I Stand Here Ironing

by

Tillie Olsen

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I Stand Here Ironing Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
As the narrator irons, she addresses an unidentified person who has asked her to discuss her nineteen-year-old daughter Emily, since Emily “needs help.” The request torments the narrator—just because she is Emily’s mother does not mean she has special insight into her daughter’s life. Besides, there will never be enough time to “remember, to sift, to weigh, to total” and if there were, she would “become engulfed” by “all I did or did not do.”
The narrator’s immediate reluctance to talk about Emily sets off her struggle with guilt, which persists throughout the story. Additionally, her admission that being Emily’s mother has not given her the ability to understand her daughter hints at the fraught depictions of female relationships to come. Finally, this opening passage sets up the narrator’s position at the ironing board, which introduces the crucial theme of repetitive, constraining domestic labor.
Themes
Poverty, Labor, and Domestic Life Theme Icon
Female Identity Theme Icon
Time Theme Icon
Responsibility and Guilt Theme Icon
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Emily, the oldest of the narrator’s five children, “was a beautiful baby,” even though she spent much of her childhood fearing that she was ugly. While the narrator reassured Emily that she was beautiful “to the seeing eye,” she admits that “seeing eyes were few or nonexistent. Including mine.” The narrator cared for Emily with “fierce rigidity,” doing just as “the books” said and waiting “’till the clock decreed” to nurse Emily, despite that Emily’s cries “battered” the narrator and her breasts “ached.” The narrator says this, despite not knowing “if it matters, or if it explains anything.”
This discussion of Emily’s early childhood years brings to light all of the complex forces that act on the narrator and her family—they’re so complex, in fact, that the narrator herself can’t figure out which ones mattered to Emily’s development and which didn’t. The narrator’s quick surrender to “the clock” and to societal expectations of parenting illustrates the ways in which she sacrifices her own instincts in order to obey social norms. Emily’s physical beauty also comes into play immediately, demonstrating that, even as a small child, she was not free of the pressures of her female identity. The narrator is in a tough position here—she admits her flaws, such as failing to see Emily’s beauty, while also asserting her effort and sacrifice for Emily.
Themes
Poverty, Labor, and Domestic Life Theme Icon
Female Identity Theme Icon
Time Theme Icon
Obedience vs. Self-Expression Theme Icon
Responsibility and Guilt Theme Icon
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Emily was a “miracle” to the narrator, but at eight months old, she had to start spending days with the downstairs neighbor to whom Emily was “no miracle at all.” This was necessary because Emily’s father “could no longer endure…sharing want with us,” so he left the family and Emily’s mother had to work to support them. Eventually, the narrator had to send Emily to live with her father’s family, and it was a long time before she could save enough money to bring Emily home again.
This section makes the difficulty of poverty clear, since the narrator discovers that economic need must dictate many of her parenting choices. That Emily’s father leaves suddenly and selfishly suggests that men are unreliable and irresponsible, while women must do the important work.
Themes
Poverty, Labor, and Domestic Life Theme Icon
Responsibility and Guilt Theme Icon
While living with her father’s family, Emily got chicken pox and she returned to the narrator seeming thin and nervous, with “all that baby loveliness gone.” Emily then began nursery school at age two, since “they” said she was old enough, and the narrator didn’t know that nurseries can be bad environments—not that it would have mattered if she knew, since she had a job and the school was the only place for Emily to go.
As Emily grows older, the narrator continues to make choices based on the pressures of poverty, time, and external expectation, denying her own intuition in favor of obedience to others. The narrator continues to feel guilt over her choices, but knows that, due to the constant need to hold down a job outside the home, she is powerless to choose differently.
Themes
Poverty, Labor, and Domestic Life Theme Icon
Time Theme Icon
Obedience vs. Self-Expression Theme Icon
Responsibility and Guilt Theme Icon
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Get the entire I Stand Here Ironing LitChart as a printable PDF.
I Stand Here Ironing PDF
The narrator did know that Emily hated school, because she often made excuses not to go. While other children often rebelled and threw tantrums, Emily never did, which makes the narrator wonder “what was the cost [to Emily] of such goodness?” A neighbor once suggested to the narrator that she smile at Emily more, which makes her wonder what was in her face instead, and whether she expressed her love to Emily effectively.
The narrator’s painful tendency toward obedience and politeness also begins to show itself in Emily, as she quietly attends the school that she hates without rebelling. At this point in the story, it’s clear that the narrator’s obedience has led her to make parenting choices that she now guiltily questions or outright regrets, and she wonders if Emily’s obedience will lead to similar distress.
Themes
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While the narrator applied the neighbor’s advice about smiling to parenting her other children, it was “too late for Emily.” Now, as a teenager, Emily doesn’t “smile easily,” and she is “closed and somber,” except when she is performing comedy onstage, for which she has a “rare gift.” The narrator has no idea where Emily’s gift for comedy comes from—it wasn’t there yet when Emily came back from being sent away the second time. When Emily returned then, she had a “new daddy to love,” and it was a “better time,” except when they left her alone some nights, which she didn’t like. Once, they came home to find the clock on the floor and Emily terrified. “The clock talked loud,” she said. “I threw it away. It scared me what it talked.”
