I Stand Here Ironing

by Tillie Olsen

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I Stand Here Ironing Summary

"I Stand Here Ironing" is a short story by Tillie Olsen in which a mother ruminates on the life of her eldest daughter, Emily.

  • The narrator stands at her ironing board and explains the circumstances of her eldest daughter Emily's life to a visiting counselor.

  • The narrator reveals that she was just nineteen when she had Emily. She couldn't support her child, so she often sent her away. Emily became a quiet, isolated child.

  • Emily has a talent for mimicry that she hopes to develop. The narrator worries about the viability of such a path, but she wants to support her daughter regardless.

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The title of the story reveals that the narrator is engaged in a simple, routine household task. While she is ironing, she meditates about a note she has received from a teacher or adviser at the school her daughter, Emily, attends. She feels tormented by the request to come in and talk about Emily, who the writer of the note believes needs help. However, the mother has no intention of going to see the person who wrote the note. “Even if I came, what good would it do?” she asks.

The rest of the story is an interior monologue, reviewing the lives and relationships of the mother and daughter, followed by a brief exchange of dialogue between the mother and Emily, and a final paragraph of summary of the circumstances in which Emily grew up. At the end, the mother is still standing there ironing.

There is no action and no apparent plot in this story. The interior monologue rehearses the things that the mother might say to the teacher or adviser who wrote the note. Her memories of the daughter’s infancy and childhood serve to explain much about the personality and the difficulties of the girl. Her love and tenderness for the girl, and the barriers that separated them physically at first and then emotionally later, are revealed.

Emily was the first child of the mother, who was only nineteen at the time she was born. The mother adored her beautiful baby but was forced to leave her with an indifferent sitter when the child was only eight months old because the mother had to earn money to support them. The father had abandoned his wife and child, and in those days of the Depression and no welfare help, the mother had no choice but to leave the child and find a job. Emily greeted her with a cry each time she rushed anxiously home to gather up her precious infant, and the pain she felt is clear when she notes that the crying was “a weeping I can hear yet.”

The child was still an infant when the young mother had to take her to the father’s family to keep her for a while. When she finally raised the money to pay for Emily’s return, the infant got chicken pox and could not return for yet another period of time. When she came back, the child was thin and so changed that the mother scarcely knew her. The mother was advised to put the two-year-old in nursery school, and it was indeed the only way that they were able to be together at all, because the mother had to spend long hours at work. She recalls that she did not know at the time how fatiguing and cruel the nursery school was. It was only a parking place for children, and she came to realize how Emily and the other children hated it, but there was no other recourse. Emily did not clutch her and beg her not to go as some of the children did, but she would have reasons for staying home. The mother wistfully remembers the child’s goodness in never protesting or rebelling.

The young mother married again and was able to be with the child more for a brief time, but even then she and her new husband would go out in the evenings and leave the child alone. Emily was frightened and had to face her terrors alone. Then another daughter was born, and the mother was away at the hospital for a week. When she returned, Emily was ill with measles and...

(This entire section contains 1124 words.)

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so could not come near her mother or the new baby. Even after the disease was over, Emily remained thin and subject to nightmares, so finally the mother was advised to send her to a convalescent home for poor children. The place turned out to be little more than a prison, where the children were denied almost all contact with their parents, not allowed to have any personal possessions, and discouraged from forming any friendships with other inmates.

After eight months of effort, the mother was finally able to get her child released, but when she tried to hold or comfort her after that, the child would stiffen and finally push away. The new baby, her half sister Susan, was a beautiful, plump blond, which aroused fierce jealousy and a painful sense of inadequacy and plainness in Emily. Although the worst of the poverty and deprivation were over, Emily was needed to take the part of an adult during her growing years; her stepfather was away at war, and her mother needed Emily’s help in caring for the four younger children. Emily’s schoolwork suffered, and she had little chance to be a carefree child during these school years. She did, however, occasionally try to cheer up her mother by imitating happenings or types of people at school.

The mother once casually suggested that she might do some comic routine in the school amateur show, and Emily entered and won first place. After that she began receiving invitations to perform and displayed a genuine gift for comedy. However, the mother says that they were not able to help her to develop her talent and the gift has not grown as fully as it might have.

At this point the girl comes in, and the mother senses by her light step and bantering comments about the perpetual ironing that Emily is feeling happy. The daughter chatters as she fixes herself some food, and her mother dismisses the idea that her daughter has any unmanageable problems. She feels confident that the girl will find her way. Then the girl asks her mother not to rouse her in the morning even though it is the day that her midterm exams are scheduled, explaining that the exams do not matter because everyone will be dead from an atom bomb in a few years anyway. The mother knows that Emily believes it, but she has just been reliving the tenderness and the agony of the making of this human being, and she cannot bear to dismiss the life of this girl so lightly.

At this point she makes her statement. She will not try to explain to anyone the events and the anguish that shaped the girl’s life. She tells the note writer (in her mind) to let Emily be. She is not worried that the girl will not achieve her full potential: Not many people do. Emily will still have enough to make a life for herself. However, she does want Emily to know and believe that she is not a helpless, passive victim of circumstances, or fate, or an atom bomb.