To what extent is Emily's mother a "good" mother in Tillie Olsen's "I Stand Here Ironing"?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In "I Stand Here Ironing" by Tillie Olsen, the mother of Emily, who loves her daughter, delights in remembering what a beautiful baby she was and how Emily loved motion, light, color, music, and textures.  Yet, she feels guilty for having to had put the girl in a "nursery."

While she had Emily in a nursery, the mother was ill at ease.  As she continues her monologue, the mother tells of the place where Emily spent time recuperating from red measles.  She also says, "It took us eight months to get her released home," a statement which implies that the mother is caring.  After Emily is home, sometimes the mother keeps her out of school so that Emily and the other children and she would be all together.

The mother regrets that "there was so little time"; she would like to have had more occasions with Emily. But, always she has had confidence in Emily, glad that she was slow to mature physically so that she missed the

terrible world of youthful competition, of preening and parading, of constant measuring yourself against every other, or envy.

Finally, in her motherly love, Emily's mother wonders why the psychologist has had her come in:

She is so lovely.  Why did you want me to come in at all?  Why were you concerned? She will find her way.

She has the confidence in her child that only a loving mother can.  And, while she knows that she has been forced by circumstance to neglect her child by having to place her oldest girl elsewhere while she worked, and has neglected her when her other children were small, Emily's mother has always felt that

all that compounds a human being is so heavy and meaningful in me.

Emily's mother wants her daughter Emily to understand this meaning, as well, telling the psychologist to let her know that she "is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron." Emily has worth; she is more than the sum of her experiences.  The mother wishes to instill in her daughter a sense of self-worth; for this she is a caring and good mother.

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