The narrator, oppressed by personal and environmental circumstances, laments the choices she has made as a mother. She frankly reveals the dark side of being a parent and discusses the heartbreak, lack of control, and hopelessness that often infiltrate low-income and lower-middle-class households. Through her personal, interior monologue, she gives an honest view of motherhood that is typically absent from the image of the self-denying, long-suffering “ideal mother” that society expects women to embrace. At the same time, there is a resigned, distant tone to her ruminations, a sad acceptance that she feels about events that are beyond her control or too far in the past to change. As she indicates at the beginning of the story, the ability to pause, analyze a situation, and determine the best course of action was a luxury she never had when she was a young mother. The narrator is weighed down with domestic duties, and the constant demands of a large family run counter to a life of thoughtful consideration. Her extended meditation on the state of her daughter is framed by labor, the domestic duty of ironing the family’s clothes.
As the narrator presses Emily’s dress and privately considers her response to a concerned teacher or counselor who has called about an undefined problem, she knows full well that she will not respond to the person’s request for a face-to-face meeting. The ironing serves as the backdrop for her reckoning of her life as a mother, but it does not indicate any kind of impending action. This lack of initiative and her passive belief that Emily will somehow find the right path subtly expose the narrator’s failings as a guardian and inability to fulfill the ideal of what a sacrificing, loving parent should be. Although the narrator accepts responsibility for her role in Emily’s unhappy development, at the same time she absolves herself of full responsibility, placing blame on environmental and social conditions that are unsympathetic to the needs of a single mother. She is unable to fully acknowledge the somber, tentative young adult Emily has become, because doing so would force the narrator to accept the ways her adult life has fallen short of expectation.
Emily is the central character of “I Stand Here Ironing,” the subject of a fractured portrait that emerges from the narrator’s memories of the past. Emily seems to be a forgotten child, a muted presence in the family. However, through the narrator’s obsessive focus on Emily’s development and current, unspecified predicament, a complex portrayal of a vibrant presence comes into focus. Even though the narrator dwells on the details of Emily’s gloomy and sickly nature, lack of popularity, and low self-esteem, she ultimately describes a sensitive, thoughtful, and selfless individual who has survived simply because she must. Emily has a grim, cheerless demeanor as well as an incongruous gift for comedy and performance. In a way, her acting ability serves as a dour comment on her conditions growing up. Her penchant for mimicry and bringing characters vividly to life reflects Emily’s desire to become someone else, transcend her present reality, and escape the squalor, lack of attention, and compromised conditions that have marked her life so far.