The relationship between a mother and her child can definitely be complicated, as it is prominent throughout the novel Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Although the two individuals may be similar in many ways, the differences can make the journey through life’s ups and downs a little more difficult. Every parent has a different bond with their child, which in turn affects the ability for a child to develop their identity and maintain a strong sense of self. Adichie presents several differing mother-child bonds, especially between Ifemelu and her mother and Obinze and his. Obinze’s mother granted warmth and support throughout his life, leading him to remain strong, unconforming and comfortable with his identity. In contrast, Ifemelu’s mother was less involved, so her identity kept transforming as she moved through different phases in her life. Although some individuals may believe the main theme of Americanah is the pursuit of the American dream, the theme of mother-child relationships is more important within the novel. It seems as if a supportive, strong relationship between a mother and her child develops a sense of identity in her child that remains stable throughout life, even during hardship.
In Ifemelu’s case, she was raised by a mother who was unsupportive and minimally involved in her life, though she still loves her. Her mother’s crazy obsession with religion lead her to participate in extreme fasting, in order to distract her from the difficulties of reality. Ifemelu was lucky to have other women in her life that acted as mother figures, Aunty Uju and Obinze’s mother specifically. In a particular instance, her mother rushed home with a confused, unfocused look in her eye and asked Ifemelu “Where are the big scissors?” and “raised it to her head and handful by handful chopped off all of her hair” (Adichie 49). Her mother’s act of cutting off her hair represents her giving up a part of herself for the sake of religion and in turn, focusing most of her attention on God, rather than staying involved in her daughter’s life. That same day, her mother began collecting all Catholic objects in the house, put them in a bag and burned the objects in their backyard to ashes. “Ifemelu began to cry because she sensed that something had happened, and the woman standing by the fire… was not her mother, and could not be her mother” (50). This situation sparked a separation between Ifemelu and her mother, since she began lacking support, direction and an overall presence in her daughter’s life. Her mother was turning into someone unfamiliar, which will last throughout her lifetime.
In addition, during Ifemelu’s fifteen years residing in America, her parents visited just once for three weeks. Ifemelu stated, “They seemed like strangers. They looked the same, but the dignity she remembered was gone..” (Adichie 372). Obviously she wanted her parents to visit her, it just did not feel the same anymore, due to their lack of connection and the amount of time they’ve been apart. In America, she stated, “She was not sure she would be able to be their daughter, the person they remembered” (372). America shaped Ifemelu into someone completely different and someone who was not her true self. Furthermore, Jack Taylor states in “Language, Race, and Identity in Adichie’s Americanah that the novel reckons with the “tension between individual and collective identity vis-à-vis blackness in the United States” (Taylor). With an identity that can easily adapt and assimilate to its’ surroundings, the American culture has the ability to change an individual to conform to society’s norms. Ifemelu moved from Nigeria to America, then back to Nigeria again, started different schools, and started various new relationships with different men and her parents knew little about what was occurring in her life through these transitions. The way her mother raised her growing up, in a distant, unsupportive manner may correlate to her unstable and undeveloped identity presented throughout the novel.
Obinze’s mother is very warm and supportive towards him and most importantly, in times of hardship and struggle. After Obinze was deported, “ His mother’s voice on the phone was almost unfamiliar, a woman speaking a crisp, Nigerian English, telling him, calmly, to be strong, that she would be in Lagos to receive him” (Adichie 347). Although Obinze made a mistake, his mother did not hesitate to help him and forgave him. This example perfectly portrays how Obinze’s mother possesses the traits of a supportive mother, making Obinze feel cared for no matter what. Obinze was raised in a Nigerian household, like Ifemelu, but his family practiced their culture with no shame, teaching him “to be a man meant to be domineering and strong” (Bonvillian 32). The way Obinze was raised created a more developed and stable identity, since he had his mother to lean on throughout his life who offered love, support and direction when needed. His mother was also a mother-figure to Ifemelu and even gave her advice about personal things, like sex, being a strong woman and being responsible in her relationships.
Along with Ifemelu’s relationships with different mother figures, I am also eager to analyze the relationship between Aunty Uju, who was prominent in Ifemelu’s life as well, and her son Dike. Aunty Uju caused Dike to become depressed and attempt suicide because of her desire to strip him of his Nigerian identity, in order to take on a new “American” identity that she felt was best for him. She did not believe it was even necessary to find a way to integrate both. After his suicide attempt, Ifemelu asked Aunty Uju, “Do you remember when Dike was telling you something and he said ‘we black folk’ and you told him ‘you are not black?” (Adichie 470). Ifemelu was struck by Aunty Uju’s comment, since Uju was certain that depression was common in teenagers and did not consider the experiences that could have led him to try to take his life. Dike being stripped of his identity left him feeling lost in the American culture that he was expected to adapt to. It seems as if both Dike and Ifemelu did not want to acknowledge that they were becoming mentally unhealthy, due to the fact that it is an American thing to label everything as an illness. It seems as if Ifemelu and Dike’s childhood with Aunty Uju may have led to their poorly developed, unstable identity.
Overall, a supportive, strong bond between a mother and her child develops a sense of identity in her child that remains stable throughout life, even during difficult times. Two of Americanah’s main characters, Ifemelu and Obinze, both grew up with very differing bonds with their mothers. Ifemelu’s mother possessed qualities of an unsupportive mother who lacked an overall presence in her daughter’s life. She failed to provide direction and did not provide her a shoulder for her to lean on during tough situations. Ifemelu developed an ever changing sense of identity that was unstable through moves from Nigeria to America and back, different schools, and various new relationships with different men. On the other hand, Obinze’s mother offered love, support and direction when needed, especially during his struggles, resulting in a well-developed, unconforming identity. The comfort you possess in your authentic identity is influenced by the mother-child bond created throughout a lifetime.
- Bonvillain, Mary Margaret, ‘Shifting intersections: Fluidity of gender and race in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah’ (2016). Graduate Theses and Dissertations. 16435. https://lib.dr.iastate.edu/etd/16435.
- Ngozi Adichie, Chimamanda. Americanah. Anchor Books 2013.
- Taylor, Jack. “Language, Race, and Identity in Adichie’s Americanah and Bulowayo’s We Need New Names.” Research in African Literatures, vol. 50, no. 2, Summer 2019, pp. 68–85. EBSCOhost, doi:10.2979/reseafrilite.50.2.06.