I Stand Here Ironing

by Tillie Olsen

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Does Emily's mother feel she failed her in "I Stand Here Ironing"?

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In Tillie Olsen’s story, the narrator’s main emotions regarding her daughter, Emily, are acceptance and guilt. She he knows that she did her best raising Emily in difficult circumstances, as the Great Depression severely limited her possible accomplishments. Even holding on to her position as her child’s mother was a tremendous challenge, one at which she ultimately succeeded. At the same time, guilt is a nagging sensation telling her that she could, and should, have done more for her daughter. While she acknowledges that Emily’s personality played a role, she cannot quite lose the lingering sensation of inadequacy. Some of her guilt pertains to her adaptability more than to her specific relationship with Emily. As the narrator understands that it is the young, not her generation, who must adapt to the changing times, she feels that she has given Emily the necessary tools to continue in the struggle and probably to achieve greater success than her mother had.

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Emily's mother feels guilt about the quality of Emily's childhood. After her marriage to Emily's father ended, she struggled to make ends meet and care for Emily. The fact that Emily had to endure separation, daycare, bad teachers, illness, and poverty weighs heavily on Emily's mother. After her remarriage and the birth of her additional children, she feels that Emily was pushed aside and likely felt like an outsider since she looked different and had a different father.

Yet Emily's mother knows that she had to work and leave Emily with others in order for them both to survive. Because she had to, Emily gradually became physically and emotionally stronger. Ultimately, she becomes a performer and is able to make others laugh; arguably, she might not have grown into this ability had her childhood turned out differently. So, like many parents, Emily's mother feels she may have failed to give Emily everything she wanted, but Emily's independence assures her that Emily got what she needed.

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