I Stand Here Ironing
by Tillie Olsen
We've all had moments when we feel that our mothers, much as we love them, just don't understand us. Maybe we don't agree with the rules that they set for us (curfews, an age limit on dating…), or their judgments about our life choices (who we hang out with, what colleges we want to attend…). They seem to speak with such irritating parental authority sometimes that we may wonder if they ever stop to question themselves.
Olsen's "I Stand Here Ironing" takes us into the mind of a mother who does question herself and the choices she's made for her daughter. What makes the narrator relatable is the fact that she seems so human. She isn't particularly strong or heroic or brilliant; she's just an average woman making do with what she has.
The story catches the narrator at a rare moment when, amidst the hurly-burly of taking care of a large family on limited means, she finds herself reflecting on and evaluating her life. What she finds during this process of reflection doesn't necessarily please her; in fact, she has to face some difficult truths.
As a young, single working mother, she placed Emily in childcare situations where Emily was neglected and unloved. It would be different if she could plead ignorance, but the hard truth is that the narrator knew exactly what was going on, even if she could hardly admit it to herself. The thing is, she didn't have a choice. She relives her doubts about sending Emily to the convalescent home and regrets listening to the so-called experts rather than trusting her gut instinct.
The narrator has to come to terms with the fact that she had to repress certain truths in order to squeeze out a life for herself and her daughter. Emily also learned to repress her feelings. All of these painful memories, these occasions that have "curdled in her memory," make her "suddenly ill" (16).
By the end of the story, the mother-narrator doesn't seem to have come to any conclusions about her life, her choices, or the way she brought up her daughter. But the request that starts off the whole story – "I wish you would manage the time to come in and talk with me about your daughter" – gives the narrator a chance to make explicit her deepest hope that her daughter won't have to suffer like she has. Her daughter is an independent being with a life of her own to live.Timeline