I Stand Here Ironing

by Tillie Olsen
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"I Stand Here Ironing" presents the identities of both mother and daughter as incomplete. What message does this story convey about the search for identity?

Tillie Olsen’s story shows how the search for identity is shaped by family, gender, generation, and economic and social circumstances. Another influence is the individual’s personality and desires. A mother will influence the path her daughter takes, but ultimately the child must make their own choices.

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In her exploration of a mother’s concerns about her daughter’s current situation and future life, Tillie Olsen explores the search for identity as influenced by numerous factors. Both characters are female, but they are members of different generations who have grown up in very different economic circumstances and overall social conditions. While both mother and daughter emerge as distinctive individuals with specific personality traits, the author emphasizes the importance of social influences on creating those distinctions. The mother realizes that she must allow Emily’s possibilities to “bloom,” and that not all the girl’s dreams will be realized.

While she irons, the mother reflects on choices that she made as a young woman and the ways that poverty and lack of opportunities affected her decisions. As a young mother with limited income, when her daughter, Emily, became seriously ill, she made a heart-wrenching decision to place the child temporarily in a convalescent home. This separation created an irremediable gap between them.

Although the mother is saddened by the gulf between her and her daughter, she is optimistic about her daughter’s chances for success. Her own struggles—like those of other members of her generation—strengthened her. She gave Emily an example of how to overcome adversity. Emily’s own experience has limited her perspective, but she has talents that may help her seek out new opportunities.

Because the story is told from the mother’s perspective, the reader does not get to know the daughter as well as the mother. About to finish high school, Emily is trying to figure out the next steps. She exhibits creativity through performance, which may be substituting for the connection with her mother that she felt was lacking. The author leaves unresolved whether Emily’s dissatisfaction with her current situation, including her academic underachievement, will provide the impetus for greater success in the wider world.

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