One of my favourite novels by a Nigerian woman is Joys of Motherhood by the late Buchi Emecheta. It is a book that documents the life of Nnu Ego, a woman who pours her all into her (male) children in hopes that she would get a soft landing in old age.
Without giving so many spoilers, it is the exact opposite that happens. In pursuit of the life she has propped them up for, her sons forget their duties.
Instead, it is her often neglected daughters who marry well, train one of their younger siblings and remember to do what she gave birth to children for: taking care of her in old age. This despite the fact that she ironically does not pour as much care into the educational prospects of her daughters compared to her sons.
This is such that she views the birth of her daughters as burdens who can only have some use when they are sold in marriage to raise money to train their brothers through a bride price.
Regardless of the care she receives from her daughters, the neglect she experiences from her sons in her old age causes her to become mentally unstable. Now, several lovers of Buchi Emecheta’s literary work have said that Joys of Motherhood is an irony because there was no joy for her. They also say that she did not enjoy the benefits and rewards of her sacrifices as a mother in her old age.
However, writing this I am tempted to ask if that is indeed true. As painful as the neglect of her sons was, if the “joy” of motherhood expected by Nnu Ego was that her children care for her in old age, can it be said that she had no joy?
Especially as her daughters did the best they could to ensure that she was provided for? Even though their mother’s mind was attuned to the expectations of the joy of motherhood from sons who had literally abandoned her?
Now, Joys of Motherhood may have been published in 1979 and it may have been set in pre independence Nigeria. Still, the issues that it discusses remain relevant even in an age where Nigerian women seem to have it better than our foremothers.
For one, the novel discusses the undue reverence mothers place on their sons such that they are willing to unlook even when the sons in question do not respect their “authority” as mothers.
This is such that they coddle the bad behaviour of their sons especially towards their sisters.
To coddle a son in this context is to elevate a son to god status such that he sees himself as a king who can do no wrong.
The end result is that several sons will end up not having basic skills such as cooking because their mother’s tell their sisters to clean up after them.
Even when they can cook, a coddled son sees it as something needed only for bachelorhood and looks forward to making a personal chef of his wife (read: slave) in marriage. For some others, it transfers to how they treat women in the workplace such that they expect their female colleagues and even female bosses to serve, clean, get them water at conferences and basically be at their beck and call.
Speaking with Enobong*, she made me realise that the coddling of sons can happen even within a household where the mother is a step mom contrary to popular opinion.
In her words: So, I have two brothers and I’m the only girl. My mom died when I was ten and my dad finally remarried when I was nineteen. My brothers don’t stay at home with us, they’re much older than I am and they’re scattered all over Nigeria. My stepmom doesn’t know them that well, and she’s only spent short times with them but it’s so funny anytime they’re around. She treats them like visitors, like they haven’t lived in this house with my dad and I for years. It’s so obvious.”
Enobong went on to say: “I remember a Sunday, my brother had been around for a while and he didn’t go to church with us. When we came home, there were plates in the sink and my dad was like: ‘Why didn’t you wash these plates? You were at home all day”. And my stepmom quips ‘Leave my son alone please’. And I laughed knowing the screaming I would have heard from the kitchen door if I were the one that left those plates. She’s always talking about them so softly and sweetly, but meeee…it’s like I irritate her. She’s just the kind of woman that puts men on a very high pedestal.”
For Glory, the reason mothers coddle their sons can be traced to the age old conditioning of women and the elevation of male children.
To quote her: “I think it’s largely due to societal conditioning. There are women who feel they are not “mothers” enough until they have that male child. A lot of women have died on this path. So when the woman eventually has that long awaited “crown” in the form of a son, she wants to do everything to protect it.
They can ignore their daughters totally to just focus on the son. I know a family where the mother had like 3 girls and when she eventually had that son, it was like she had finally gotten everything she ever wanted by the birth.”
Glory went on to add: “One of her daughters said when they were younger her mum would at times buy a full loaf of bread and ask their brother to eat it all! They (the girls) must not go near that bread and at times she would grab a cane to ensure they must not beg their brother for that bread. He was coddled a lot and he couldn’t do basic things for himself.
I think if there’s one thing I am grateful to my mum for, it is how she ensured my brothers were very involved in domestic chores. I learnt how to cook from watching my elder brother.”
The reality is that the elevation of men to God and head status flows down to how mothers treat their sons. It makes them raise sons who are not just nuisances to their wives, but turn around and hurt their own mothers.
Until male and female children are cherished and loved equally, we shall continue to have the efforts of daughters discarded in search of an elusive joy of a male child.
*Name changed to protect identity
Angel Nduka-Nwosu is a writer, journalist and editor. She moonlights occasionally as a podcaster on As Angel Was Sayin’. Catch her on all socials @asangelwassayin.