The first sentence in “I Stand Here Ironing” sets the tone and establishes the mood of the entire story: “I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron.” Prompted by the counselor’s concern for her daughter’s future development, the mother responds with a tone of resignation, even despair, as she tries to explain to her visitor the nature of her circumscribed life and the nature of her daughter’s desperate attempts to find her own identity within a self-limiting environment. Like the iron to which she refers, her daughter’s life has moved in a cycle of progression and retrogression, between moments of joy and satisfaction and moments of isolation and despair. Ironing is also a perfect metaphor for the limited roles imposed upon women—of wife, homemaker, and mother—and all that is lost to women because of those narrow roles.
The mother tells a story of self-denial, deprivation, and loss. Emily, the subject of the counselor’s inquiry, is the oldest of five children. The mother recalls a special memory of Emily as a baby—beautiful, joyous, full of life. “She was a miracle to me.” After eight months of bliss, however, her husband leaves them suddenly, and she is forced to find work to rear her child. She is even compelled to leave the child with her former husband’s family for a year. The mother remarries and soon is pregnant with her second child. For a time, she has to send Emily to a convalescent home because of her ill health. The effect of these separations on Emily is devastating: She becomes a remote, isolated girl who has few friends and does poorly in school. The mother concludes, “I was working, there were four smaller ones now, there was not time for her.”
Somehow Emily survives these deprivations and develops a talent for mimicry. Although her mother is encouraged to help Emily refine that gift, she contends, “but without money or knowing how, what does one do? We have left it all to her, and the fight has as often eddied inside, clogged and clotted, as been used and growing.”
One of the central themes in the story is that Emily’s individuality and uniqueness of character are realized through her mother’s reminiscences. The mother does not view Emily with the same limited perspective that society applied to her as a young woman. In fact, one of the ironies of the story is that Emily, who is nineteen, was born when her mother was nineteen. It is clear that the mother’s reminiscences of Emily’s childhood are meant as a comparison between constraints placed upon the mother’s life when she was nineteen and the possibilities open to her daughter’s life at the same age. In effect, Emily has choices, whereas her mother had none.
Another important aspect of the story is that readers gain insights into the complexities of mother-daughter relationships. Although the mother may have made mistakes in rearing her daughter, she refuses to accept all the responsibility for what her child has become. The details of her reminiscences help readers become sensitive to all that was lost, and yet all that was preserved, in this relationship. At the end of the story, the mother concludes, “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.” Despite having grown up under harsh and impoverished living conditions, this young woman is a survivor and has the capacity to meet life on her own terms.