In Tillie Olsen’s “I Stand Here Ironing,” the mother’s ironing can be seen as symbolic because, just as an iron pushes the wrinkles out of a piece of clothing, the mother has, through circumstances not entirely her fault, pushed and flattened some of the life and “bloom” out her daughter, Emily.
Throughout the story, the reader learns how, time and time again, Emily had experiences in which she, like a dress being ironed, had no control. We learn how her mother was so poor that she had to send Emily away to live with Emily’s absentee father’s parents. We are given an account of how the mother left Emily at a horrible daycare that Emily hated. As the story progresses, we learn that Emily was sent to “a convalescent home in the country,” and that, upon her return, her mother had little time for her. All of these experiences were done to Emily, mostly by her mother. Additionally, they were all out of Emily’s control. In fact, Olsen conveys Emily as passive throughout most of the narrative. We learn that Emily never issued a “direct protest, never rebellion.” In that sense, Emily is as compliant as the dress her mother is ironing. Just like the hot iron is forcing the wrinkles out of the dress on the ironing board, Emily's mother has forced much of the “bloom” out of Emily.
That's why the novel’s last line is so symbolic. In the story's final paragraph, and really throughout the entire text, the mother's guilt over her inability to care for Emily is palpable. This guilt is what causes her to say that she hopes Emily “is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron.” She doesn’t want Emily to be passive, like a dress being pressed by a hot iron. She wants her daughter, who we learn is a gifted comedian, to actively take control of her life.