‘I Stand Here Ironing’ is a 1956 short story by Tillie Olsen, first published in Prairie Schooner under the title ‘Help Her to Believe’. It acquired its more famous title when it was republished in Olsen’s 1961 collection Tell Me a Riddle. The story takes the form of a monologue spoken by a mother who is ironing clothes while thinking about her relationship with her daughter, Emily.
You can read ‘I Stand Here Ironing’ here (the story takes around ten minutes to read) before proceeding to our summary of the story’s plot, followed by an analysis of the story.
‘I Stand Here Ironing’: plot summary
The story begins with the first-person narrator, a mother, thinking about what one of her daughter’s teachers has said: the teacher has requested that she come into the school for a meeting to talk about her daughter, Emily, who is nineteen years old. She rejects the idea that, just because she is Emily’s mother, she has the ‘key’ to helping her daughter to sort out her life.
She reminisces about how beautiful her daughter was as a baby. But then she reveals that when Emily was still very young, her father walked out on them, and the mother had to leave her with a neighbour while she went out to work. When this happened, she was nineteen: the same age as Emily now is. This was back during the Great Depression when things were financially hard for a lot of people.
After Emily contracted chicken pox when aged two, she began to look different, her beautiful babyish looks gone. She also started to look more like her father. Emily struggled at nursery school, not least because her teacher was strict and cruel towards the children. However, Emily dutifully attended nursery, although now her mother wonders what the ‘cost’ of such ‘goodness’ may have been.
She notices that Emily finds it difficult to smile, although – as her current teacher has pointed out – she has a natural flair for comedy when acting in the school pantomime. She had to send Emily away from her several times because she didn’t have time to look after her and earn money to support the family. But when she met a new man, she could bring Emily back home to meet her new ‘daddy’.
Shortly after this, when she was seven, Emily developed a bad case of measles and she had to be sent away to a special place to convalesce. Although this home is pleasant enough, parents are forbidden to approach their sick children. When Emily returned home eight months later, she was thinner than before and disliked physical affection.
She also grew self-conscious about her appearance, believing that she was too thin, dark, and ‘foreign-looking’. She struggled to make close friends. Her asthma troubled her, and when her younger sister Susan was a bit older, the mother would keep Emily off school so they could be together. But this, if anything, only emphasised the differences between the two sisters, with Susan, despite being five years Emily’s junior, almost her equal in terms of her physical development.
The narrator’s young son Ronnie, who is still a baby, cries out and she goes to change him, reflecting on the word ‘Shoogily’, denoting comfort, which he has learned from Emily. This leads her to think about the impact Emily has on her family, and her mother reflects on the difficult upbringing her daughter has had, sometimes having to play the role of ‘mother’ herself to her younger siblings, especially during the years of the Second World War in the early 1940s.
Then, one morning, Emily phoned her mother from school while her mother was at work, and told her she had entered, and won, the school’s talent competition. Now, the narrator tells us, Emily was ‘Somebody’. But this just meant she was ‘imprisoned’ in a new way: in her difference (being singled out as a talented performer) rather than her anonymity.
At this point in her reverie, Emily comes in and disturbs her mother’s thoughts. She makes a jokey comment about how long it takes her mother to do the ironing, and when her mother asks her about her exams the following day, Emily says they don’t matter, since everyone will be dead from atomic war in a few years anyway.
Concluding her thoughts on her daughter, the narrator says she will never ‘total it all’: never be able to sum up everything about Emily that there is to say. She proceeds to summarise her daughter’s upbringing, however, with all the difficulties young Emily had faced, before saying, ‘Let her be.’ She knows that Emily will probably never achieve all of her dreams, but she wants her to know that she is more than the dress on the ironing board that her mother has been ironing, ‘helpless before the iron.’
‘I Stand Here Ironing’: analysis
In some ways, it makes sense to view ‘I Stand Here Ironing’ as a story about adolescence and coming of age, even if the narrator of the story is the mother, rather than her teenage daughter. One of the distinctive things about Olsen’s approach is that she allows us to observe the nineteen-year-old Emily only through her mother, who acknowledges early on in the story that her own knowledge of her daughter is incomplete: she dismisses the notion that she possesses some ‘key’ to understanding Emily’s identity and behaviour.
And this narratorial stroke of genius works to do something else, too. It makes ‘I Stand Here Ironing’ not a story about Emily, or a story about her mother, but a story about both of them, and the ways in which they are both still forging their identities in relation to each other. Emily, who has already had to take on various ‘roles’ as a child (including, significantly, that of ‘mother’ to her younger siblings, to help their mother out), finally locates her sense of self in the world of drama and theatre: in other words, her identity is, ironically enough, founded on an absence of one specific ‘self’ which is authentically her.
Olsen’s mother character in ‘I Stand Here Ironing’ is interested in how the various details of her daughter’s early life should have led to this culmination, this arrival at a sense of self that is, oddly, about negating or removing one’s true inner self for the purposes of performance. She is curious to discover what role her own parenting – as well as the genetics which led Emily to start physically resembling her absent father – has had in ‘making’ Emily who she is, for good or ill.
Of course, although the narrator of ‘I Stand Here Ironing’, as the title makes clear, is engaged in one of the domestic and maternal tasks which a doting mother might be expected to perform in the 1950s, she is aware that her own efforts to perform multiple roles in the family unit have put a strain on Emily’s childhood. Just as Emily has had to play mother at times to help out her own mother, so the narrator has had to take on the role of father, especially when Emily’s own father walked out on them, leaving her to be both breadwinner and homemaker.
So, although Olsen’s story, as the very title suggests, is centred on the domestic sphere of motherhood and the home, Olsen also shows how the home does not exist in a vacuum. The Great Depression of the 1930s, mentioned by the story’s narrator, possibly lies behind the father’s abandonment of his family (at a time when so many men were struggling to fulfil the role of breadwinner and put food on the table), and both Emily and her mother have had to shift their respective roles of daughter and mother to become, at least part-time, ‘mother’ and ‘father’ respectively.