suggest that gender roles may be less rigid in Lagos; the city is a site of disruption as it forces desperate measures.

This is not to say that the colonial context of Lagos is less patriarchal or less hostile to female independence. As if to foreshadow continual gendered violence, Nnu Ego is raped by her husband when she arrives. For me, this recalls bell hooks writing about African American disaporas
African men, even those coming from communities where sex roles shaped the division of labour, where the status of men was different and most times higher than that of women, had to be taught to equate their higher status as men with the right to dominate women, they had to be taught patriarchal masculinity. They had to be taught that it was acceptable to use to violence to establish patriarchal power. - bell hooks, We Real Cool
While her mother enjoyed comparative sexual freedom and qualified affirmation of her desires in the village, Nnu Ego experiences the moralistic, misogynistic Christian approach to sexuality enforced by Nnaife's employer. The relationship between Nnu Ego and her husband's inherited younger wife Adaku also provides rich material to investigate the complexity of village/urban gender dynamics. When Adaku arrives, Nnu Ego speculates, only partly accurately, about the kind of relationship the beautiful woman will have with her husband. Emecheta explicitly suggests that a senior wife must behave in some respects 'like a man' and Nnu Ego certainly feels unfeminine beside Adaku. She does not give birth to any sons, thus 'failing' to affirm her husband's manhood, yet, resourceful Adaku attains a degree of autonomy and, significantly, the means of education for her daughters, thus casting off the male-orientation that Nnu Ego retains to the end.

Another 'compliment' from The Sunday Times (a British newspaper) reads 'Emecheta is a born writer'. No doubt well intended, this comment is often made condescendingly about writers of colour, especially female, and even white women, who are seen to have produced great art by chance, by a freakish gift of talent, rather than by effort and intelligence. The simple and direct prose is full of irony "[Nnu Ego] crawled further into the urine-stained mats on her bug-ridden bed, enjoying the knowledge of her motherhood" and the story encompasses global events from an exploited and underinformed colonial viewpoint. Nnaife is forced to fight for the British in the war, leaving Nnu Ego to struggle on to provide for the family alone. Emecheta also explores the theme of tribal tensions in Lagos, where the Igbo are a minority among the Yoruba. Emecheta has these groups making near identical criticisms of each other, founded on generic fears of difference, despite their commonalities, for example the sense of community 'we all belong to each other' conveyed extraordinarily vividly in a scene of attempted suicide. Yet Nnu Ego's thoughtful daughter (second born) Kehinde is able to cross these divides. As the narrative dissipates, hope flows out in many unexpected directions.


wonderful. this novel takes you deep into igbo culture and nigerian culture as a while in the 30s/40s. you see the connection and conflict between the old and the new, the traditional and the foreign. you see the role that world war II played in nigeria, too. and she never gives easy or simple answers. emecheta writes the most thought-provoking addictive page-turners. also for westerners, this novel is a good exercise in walking in someone else's shoes.

Raul Bimenyimana

A moving story wonderfully written. Buchi Emecheta narrates of the woes and hardships women, particularly poor women, face in a patriarchal society.

Moving through rural to urban colonial Nigeria, this book explores the burdening demands placed on women. Nnu Ego who is the protagonist of the story lives her whole life in servitude of the men in her life, first her father then her husband and later her sons, all the while leaving her with nothing but harsh solitude and weariness.

I normally hesitate to call books powerful, but this one truly is.


This ironically titled tale of Nnu Ego is, in layers, a plain feminist text. The Joys of Motherhood covers both the traditional as well as the 'modern' (aka, the British colonialism). Emecheta draws a stolid picture of the woes and hardship of women, particularly a poor woman in a patriarchal world. Just like any other commodities, even the women themselves believe that their husbands own them. Nnu Ego gave her whole life to be on the receiving end of the 'joys of motherhood', but when she died, [s]he died quietly there, with no child to hold her hand and no friend to talk to her.


This was a reread for me, after first reading this book in my early teenage years. I have always had a special place in my heart for this book, because it had such a huge impact on me as a young reader. Without even knowing it at the time, this book shaped and heavily influenced my feminism. When I was rereading, I discovered that while I remembered a number of key points and major events in the story, I had forgotten some parts. It was amazing to read and experience it all over again, and see things from a new perspective as an adult reader. I read this book along with @itan.ile on Instagram, and out conversations about some events and the ending of the book made the reading experience even better for me.

