While the author includes the mother’s memories of experiences almost two decades earlier, Tillie Olsen’s story was first published in 1954. It seems likely that she intended the reader to reflect on then-contemporary experiences of inequality as well as the challenges that people faced in previous generations. The image promoted in the 1950s, that all American families in the post-World War Two era enjoyed prosperous lives with two-parent, nuclear family homes has been disproved.
In the United States, the percentage of mothers who work outside the home has increased since the 1930s, but so has the percentage of single mothers and children who live on incomes below the poverty line. Mothers who struggle financially may temporarily ask family members to care for their children while they work elsewhere, and such informal arrangement are difficult to document. Many infants are temporarily placed in foster care. Numerous reforms in social services at all levels of government have improved mothers’ chances of retaining their infants, but substantial roadblocks still remain. Several states have opted for “workfare” programs in which mothers are required to work, despite the absence of adequate daycare for their children. Similarly, social service programs often withhold benefits to mothers while they are in school, thereby discouraging them from obtaining the educational levels needed to secure better jobs.