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.
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 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.