Again, the narrator agonizes over whether she was a good enough parent, but she struggles to identify a clear correspondence between her choices and Emily’s struggles. It’s not clear that Emily’s somber demeanor is related to the narrator not smiling enough, especially since Emily loves comedy, too. Emily’s fear of clocks underscores their symbolic weight and reiterates the oppressive, even frightening role that time sometimes plays in this story. Perhaps the narrator’s own anxiety about time has transferred to Emily, or perhaps Emily is anxious for her own reasons—that she perceives herself as out of synch with others, for example.
Themes
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The clock “talked loud again” the night the narrator gave birth to Emily’s sister Susan. Emily became sick with measles then and prone to nightmares but, with a new baby, the narrator was too exhausted to comfort Emily when she woke in the night. Now, she eagerly offers Emily comfort if she hears her move around at night, but Emily no longer seems to need her mother’s attention as she did during childhood.
Here, the clock talking on the night of Susan’s birth shows how time brings inevitable change, which can be frightening and painful even as it brings growth. The narrator also seems to make a connection between giving Emily less attention and Emily pulling away, although having another baby and dividing attention between children is normal, so it’s difficult to say that this has contributed to Emily’s problems.
Themes
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Obedience vs. Self-Expression Theme Icon
Responsibility and Guilt Theme Icon
At one point, Emily’s doctors convinced the narrator to send Emily to live at “a convalescent home in the country” to recover from her illness. While it was a “handsome place,” they wouldn’t let the narrator visit Emily much. When Emily made friends with another girl there, the administrators moved the girl to a different residence, and Emily remarked that, “They don’t like you to love anybody here.” While Emily and her mother regularly corresponded, Emily was not allowed to keep the narrator’s letters, even though her mother tried to explain to the doctors how important it is to Emily to be able to keep things. Emily lived there for eight months, during which time she stopped eating and became frailer. When Emily finally returned home, she would not accept physical affection. “Food sickened her,” the narrator notes, “and I think much of life too.”
Emily’s time at the convalescent home is perhaps the most vivid example of the narrator subjecting Emily to hardship at the direction of an authority figure. During her stay there, obedience overtakes self-expression completely, for both the narrator and Emily, as even simple acts of autonomy like making friends and keeping tokens of affection are stripped away. The dire effects of this experience on Emily’s health and her relationship with her mother make a forceful statement about the danger of such complete obedience and indicate that even doing the “correct” thing can come with terrible costs.
Themes
Female Identity Theme Icon
Obedience vs. Self-Expression Theme Icon
Responsibility and Guilt Theme Icon
As Emily got older, she continued to worry about her appearance: “thin and dark and foreign-looking,” rather than a “replica of Shirley Temple.” In part because the family moved frequently, Emily did not form close friendships with other children. At one point, she brought the boy she loved his favorite candy and couldn’t understand why he still loved someone else instead, although the narrator doesn’t believe that this kind of question has an answer.
Emily’s middle childhood is defined in large part by various expectations placed on her by her female identity, particularly her constant concern over her appearance. This passage also underscores the unreliability of men—the narrator doesn’t think it’s worthwhile to contemplate rationally why a boy might feel one way or another.
Themes
Female Identity Theme Icon
Obedience vs. Self-Expression Theme Icon
Responsibility and Guilt Theme Icon
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In school, Emily was not “glib or quick,” which made people think she was a “slow learner.” The narrator often allowed Emily to stay home, even when she knew that Emily was faking sickness. Sometimes, she kept both daughters home, “to have them all together.” These were the only “times of peaceful companionship” between Emily and Susan, since Emily developed a “corroding resentment” of her pretty and outgoing sister. Emily’s physical development was slower than her peers’ or her sister’s, which estranged her from both and made her acutely self-conscious.
Emily’s struggles with her appearance, coupled with her conflicted relationship with her beautiful sister Susan, demonstrates the ways in which societal standards for women and girls can turn even a close relationship like sisterhood into something toxic. The conflict between the sisters in turn increases the guilt that the narrator feels over Emily’s unhappy childhood, expanding the pain of the situation into the female role of motherhood as well. This section also hints at the restorative value of disobedience, as the narrator describes the peaceful times that both daughters stayed home from school. Only defying societal expectations about what the girls should be doing creates a harmonious environment. 
