In Tillie Olsen's "I Stand Here Ironing," the narrator starts out ironing. She is prompted to think about her daughter by someone's request (presumably a teacher's) to discuss ways to help her. The narrator takes a rare, quiet moment while she is ironing to think back over her life and Emily's.
Her reflections begin during the Great Depression, when Emily was born. Eight months later, the father leaves, and the narrator has to seek work while leaving Emily in the care of others. For a brief time, Emily must live with her father's family until the narrator can make enough money to support the two of them. Their lives seem to improve materially when the narrator remarries. But Emily catches the measles around the time that the narrator has another daughter, Susan. Emily spends a few months at a charity-run convalescent home for children.
After changing her son Ronnie's diaper, the narrator goes back to her ironing and continues her musings. During World War II, Emily helps her mother care for a growing household and has trouble keeping up with her studies. 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 and venues with her act.
The narrator's reflections are interrupted when Emily returns home. She ends her musings with the hope that the unnamed person who asked about Emily will be able to help Emily build a better life.