Tillie Olsen is well known now as an author and critic, but in many ways her life mirrored the one she describes in "I Stand Here Ironing." As a young mother in the 1940s, her writing life was put on hold while she raised her four children. It was only when the last of her four children had grown up that Olsen was able to return to writing. "I Stand Here Ironing" is part of a collection of four short stories entitled Tell Me a Riddle, whose title story won the O. Henry award in 1961.
Olsen, who came from a working-class background and was committed to labor activism, devoted her life to describing the challenges of working-class women. Her book Silences (1978) is considered a foundational work of feminist literary criticism. In it, she explores the specific life circumstances (such as motherhood) that women writers face and represent in their fiction. Let's let her describe it in her own words:
More than in any other human relationship, overwhelmingly more, motherhood means being instantly interruptible, responsible [...] It is distraction, not mediation, that becomes habitual; interruption, not continuity; spasmodic, not constant toil. (source)
Taking place in the years between the Great Depression up through the post-World War II McCarthy era, "I Stand Here Ironing" tracks one working-class mother as she struggles to raise her daughter. As one motivation behind the story, Olsen has remarked that "after Hiroshima [...] I had in some way to try to write again and to write on the side of life against death" (cited Frye). In its painstaking portrayal of one woman's reflections on the work of motherhood, "I Stand Here Ironing" suggests how the most ordinary, humble of experiences can lead to life-affirming values, even in the face of such intimidating forces as nuclear war and economic recession.
Is your mom a good decision maker?
Oh, sorry, was that question kind of personal? Look, we promise not to go all Freud on you. We're just…curious. For good or bad, most of us are tied to our moms. Their decisions – where they work, when they work, who they date, where they live – impact us. So just for a minute, think about a decision your mom made while you were growing up. Thought of something? OK, now try answering these questions:
Lots of times mothers don't tell us why they made the decision they did, or how they feel about their choices. That's part of what makes "I Stand Here Ironing" so darn interesting. It's a story about a mom looking back on her life and the decisions she made while raising her daughter. As we peek into her mind, we find out that she knows she made mistakes that hurt her daughter, but she's not sure what she could have done differently.
It's rare that we get such an honest look into the mind of a mother. Turns out, it's pretty messy in there. Reading this story might actually make you think a little differently about your own mom, and the choices she made while raising you. After reading the story, don't be surprised if you feel a sudden urge to give your mom a hug.
A website devoted to celebrating Tillie Olsen and her work.
Tillie Olsen - Biography
A biography of Tillie Olsen, plus scholarly opinions on some of her work.
A 1999 interview with Tillie Olsen. She discusses writing, her life, and her working-class roots.
Olsen passed away in 2007. This is her obituary in the New York Times.
A Heart In Action
A clip from a documentary, featuring interviews with Olsen and other authors on Olsen's work.
This American Life with Tillie Olsen
Tillie Olsen reads parts of "I Stand Here Ironing" on This American Life's Mother's Day 2000 episode. We always love hearing authors read their own work.
"San Francisco Writer Tillie Olsen Dies"
A 2007 NPR Weekend Edition episode about Olsen.
Olsen & Family
A photo of Olsen, her husband, and four children in 1949.
A photo of Olsen in the 1940s.
Tillie Olsen's "I Stand Here Ironing"
A short film based on the story.
Tillie Olsen Film Project: A Heart In Action
A documentary on Olsen.