I Stand Here Ironing

by Tillie Olsen

Start Free Trial

What is the central idea and purpose in "I Stand Here Ironing" by Tillie Olsen?

The central idea of the story is that it was a mistake for the mother to push her daughter so hard when she was young.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The central idea of "I Stand Here Ironing" is the fragility of the mother-daughter relationship within the context of single motherhood.

The narrator highlights the central idea through a stream-of-consciousness, first-person narrative. She describes her feelings of ambivalence, frustration, guilt, and grief as she documents her turbulent relationship with her eldest child, Emily. According to the narrator, her husband was the one who left. This is how she became a single mother.

The narrator tells us that she had to begin taking Emily to preschool when she was just two years old. She uses colloquial, emotionally-charged language to describe how Emily tried to avoid attending preschool on many occasions. Her words inspire pity, as we envision what our protagonists must have endured. In our minds, we see the mother wracked with guilt, even as the daughter is tormented by fears of abandonment:

She always had a reason why we should stay home. Momma, you look sick. Momma, I feel sick. Momma, the teachers aren't here today, they're sick. Momma, we can't go, there was a fire there last night. Momma, it's a holiday today, no school, they told me.

But never a direct protest, never rebellion. I think of our others in their three-, four-year-oldness—the explosions, tempers, the denunciations, the demands—and I feel suddenly ill. I put the iron down. What in me demanded that goodness in her? And what was the cost, the cost to her of such goodness?

The narrator tells us that she secured financial stability at the cost of her daughter's emotional well-being.

As the story progresses, the narrator tells us that she eventually remarries. She bears her new husband four children. Yet the main focus of the narrator's story is still Emily: she fixates on Emily's sickly demeanor, battles with asthma, and struggles to maintain a healthy self-image. The narrator's tortuous, emotional narrative highlights her continued guilt about Emily's childhood.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The central idea to the short story "I Stand Here Ironing" is the struggle of a single woman and single parent who tries to balance her working life with her role as a mother. This was a story published in the 60s before the perspective of a single, working mother was a common one to hear. It is about the internal conflict of a mother who felt she may not have done her best by her daughter. She says that she worries about what she "did and did not do" for her. The piece is a monologue that explores what more the mother should do for her daughter, Emily now, and the guilt she feels for having done some horrible things to her in the past. The point of the monologue is to establish an understanding of the character's relationship with her daughter while exposing the unique viewpoint of this woman. It also intends to expose the conditions and situations of the lower class and elicit empathy for these living conditions from the reader. 


See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial Team