Emily's mother, the narrator, is a woman who has many regrets. She is loving and well-meaning, but guilt-ridden at the ways she feels she failed her oldest daughter Emily in her raising, and angry at the circumstances that caused her to do so. She was a young mother abandoned by her husband and struggling to balance working and childcare, and in looking back she second-guesses her attempts to follow the best advice she had at the time - "with all the fierce rigidity of first motherhood (doing) like the books then said" about letting her baby cry in order to nurse her on a schedule, and later sending her daughter to a convalescent home she hated because "they persuaded me at the clinic". She acknowledges that Emily "was a child of anxious...love", and laments that in the way she raised Emily "my wisdom came too late".
Still, despite her regrets, Emily's mother is hopeful. She believes that, in the final analysis, nurture isn't everything, and that her daughter can rise above the circumstances of her childhood and "find her way...there is still enough left to live by". Emily's mother's fervent prayer for her daughter is that she might know "that she is more than (a) dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron", and have the strength and courage to become as much as she can be.