Themes
Female Identity Theme Icon
Time Theme Icon
Obedience vs. Self-Expression Theme Icon
Responsibility and Guilt Theme Icon
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Ronnie, the narrator’s youngest child, cries out to be changed, interrupting the narrator’s recollections. While cuddling with his mother, he uses a nonsense word—“shoogily”—which Emily invented years before to express the idea of comfort, leading the narrator to remark on Emily’s influence on the family. During the war years, the narrator was working, so Emily became a “mother, and housekeeper, and shopper.” The narrator worries that the pressure of such domestic responsibilities made Emily suffer, especially in school, which she did not often have time for. In this period, however, “to make me laugh, or out of her despair,” she began doing impressions of things going on at school, and the narrator encouraged her to perform at the school’s amateur show, which she won. 
Here, Emily is explicitly drawn into the domestic labors that have so deeply impacted the narrator throughout the story. Not only do the many repetitive tasks of the family’s impoverished life keep the narrator from fully supporting Emily, they also burden Emily directly when she has to perform those same tasks herself. This transfer of the burden from mother to daughter highlights the way that poverty and its labors can turn even a loving home into a site of oppression. At the same time, the narrator notes that Emily has been able to transform family life in her own way, inventing words like “shoogily” to express and expand the positive aspects of the family’s life. It seems, then, that the narrator’s burdens have actually transformed somewhat in being passed to Emily, which indicates that the passage of time can lend growth and liberation even as it keeps individuals caught in repetitive cycles. The benefits of growth over time are echoed in the narrator’s observation that, as Ronnie grows up, she may finally become more focused on herself as the needs of her children fade into the past.
Themes
Poverty, Labor, and Domestic Life Theme Icon
Female Identity Theme Icon
Time Theme Icon
Obedience vs. Self-Expression Theme Icon
Responsibility and Guilt Theme Icon
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The narrator remarks that Emily’s newfound gift made her “Somebody,” but it left her “as imprisoned in her difference as she had been in anonymity.” When Emily began performing at schools and events, the narrator could barely recognize her daughter onstage, since performing transformed her so thoroughly, making her confident and commanding. The narrator knew Emily could “do something” with her gift, but she didn’t know how to make that possible, since she didn’t have the money or knowledge to support her. Because of this, Emily’s gift has “clogged and clotted” as much as it has been used and developed.
The previous sections of the story have highlighted the danger of obedience, but this section, in contrast, highlights the danger of expansive self-expression. The narrator focuses on the difficulty that Emily will face as she attempts to develop her gift, difficulties that are again defined in part by the family’s lack of economic resources. It seems, then, that there may not be a way for either the narrator or Emily to make a truly “correct” choice; this section indicates that both obedience and self-expression come with risks and unexpected costs.
Themes
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Obedience vs. Self-Expression Theme Icon
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Emily runs happily up the stairs and enters the room where the narrator is ironing. Cheerful and talkative, she jokes about the fact that her mother is always ironing. Even though this is one of her “communicative nights,” Emily tells her mother “everything and nothing,” and the narrator reflects that Emily is “lovely” and perhaps she doesn’t need help after all—she will “find her way.” Emily makes a joke about dying from an atomic bomb and goes to bed.
Throughout the story, the narrator has been ironing, which demonstrates the powerful, even eternal nature of domestic labor in their lives. However, this is the first time readers actually see Emily, and she’s not the troubled, brooding girl the story has led readers to expect—she’s happy and charismatic and seems to love her mother, which suggests that maybe there’s not much wrong with Emily at all.
Themes
Poverty, Labor, and Domestic Life Theme Icon
Responsibility and Guilt Theme Icon
The narrator can no longer endure “dredging up the past,” and she can never “total it all”: Emily was “seldom smiled at,” her father left, her mother worked, she was thin and dark in “a world where prestige went to blondeness and curly hair and dimples,” she was slow and anxious and the family was poor, the narrator was a “young” and “distracted” mother, and Susan “seemed all that [Emily] was not. The narrator laments that her own “wisdom came too late,” and Emily “has much to her, and probably little will come of it.” To the unidentified person asking after Emily, the narrator says to “let her be”—“there is still enough left to live by,” even if Emily’s life isn’t all it could have been. The narrator simply hopes that Emily will “know that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron.”
While the narrator’s life seems defined by ironing (and the domestic labor that it represents), she dares to hope that Emily may escape that same constriction. In fact, Emily has already done so: Emily has reached the age of nineteen without marrying or giving birth as her mother did at that same age. Time, then, is both restrictive and generative, and it may lead Emily out of the constraints of poverty even as it has drawn her into them in the past. Similarly, the narrator has succeeded in doing what she initially thought impossible by relating the story of Emily’s childhood. She still feels guilty about her failures, but she seems also to have reached an understanding that there is no correct interpretation of the facts, no way to know the true impact of all of her choices. Rather than giving up hope in the face of this overwhelming, unknowable reality, the narrator concludes with the statement that even if Emily’s life cannot be perfect, it can still be an improvement over her mother’s.
Themes
Poverty, Labor, and Domestic Life Theme Icon
Time Theme Icon
Obedience vs. Self-Expression Theme Icon
Responsibility and Guilt Theme Icon
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