Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Joys of Motherhood

When you're in a big life change, you realize its ubiquity: I remember when I had a big break-up realizing that every single song on the radio is about break-ups. Now, I'm realizing that everything in the world is about babies and childbirth.

I've actually been wanting to read this book for many years, ever since the title jumped out at me from a tottering pile at Capitol Hill books (and on every return visit, it seemed this book was still there). After several years of looking at it, I bought it (ironically, at a different used book store, where it was probably cheaper). Then, after several years of sitting on my shelf at home, I pulled it off. And, since I realized that I needed a break from reading birthing and caring-for-your-baby books, which have been my primary non-work reading for the past eight months, and are sometimes anxiety-inducing, I thought I'd read a novel about being a mother.

The Joys of Motherhood is fascinating and I devoured it in just a few days. Set in Nigeria in the 1930s and 40s, the novel traces the life of Nnu-Ego from her upbringing in a rural village to her adult life in a city colonized by the British. Beginning with Nnu-Ego's own birth to a proud mistress of a chief who is determined to give her father a male heir, the novel focuses on women's relationship to men, and particularly a woman's relationship to her sons. In the process, Buchi Emecheta meditates on tradition and the way in which it falters during the move from country to city.

The title is ironic--motherhood's joys and the traditional values that Nnu-Ego remains committed to, such as devotion to her husband and her family and her husband's family and to the gods--turn out to be somewhat empty. In fact, although her children bury her handsomely and although later generations sacrifice to her when they are barren, she never grants children to the barren. (It seems that this is her final commentary on bearing children--when they are all that you long for, when you hope that your investment in them will be repaid, you are left unsatisfied.)

Emecheta lets you into a culture that is very distant from contemporary Western culture, but lets you in with her own reserve and questioning. (It seems that Emecheta herself, after bearing her husband 5 children, left him due to abuse and raised her children by herself, funding her own education, and becoming a writer.) At the end, Nnu-Ego seems to most bemoan her lack of friends--that she has had little time for and put little effort into her own relationships, instead devoting everything to her family, which has not supported her in the way that she supported them (her husband leaves her finally; her two sons leave to pursue their education in America and don't write to her, nor do they support her financially, as was expected). Her life is a difficult one, particularly in adulthood, and there is no reward for her in the end.

No comments: