In I Stand Here Ironing by Tillie Olsen, the mother is trying to explain or understand the reasons why she and Emily have the unsatisfactory relationship they have and why Emily is the way she is.
At first, the mother keeps ironing as she explains how she felt powerless to change their circumstances; a father that left them because he "could no longer endure" and her need to work and leave Emily with family or in a nursery. It is important to note how, she only puts the iron down when her memories of Emily's attendance at nursery school where there was "never a direct protest, never rebellion," compared to her other children, makes her feel ill. The iron represents the uselessness of the situation, the mundane, the expectations of a mother and her feelings of inadequacy. Up to this point she has talked and ironed, basically stressing that it was never her fault, she has had to just keep going. There are always excuses and now the realization that it was her own demands on Emily that may have caused this -"What in me demanded that goodness in her" halts the process, making her reflect- momentarily, she has stopped ironing, has let herself think of more important things in life.
The flow of the story changes each time the iron is mentioned. Having now recalled the difficulties and the animosity between Emily and Susan, the mother recalls how she would be ironing whilst Emily "would struggle over books." The extent of the mother's involvement is made clear by the symbol of the iron - never having time for Emily, always too busy. The mother recalls Emily's success at the school show and Emily's happiness.
However, even Emily is aware of how her mother's chores prevent her own development "I'd have to paint mine (my mother) standing over an ironing board." Emily jokes about her mother's constant ironing. The symbol is very sharp here as Emily has " one of her communicative nights" and her mother relaxes as she thinks Emily is finally coming into her own -"She will find her way." It is as if Emily can succeed despite the mother's poor parenting skills (as represented by Emily's recognition of her mother ironing.)
Emily's mother is not expecting anything to come of Emily- "She has much to her and probably little will come of it"- and it is significant that desperate for Emily to have a better future she leaves it to someone else to tell Emily "that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron." The iron represents the helplessness of the mother, her inability to change anything. The iron is oppressive, keeping the mother down. The mother expects it to do the same to Emily - despite wishing that it won't.