In "I Stand Here Ironing," discuss whether or not the mother should feel guilty for Emily's upbringing.

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In the short story "I Stand Here Ironing" by Tillie Olsen, the mother of a 19-year-old young woman named Emily has been approached by a teacher or counselor to discuss her daughter. As she irons, the mother ponders how she might answer and reminisces about Emily's upbringing. Since the answer to this question is a matter of formulating your own personal opinion, the best way to go about it is to carefully reread the story and evaluate the mother's decisions and behavior. Here is a summary of some of the main points to help you.

The mother now has five children, but Emily was her firstborn. She attempted to follow guidebooks about nursing and fed her daughter according to a schedule instead of when she seemed to be hungry. The 19-year-old mother perceived Emily as a beautiful baby, but when her daughter was only eight months old, she had to leave her with a babysitter to look for work, as Emily's father had left them. Eventually due to economic hardship Emily had to go and stay with family, and when she and her mother reunited when Emily was two, they were emotionally distant from each other.

Emily then went to nursery school so her mother could work. The teacher was unkind and Emily would beg and make excuses to stay home. The hardships they endured made it difficult for her mother to smile at Emily, and as a result, Emily seldom smiled either.

When she got a new husband, the mother began to leave Emily alone at home sometimes, and Emily would feel extremely lonely. Emily was ill when the mother had her second child, Susan, and she didn't recover well from the illness. She would have nightmares. At the advice of others, the mother sent Emily to a convalescent home in the country where parents could only visit from a distance. Emily told her mother, "They don't like you to love anybody here." Emily was forced to stay there for months until the mother managed to bring her home.

When she came back, Emily was frail, unsure of herself, and not receptive to affection. School and relationships with boys were difficult. Emily and her sister Susan did not get along, and Emily's physical growth was stunted so that she aged more slowly than others. When she had four younger siblings, Emily had to help with their care and the housework. Abruptly, however, Emily became talented at public performance, and it gave her a positive sense of identity.

The story now comes back to the present. Emily runs up the stairs, obviously in a good mood, and the mother questions the counselor's insistence on interfering. The mother's conclusion is that numerous circumstances made Emily the way she is, and if she is left alone, even if she doesn't develop all her qualities, at least there will be "enough left to live by."

Is this true? Were circumstances responsible for Emily's apparent defects, or are they the result of her mother's poor decisions? Should her mother have reacted differently in various stages of Emily's life, or did she do the best she could? These are questions you need to consider as you answer this question.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on January 30, 2020
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