I Stand Here Ironing

by Tillie Olsen

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What is the central idea and purpose in "I Stand Here Ironing" by Tillie Olsen?

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The central idea of the story is that it was a mistake for the mother to push her daughter so hard when she was young.

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The central idea of "I Stand Here Ironing" is the fragility of the mother-daughter relationship within the context of single motherhood.

The narrator highlights the central idea through a stream-of-consciousness, first-person narrative. She describes her feelings of ambivalence, frustration, guilt, and grief as she documents her turbulent relationship...

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with her eldest child, Emily. According to the narrator, her husband was the one who left. This is how she became a single mother.

The narrator tells us that she had to begin taking Emily to preschool when she was just two years old. She uses colloquial, emotionally-charged language to describe how Emily tried to avoid attending preschool on many occasions. Her words inspire pity, as we envision what our protagonists must have endured. In our minds, we see the mother wracked with guilt, even as the daughter is tormented by fears of abandonment:

She always had a reason why we should stay home. Momma, you look sick. Momma, I feel sick. Momma, the teachers aren't here today, they're sick. Momma, we can't go, there was a fire there last night. Momma, it's a holiday today, no school, they told me.

But never a direct protest, never rebellion. I think of our others in their three-, four-year-oldness—the explosions, tempers, the denunciations, the demands—and I feel suddenly ill. I put the iron down. What in me demanded that goodness in her? And what was the cost, the cost to her of such goodness?

The narrator tells us that she secured financial stability at the cost of her daughter's emotional well-being.

As the story progresses, the narrator tells us that she eventually remarries. She bears her new husband four children. Yet the main focus of the narrator's story is still Emily: she fixates on Emily's sickly demeanor, battles with asthma, and struggles to maintain a healthy self-image. The narrator's tortuous, emotional narrative highlights her continued guilt about Emily's childhood.

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The central idea to the short story "I Stand Here Ironing" is the struggle of a single woman and single parent who tries to balance her working life with her role as a mother. This was a story published in the 60s before the perspective of a single, working mother was a common one to hear. It is about the internal conflict of a mother who felt she may not have done her best by her daughter. She says that she worries about what she "did and did not do" for her. The piece is a monologue that explores what more the mother should do for her daughter, Emily now, and the guilt she feels for having done some horrible things to her in the past. The point of the monologue is to establish an understanding of the character's relationship with her daughter while exposing the unique viewpoint of this woman. It also intends to expose the conditions and situations of the lower class and elicit empathy for these living conditions from the reader. 

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What is the theme and summary for "I Stand Here Ironing" by Tillie Olsen?  

As the narrator, the mother in the story “I Stand Here Ironing” by Tillie Olsen is ask by someone to discuss her daughter Emily and ways that she can be helped.  The mother then reflects on the guilt that she feels toward the care of her oldest daughter. Life has never been quite right for Emily.  Consequently, the mother’s guilt and regret weigh on her unlike anything else.

Born during the Depression, Emily’s father ran away from the family when she was a baby.  Emily had to stay with the father’s family while the mother worked to get enough money to support the two of them.  Eventually, the mother remarries and things improve materially. 

One illness after another kept Emily from being a normal child. Having to spend time in a charity home during the measles and in daycares that are torturous all lead to Emily falling behind.  She also has debilitating asthma which means that she cannot play and run like the other children.  

Later in school, it is discovered that when Emily gets on a stage she is hilariously funny. Emily's life changes when she puts on a comedy act for a high school talent show. Suddenly, she is popular and appears at other schools with her act.

With her new husband, the mother has four more children.  While her husband is away during World War II, Emily helps her mother care for the younger children. Suddenly,the mother’s musings are interrupted when Emily comes home from school. She is hopeful that the person who wants to help Emily will help her build a better life.


The theme of the story concedes the impact of guilt and regret in a mother’s life.  The title of the story “I Stand Here Ironing” is a way of showing the defeat that the mother feels as she thinks back to the mistakes that she made with her first born child.

When Emily was a baby and the narrator was fighting poverty and terrible conditions for a single mother, she recognizes that she contributed to the inept young woman that Emily has become.  As she thinks back, her actions as a mother read like a list of villainous actions. The narrator does give herself credit for the difficulties that she faced;  but, she cannot forgive herself.

Because she was her first child, the mother seemed to hold Emily to a different standard.  She was expected to be good, endure whatever came her way, and show no resistance to the situation in which she found herself. That would have been hard for an adult, let alone a child.

Emily was alone in strange environments for periods of time.  She was a convalescence facility and stayed with her grandparents.  These were all during times of significant child and parental development. Every time she was allowed to return home, there was something different: a new husband, a new job, or a new baby. As time went by, Emily withdrew and grew more reserved.

Despite efforts to draw closer to Emily as she got older, the bridge had already collapsed.  They are ships that pass by in the night.  Each is aware of the other but too far away to communicate.  

Now when it is too late (as if she would let ne hold and comfort her like I do the others) I get up and go to her at once at her moan or restless stirring. ‘Are you awake, Emily? Can I get you something?’ And the answer is always the same: ‘No I'm all right, go back to sleep Mother.’

The narrator does not share what Emily’s present circumstances are, but it is evident that she wonders what will happen to her next. 

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