Tillie Olsen's “I Stand Here Ironing” is a meditative piece in which a mother reflects on her oldest daughter, a girl named Emily. Emily was born during the early years of the Great Depression, and her father soon abandoned his wife and daughter when times got too hard and he “could no longer endure.” The narrator had no choice but to leave Emily with relatives or at a care center while she tried to find work or worked at any job she could get.
The narrator develops only a shaky, troubled, somewhat distant relationship with her daughter. They are often apart in Emily's early years, and by the time Emily returns to her mother full time, she is a different girl, quiet and somber. Her new circumstances are not easy for Emily either. By now, her mother has remarried, and Emily must adjust to a new father and soon a bunch of new siblings. Her mother's attention is most often focused on the younger children, and she has little time or energy left to spend on Emily or to comfort her.
Emily's health disintegrates after a bout with measles, and her mother and stepfather send her to a convalescent home. Emily is more lonely than ever and sees her parents seldom. She is not even allowed to keep their letters. Her mother visits when she can, but her focus in still on her new husband and her other children.
When Emily returns to the family, she shies away from her mother's attention. The narrator now reaches out to her daughter, perhaps trying to make up for all the times she couldn't or didn't, but Emily remains stiff or pushes away. Her mother has pushed her away so often that Emily no longer fully trusts her or feels comfortable with attention.
Emily does have one special enjoyment, however. She is a comedian. This seems rather odd considering her shyness and reserve, but perhaps her pantomimes and routines allow her to escape from her world and from herself for a while. She can be someone else, someone who encourages people to laugh and enjoy themselves, someone who receives the kind of attention she has always wanted. She is an excellent performer who commands the audience with her gift. Finally, on stage, Emily is happy.
An unnamed official at Emily's school wants her mother to come in and talk about her daughter. The girl has talent and needs help to develop it. But the narrator wonders why anyone at the school should be concerned. It is not their business. Her daughter will find her way; she always has and without help.