In the peculiar hierarchy of African households the only rung
lower than motherless child is childless mother.
Taiye Selasi, “The Sex Lives of African Girls”
I know of a Nigerian couple who had been married for three decades before they had their first child. It’s an exceptional story. I don’t know of any other marriage that’s lasted that long as a monogamous union when a couple have for whatever reason been unable to have children. This couple’s unusual story was made possible in part by their decision five years into the marriage, not only to emigrate, but to do so without informing members of their family. For a couple of years, they lived in England without reaching out to anyone in their family, hoping that when they finally got in touch, their relatives would stop badgering them about having children and simply be grateful that they were both alive.
Nigerian weddings are fun, carnival like: plates of Jollof rice are relished, a live band or DJ plays, guests gyrate till headties come undone. And as these ceremonies continue over the course of one to three days, several prayers are said for the couple, but one is often reiterated, by their parents and friends, their uncles and aunts, the MC and passers-by—in nine months, may we return to your home to celebrate the birth of a child. I’d been hearing this prayer since I was a child who was often a flower girl at weddings and I’d always thought of it only as an innocuous expression of goodwill. Then I grew up, and my friends began to get married.
In Flora Nwapa’s debut novel which is also the first full length novel in English by a Nigerian woman, Efuru, the novel’s eponymous heroine, comes of age under colonial rule. She defies tradition, elopes with the man she loves, and has a daughter who dies around the same time her husband abandons her. She returns to her father’s home, and soon she marries again. Well aware of what is expected of her, Efuru isn’t surprised when two years into the marriage, her mother in-law asks, “My daughter, doesn’t your body tell you anything?”
A few years ago, when a dear friend texted to let me know she was pregnant, I let out sigh, realizing only then that I’d been holding my breath on her behalf. I’d been part of her bridal party, and I’d heard the prayer—in nine months, may we return to your home to celebrate the birth of a child—amplified by loudspeakers as a pastor offered it. At the reception, I’d been close enough to her to hear uncles she’d known all her life and in-laws she was meeting for the first time that day repeat versions of it. And I understood by then that this prayer was also an ultimatum. If months became years before she had a child, there were those who would return, the edges of their goodwill sharp enough to slice through bone as they asked, “My daughter, doesn’t your body tell you anything?”
As a child, I heard stories of women who, after years of being married without conceiving, began showing up in public with protruding bellies, tricking friends and neighbours into believing they were pregnant. Then one day, they stumbled in the marketplace or walked into someone on the street and a calabash clattered to the floor between their feet. And I wondered, even then, about the depth of desperation that would drive a person to a subterfuge that could only end in more pain. Over the years, as I heard stories about how many marriages became polygamous or ended because the couple didn’t have any children, it became clear that in a world that saw a childless marriage as a tragedy, the woman was typecast as the marriage’s tragic heroine and its hubris. She was the one who was called barren, who often had to accommodate a second wife or a mistress; sometimes she was forced out of her home by angry relatives, and as I discovered while doing research for Stay With Me, seven times out of ten she would be the only one to show up in the hospital for fertility tests.
Although the title character in Lola Shoneyin’s The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wivesfollows his fourth wife to the hospital when she decides to see a specialist, he’s quick to let the doctor know that, “It is her womb that is not working.” Later in the novel, Baba Segi returns to the hospital to undergo fertility tests, but the initial visit ends with him abandoning his wife in the consulting room after asking the doctor to tell her what she must do next.
When the heroine of Buchi Emecheta’s ironically titled The Joys of Motherhood, Nnu Ego, fails to conceive in her first marriage, she worries about how she is failing everybody: her husband, her own relatives and her in- laws. Initially, she shares her anxieties with her husband, but as times passes, she comes to believe that the situation “ . . . had become her problem and hers alone.” When her husband informs her that he has taken a second wife, he concludes his revelation by saying, “I cannot fail my people.”
Both Emecheta and Nwapa’s novels are set in a Nigeria under colonial rule. Emecheta’s, which is partly set in Lagos, begins in 1934—two decades before women would be able to vote anywhere in Nigeria. In Sefi Atta’s Everything Good Will Come, a lot has changed about Lagos life since the period Emecheta situated Nnu Ego in. While Nnu Ego focuses on financing the education of her sons while hoping that her daughters will move up in life by marrying well, Atta’s protagonist, Enitan lives in a Lagos where a woman would be dissuaded from getting married if she doesn’t have a university degree. Yet, it is still a world where, as Enitan muses, it is “better to be ugly, to be crippled, to be a thief even, than to be barren. We had both been raised to believe that our greatest days would be: the birth of our first child, our wedding and graduation days in that order . . . angel or not, a woman had to have a child.” A conclusion that echoes one reached in The Joys of Motherhood, by a crowd that rescues Nnu Ego as she attempts to commit suicide, “And they all agreed that a woman without a child for her husband was a failed woman.”
Read the rest of the article on http://lithub.com/writing-about-infertility-in-a-world-that-sees-childless-marriage-as-tragedy/