In "I Stand Here Ironing" by Tillie Olsen, whom, or what, do you blame for the narrator’s problems? For example, do you blame Emily’s father? The Depression? The social situation and “experts” to which the narrator turns?

In “I Stand Here Ironing” by Tillie Olsen, the narrator’s problems might be blamed on both the setting in which she finds herself and by a society which places unrealistic measures of success on mothers, often providing few means of support in helping them feel accomplished in their maternal efforts.

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This is a fairly complicated question, and I don't think there is a singular answer. It's important to consider the setting in which the narrator finds herself. She stands ironing, but she reflects upon her oldest child's early days, placing that period of time during the Great Depression. Surely the...

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This is a fairly complicated question, and I don't think there is a singular answer. It's important to consider the setting in which the narrator finds herself. She stands ironing, but she reflects upon her oldest child's early days, placing that period of time during the Great Depression. Surely the economic impacts of this experience influence the inner conflict of the narrator. Ultimately, she has to survive and has to make sure her daughter does, as well. Since her husband has left them both, the narrator is forced to accomplish this on her own, which is no easy feat for single mothers even in our modern society. The narrator does what she has to do and makes some tough choices along the way. This sense of resolute determination is felt and replicated by her daughter, who doesn't smile nearly as easily as her siblings who follow when her mother remarries.

While the economic struggles certainly influence the narrator's choices and ultimately her source of regret, the expectations placed on women in her society compound these struggles. There is a mostly undefined theme that is woven through the story—that the narrator has failed Emily in various ways. She didn't love her well enough. She didn't provide enough emotional support. She allowed others to care for Emily when perhaps she shouldn't have. She ignored Emily's pleas not to leave her. This is not a romanticized portrait of motherhood.

Instead, the truth of the narrator's struggles is made plain. She tried to make the best choices possible under often difficult circumstances, and sometimes this meant prioritizing other people or situations over Emily. She realizes that these actions could have influenced Emily's personality and that "all that is in her will not bloom" because of her own failed efforts in parenting her first child. And therein is the source of her inner struggle.

The narrator faces a society which asks mothers to provide for their families, to give each child devoted attention, to assist with schoolwork and celebrate successes, to maintain housework and ironing, to communicate with healthcare workers and make the best medical decisions possible, to never leave their children for an evening out, and to sacrifice themselves for their children. This narrator understands that it is impossible to achieve success under such lofty standards and that she has certainly failed to live up to these expectations set forth for her as a mother; yet she also understands that Emily still "has enough left to live by."

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