In the 1950s, when “I Stand Here Ironing” was published, family life and domestic labor were often depicted as idyllic: housewives wore clean dresses, cooked perfect meals, and cared for well-behaved children while their husbands worked. Tillie Olsen’s depiction of domestic life as gritty, banal, and difficult contrasts with these romanticized representations, reminding readers that American domestic life was not always glamorous, particularly for poor families. The narrator’s poverty traps her in grueling and repetitive chores and prevents her from fulfilling herself and giving her daughter Emily the best care. Still, the narrator’s labor remains meaningful even as poverty constrains her, and in part because of the labor she has done throughout her life she is ultimately able to imagine a future in which Emily may live a freer life than she did. “I Stand Here Ironing” therefore makes a case for viewing domestic labor and family life as complex and wrenching, yet worthwhile.
Throughout the story, Olsen’s narrator describes her work as a young mother in violent terms. The first line of the story, for example, mentions the “torment” that the narrator perceives while ironing, which is an outwardly peaceful activity. The narrator further describes the cries of infant Emily as “battering” and later, when Emily goes to nursery school, she notes the “lacerations of group life.” These vivid word choices evoke war and bodily harm, indicating the intensity of the narrator’s struggle as she begins her life as a young mother. Although her family’s life is not marked by overt abuse or tragedy, the day-to-day realities that she and her young daughter face suggest that domestic life is not a haven from the dangerous world outside but rather an extension of it.
Despite the hardship that characterizes her life as a young mother, though, the narrator also notes several instances of peace and joy in those years. When Emily is born, for example, the narrator says that “she was a miracle to me.” The narrator’s ongoing devotion to Emily — even through the times of strife and difficulty — indicates that that sense of the miraculous continues to underlie the relationship between the two. Although the family does not have much money, Emily still finds a way to have “precious things” by collecting objects like beads and pebbles. While Emily’s collections are monetarily worthless, they comfort her and provide a means for her to interact peacefully with her sister Susan. The narrator also mentions that Emily had moments of “lightness and brightness,” even as an unhappy child. These fleeting moments indicate that even at its darkest, their shared life was buoyed by joy.
In light of the family’s simultaneous poverty and surprising joy, the narrator doesn’t simply despair at the outcome of her homemaking efforts: she ultimately wonders whether the imperfect home she provided might still be enough to make Emily’s life better than the narrator’s own has been. This sense of hope amid adversity advances the idea that domestic life does not have to be perfect to be worthwhile. When Emily finally enters the scene at the end of the story, she appears to the reader as a surprisingly normal teenager. Her cheerful presence causes her mother, and the reader, to reconsider all of narrator’s previous worries. The narrator wonders: “Why were you concerned? She will find her way.” This turn suggests that the narrator’s labors, while lacking in many ways, may nonetheless have accomplished the essential goal of raising a healthy child. Though the narrator continues to think of Emily with some sadness, she notes that “there is still enough left to live by.” Her hope for Emily is modest but meaningful: that Emily know “that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron.” This hope suggests that Emily may have a future in which domestic obligation—while perhaps still a burden—does not completely define her, marking a significant step forward from the life her mother has led.
Poverty, Labor, and Domestic Life ThemeTracker
Poverty, Labor, and Domestic Life Quotes in I Stand Here Ironing
And when is there time to remember, to sift, to weigh, to estimate, to total? I will start and there will be an interruption and I will have to gather it all together again. Or I will become engulfed with all I did or did not do, with what should have been and what cannot be helped.
I nursed her. They feel that’s important nowadays. I nursed all the children, but with her, with all the fierce rigidity of first motherhood, I did like the books then said. Though her cries battered me to trembling and my breasts ached with swollenness, I waited till the clock decreed.
[B1]Except that it would have made no difference if I had known. It was the only place there was. It was the only way we could be together, the only way I could hold a job.
I think of our others in their three-, four-year-oldness—the explosions, the tempers, the denunciations, the demands—and I feel suddenly ill. I put the iron down. What in me demanded that goodness in her? And what was the cost, the cost to her of such goodness?
In this and other ways she leaves her seal, I say aloud. And startle at my saying it. What do I mean? What did I start to gather together, to try and make coherent? I was at the terrible, growing years. War years. I do not remember them well. I was working, there were four smaller ones now, there was not time for her. She had to help be a mother, and housekeeper, and shopper. She had to set her seal.
Afterwards: You ought to do something about her with a gift like that—but without money or knowing how, what does one do? We have left it all to her, and the gift has as often eddied inside, clogged and clotted, as been used and growing.
I will never total it all. I will never come in to say: She was a child seldom smiled at. Her father left me before she was a year old. I had to work her first six years when there was work, or I sent her home and to his relatives. There were years she had care she hated. She was dark and thin and foreign-looking in a world where the prestige went to blondeness and curly hair and dimples, she was slow where glibness was prized. She was a child of anxious, not proud, love. We were poor and could not afford for her the soil of easy growth. I was a young mother, I was a distracted mother. There were the other children pushing up, demanding. Her younger sister seemed all that she was not. There were years she did not let me touch her. She kept too much in herself, her life was such she had to keep too much in herself. My wisdom came too late. She has much to her and probably little will come of it. She is a child of her age, of depression, of war, of fear.