“I Stand Here Ironing” is a first-person account in which the narrator thinks about her relationship with her nineteen-year-old daughter, Emily. The story begins with a request from an unidentified character (most likely a teacher or counselor at Emily’s school) for the narrator to come and talk about Emily, whom the official feels “needs help.” This request sets off the narrator’s long rumination about Emily’s childhood and her own role as a mother. The narrator is at home ironing the entire time that she relates these reflections to the reader.
The narrator begins by suggesting that she feels overwhelmed by contemplating Emily’s life, but she describes it in great detail nonetheless. She tells the reader that Emily was a beautiful baby whom she, the narrator, loved deeply from her birth. However, Emily’s father leaves the family shortly after Emily is born and the narrator is forced to find work and leave Emily in daycare. Eventually, the family’s fortunes worsen and the narrator sends Emily to live with the father’s family for a stretch of time. When Emily returns, she is thin, nervous, and prone to illness, changes that cause the narrator guilt and sadness. The narrator sends Emily to nursery school during the day, even though she knows Emily hates it. Although Emily tries to avoid going to school, the narrator notes that Emily never openly rebels, and she wonders “what was the cost” to Emily of behaving well even when she was miserable.
The narrator goes on to describe the rest of Emily’s childhood, during which Emily is serious, anxious, and often sick. The narrator recalls that clocks in particular frightened Emily. At one point, Emily becomes ill enough that the narrator and her new husband choose to send her away to live at a convalescent home for eight months, where Emily becomes even more unhappy. When Emily returns home, she is distant from both family and peers and continues to worry intensely about school and her appearance. The narrator gives birth to another daughter, Susan, who is cheerful and conventionally beautiful. Emily resents Susan and is often in conflict with her, and the narrator fears that she has failed to mediate the relationship between the sisters. Later on, Emily helps care for three more younger siblings while the narrator is busy working and managing the household. Again, the narrator suspects that these domestic burdens made life difficult for Emily and worries that she, the narrator, was too distracted to adequately express her love for Emily.
Toward the end of the story, the narrator describes Emily’s transformation into a successful comedian who performs at her high school and other events. Though Emily has found a way to express herself joyfully, the narrator still worries, convinced that she will not have the resources to support Emily’s talent. At the story’s climax, Emily herself enters the room where the narrator has been ironing and reflecting throughout the story. Emily is in a cheerful, talkative mood, and the narrator suddenly wonders why anyone would worry about her. Emily makes a joke about dying in an atom bomb attack and then goes to bed, leaving the narrator to face the full, complex reality of her daughter’s existence. The narrator concludes that she will “never total it all” but hopes that even if Emily does not live up to her full potential, she will still have a richer and happier life than her mother has had.