What is the significance of the iron and the process of ironing? I'm writing an essay and the above question I have to include in it "I Stand Here Ironing," by Tillie Olsen.

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The iron represents the life of hard work and drudgery the single mother who narrates the story endures as she raises her children. The mother, as she irons, dwells on her oldest daughter—who she feels didn't get enough of her love and affection growing up. The iron represents everything harsh that kept this poor woman from giving her daughter the kind of life she wishes she could have offered her.

To her daughter, the iron and act of ironing becomes symbolic of her mother. She says to her mother:

Aren't you ever going to finish the ironing, Mother? Whistler painted his mother in a rocker. I'd have to paint mine standing over an ironing board.

If Whistler showed his mother at leisure, sitting in a rocking chair, this mother is shown to always be working. The mother's work never seems to be finished, and the work itself seems to always stand—like the ironing board—between the mother and the child.

At the end of the story, the mother hopes her daughter can have a better future (a better adult life) than she had. She wants her to have more control over her destiny:

make it so there is cause for her to know--that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron.

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In Tillie Olsen's "I Stand Here Ironing" the mother's act of ironing is a metaphor for an examination of the past in an effort to reconcile her responsibilities to and relationship with her daughter Emily.  In her stream-of-consciousness, the mother passes back and forth in time, like the iron, and attempts to "iron out" her feelings and actions.  For instance, she tells the official from the school,

I nursed her.  They feel that's important nowadays....I do not even know if it matters, or if it explains anything.

After this statement, the mother goes back over the daughter's childhood, admitting that she had to put Emily in a nurseries "that are only parking places for children"; later, she confesses to having to place Emily in an orphanage. As she irons and remembers, the mother returns to stages in Emily's life with added explanation of her actions, "What could I do?"  At times she even says, "I put the iron down" as she reflects upon Emily's character and comedic talents.  Indeed, Tillie Olsen's short story "I Stand Here Ironing" fuses both motherhood and experience in the metaphor of ironing.

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