The significant title of this short story by Lillie Olsen points to the metaphor of the mother passing the iron back and forth as she gauges the past against the present and forms a pattern of her parenthood, the ups and downs of her attempts to meet the needs of her children and of herself. Indeed, it is an examination devoid of romantic illusions, for she often questions herself in a reflective tone by asking such things as, "What in me demanded that goodness in her?" or she remarks, "I did not know then what I know now."
It is from the mother's stream-of-consciousness monologue the readers glean impressions of the mother-daughter relationship:
- As a mother of nineteen, Emily is "a miracle" to her, a wonder for a youth thrown into motherhood. To make matters worse, she is forced to leave Emily with a neighbor because she must work when her husband leaves them. It is obvious that the mother feels some guilt about this because Emily would "break into a clogged weeping that could not be comforted."
- Later, the mother is so impoverished that she is forced to leave Emily with the father's family until Emily is two. This separation is not wholesome:
Old enough for nursery school they said, ....the fatigue of the long day, and the lacerations of group life in the kinds of nurseries that are only parking places for children.
- Here the mother indicates that the nursery was an unfriendly environment for Emily. Further, she states that she "knew the teacher that was evil." Then, too, Emily would always have a reason for staying home.
- The simple advice of the old man to smile more when she looks at Emily bespeaks of the pressure that the mother was under and the constraints made upon her affections because she had to work. And, the mother reflects that she only remembered to smile more at the children who came after Emily.
- The mother's abrupt question, "Where does it come from, that comedy? There was none of it in her when she came back to me that second time...." [that she had to place Emily with the father's family] expresses her lack of understanding of Emily and their distance.
- When Emily would call to her for attention, the exhausted working mother failed to come, only sleepily telling the child, "You're all right, darling,k go to sleep...." With guilt, she admits, "...only twice, when I had to get up for Susan anyhow, I went in to sit with her."
- As the mother continues her interior monologue,she rues,
Now when it is too late (as if she could let me hold and comfort her like I do the others) I get up and go to her)
and Emily tells her to go back to bed because she is "all right"
- And, yet, the mother is sensitive to her daughter, as indicated in her sardonic remark about the teachers who perceived her lack of glibness and quickness as an inability to learn,
- She reflects that she tried to compensate for her neglect by letting Emily stay home so that she could be with her sister.
- There is something of the outside world that the mother notices:
She was too vulerable for that terrible world of youthful competition...of constant measuring of yourself against every other, of envy.
Repeatedly, the mother moves back and forth over the past as metaphorically connoted by ironing as she evaluates her mothering and measures it against the present. And, while the mother feels guilt that she neglected Emily at times, she recognizes in Emily a strength born of this lack of attention: "She will find her way."