Buchi Emecheta writes the most powerful stories. I have read two other books of hers this year – Second Hand Citizen and The Bride Price. She has a very interesting way of writing women and ending their stories (trying super hard not to post spoilers LOL). This is a story of motherhood, but don’t be deceived by the title – there’s hardly anything joyful in Nnu Ego’s story. Emecheta takes us through Nnu Ego’s journey in search of children, and her journey after she finally gets her much sought-after children. She toiled and labored and suffered, living for some time as a single mother in a Lagos that was dealing with the second-hand effect of British wars.

She explored so many themes over various settings in Ibuza and Lagos. She paints a vivid picture of marriage, motherhood, strife, and reaping the fruits of your labor (one thing Nnu Ego was so sure she’d get more than anything). This book made me really sad, angry, and I felt a lot of raw emotions. I loved it so much, and I doubt I’d ever stop!


Deservedly considered a “classic”, though the societal changes it critiques took place almost a hundred years ago now, so that critique has lost something of its urgency and freshness. Which is not to say, of course, that the fault lines between ideas of “womanhood” and “motherhood” do not remain fraught and ripe for criticism. Written in very much the naturalist style, in unadorned and uncomplicated prose, but with compelling characterisation and plot. Well worth reading


Her mother's dying wish for her (never a wife herself, she guarded her freedom and was like her father's son) was that Nnu Ego would firstly, 'have a life of her own' and secondly, be allowed to 'be a woman'.
We meet her on a day she is distraught, wracked by bitter disappointment, over the loss of her first child.
Every chapter is like a new phase in her life, one that might hold the key to the elusive fulfillment she seeks, to a change in fortune, and yet every chapter brings more disappointment, sacrifice and what seem like insurmountable challenges.

Worse, how her efforts are perceived by her husband, who manages to view all through only the lens of its impact on his reputation. He has the essence of a traditional upbringing combined with an inherited patriarchal sense of entitlement, learned from his colonial masters at the same time, unmanned by the 'feminised' occupation he fulfills for them.

They believe in sacrifice and reward, but it eludes them, in their failure to notice the societal changes around them, the new freedoms young people in Lagos subscribe to, the intermingling of people's, the ambitions of youth that no longer support their families and younger siblings.

Nnu regrets neglecting friendship, the one thing that may have provided solace outside of marriage and children, she encourages it in her daughters and remaining son.
Even in death she is resented, a shrine set up for villagers to appeal to if barren, a wish her spirit did not always grant.
For they believed she had it all, that the joy of being a mother was the joy of giving all to your children.

Was this a response to Efuru's closing lines? That story of a woman who achieved fulfillment outside of wifehood and motherhood? "She had never experienced the joys of motherhood. Why then did women worship her?"
13 years after Nwapa's question, Emecheta presents her novel of motherhood's questionable joys.

Brilliant. One of the best reads of 2019 definitely.

☯Emily Ginder

If I tell you that the title of the book is ironic, that will really tell you everything you need to know. Nnu Ego is a Nigerian woman raising a family in a swiftly changing society. Raised in a typical African village, she is thrust into a rapidly growing city of Lagos when she marries a man working there. There is no family support for her as she tries to adjust to married life in a strange environment. Her first child dies in the first chapter of the book and she is devastated by the loss. However, she gradually recovers when she has a second child. She then has many more children. She devotes her life in educating her oldest son, trusting in the African tradition that he will support her and help educate his siblings. However, he does not do that. Instead he goes to American to continue his education, contributing nothing. Her other children are also a disappointment. Her husband is no help. He spends his money on drink. Even though he can't afford it, he takes on a second and later a third wife. He has nothing left emotionally or financially for Nnu Ego and her children. When his children don't meet his expectations, he blames Nnu Ego. Everything that can go wrong, does. It is not a cheerful, hopeful book.

Intertwined in Nnu Ego's story, is the changing face of Nigeria. The English has colonial control over Nigeria in beginning of the book. When the English enter World War II, they force Nnu Ego's husband to become a soldier. He goes to Burma to fight for a cause and an enemy that is unknown to him. The war changes him for the worse. After the war, Nigeria is striving and preparing for independence. The young are eager for change, but the older generation tries to cling to the past and its traditions.

I got the feeling that if Nnu had been born ten or fifteen years earlier or later, she would have had a fulfilling role as a productive member of society. Instead, torn between two cultures and unable to adapt, she dies at the side of road, unwanted and unloved.