In "I Stand Here Ironing," the narrator (Emily's mother) does not love her other children more, however, she is alone when Emily is a baby because Emily's father left them before Emily was a year old. Emily's mother tried to do all the things she felt were good for her daughter, but working to support the two of them was difficult.
The mother became so concerned about the woman who cared so little for her baby when Emily's mom worked during the day, that Emily's mom got a job where she could be home with the baby in the daytime, though it was hard for the mom.
Her mom tried to do what the doctors of the day suggested was the best way to raise a baby, but this was her first baby. Emily's mom married, and she found that after the birth of her second child, she had learned better than to listen to what was "popular" in the circle of male doctors of the day.
When she needed help to get on her feet financially, Emily's mom had to send her to stay with Emily's father's family until she was two. This was particularly hard on Emily, who came back a more serious little girl who did not know her mother well.
When Emily's mother had Susan, the second child, Emily became ill; she started to lose weight and have nightmares. The clinic persuaded Emily's mother to send Emily to a convalescent home to recuperate, but when she did not get well and did not regain the weight she lost when she had been sick, the social worker allowed Emily's mother to bring her home.
Emily's mother tried very hard with Emily, but Emily's experiences as a child toughened her up too quickly, so she was distant and didn't talk a lot. However, she did develop a sense of dramatic comedy, and won audiences over when on stage in school. In this way she seemed to find herself, and Emily's mother was grateful for this gift her daughter had found, especially because her young childhood had not been easy for Emily.
With her other children, Emily's mom now had a husband to support all of the kids, and had learned better ways to bring up a child: after all, when children are born, they do not come with directions.
Emily's mother, even to the end of the story, is haunted by guilt in the choices she had to make so that she and Emily could survive. Emily's mom loves Emily just as much as her other children: perhaps even more because she feels that Emily had to do with less love as her mother could not be around a lot, and with separations brought on by circumstances beyond her mother's control.
The mother of "I Stand Here Ironing" seems to feel some guilt about not having the money to be able to keep Emily at home, and she recriminates herself for not smiling at her enough,
What was in my face when I looked at her? I loved her. There were all the acts of love.
It was only with the others I remembered what he said, and it was the face of joy, and not of care or tightness or worry I turned to them--too late for Emily.
Nevertheless, she does love Emily as much as the others; she only neglected Emily because she was too poor to care for her and too worn out and too young (19). The mother begins her monologue with the words, "She was a beautiful baby," proof that she does love Emily. When she was young, she took "
a job hashing at night so I could be with her days, and it was better."
Again, the mother feels some ambivalence about having to put Emily in a nursery--parking places for children--because it "was the only way I could hold a job."
Anytime that the mother has to leave Emily, she regrets doing so. She puts the iron down, and explains to the official that Emily has a rare gift for comedy and she rues that was not enough time to devote to her. Yet, she is proud of Emily and has confidence in her,
"Now suddenly she was Somebody....She is so lovely. Why did you want me to come in at all? Why were you concerned? She will find her way."
At last, the mother admits that she will "never total at all." But, Emily was a
"child of anxious, not proud, love....She kept too much in herself....My wisdom came too late."
And, in a final act of love, the mother pleads with the official,
There is still enough left to live by. Only help her to know--help make it so there is cause for her to know--that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron.