How does the mother feel about her parenting skills with her daughter Emily in "I Stand Here Ironing" by Tillie Olsen?

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carol-davis | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Tillie Olsen writes about a mother who has made many mistakes in raising one of her children. The story “I Stand Here Ironing” brings to the reader an unnamed narrator who has been burdened by personal choices and circumstances often beyond her ability to change.

She is beleaguered with what she should have done and what she did do.  Symbolically, the iron represents all of the motherly duties that prevented the mother from loving and embracing her oldest daughter.

Her inner thoughts come out in the form of a monologue.  She tells the story of Emily and what happened to her during her nineteen years.  As the mother/narrator irons her daughter’s dress, she considers what went wrong.  She repeats that Emily was a beautiful baby.  She followed the rules given to her as to how to take care of her baby. 

Emily’s father left the family; consequently, she had to leave Emily with his family while she worked to make the money to survive. After a long time, she takes Emily back; however, now Emily is two years old and just had chicken pox and to the mother she is no longer beautiful.

This was the beginning of the series of the mother’s choices that impacted Emily for the rest of her life.

  • The nursery with the evil teacher
  • The ignoring of the signs of abuse
  • The lack of connection to her child which made Emily stiff when the mother tried to hold her
  • Leaving her alone at home while the mother went out
  • The measles that sapped her strength both mentally and physically
  • Sending her away to a convalescent home for eight months

She let Emily miss school because she was unhappy there.  Asthma also kept her at home as well.

Her mothering is entirely different with the rest of children.  She listens for the child to call her. She comforts him and changes him.  When she had Emily, she was only nineteen, and it is easy to blame her inexperience. The narrator admits that after she marries again and has four small children that there was no time for Emily. Emily had to help by mothering, cleaning, and cooking. There were so many things that she let slip because she was the first. Now the mother is strict with her other children

Emily was always in the back of her mother’s mind. As she struggled in school, finally something good happened.  There was a talent contest and Emily entered it and won. What was her talent? She was a comedian. From this win, Emily became a speaker and comedian who has become successful.

Her mother had no money to have her go to school to enhance her career. She told Emily it would be up to her.  Now, she has changed into a graceful, lovely girl.  The mother asks herself why she worried about her. She made it on her own.

When a counselor from Emily’s school calls with a problem, the mother will not take the initiative to do anything about it. She has others to consider and Emily is on her own now.

Let her be.  So all that is in her will not bloom---but in how many does it? There is still enough left to live by.  Only help her to know--help name it so there is cause for her to know—that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron.

As the mother irons for her daughter, the guilt and regret stir in her.  Emily was the baby that was born into poverty and without a father.  She suffered, but she survived.  The mother worries about the long term effect on her daughter’s life

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