In “I Stand Here Ironing,” Olsen suggests that the role of selfless mother that society expects women to embrace is actually an obstacle to any kind of successful self-discovery. Rather than help women achieve self-actualization, motherhood actually strands women in lives laden with toil and excessive responsibility. Olsen offers a representation of motherhood laid bare, shorn of any romantic embellishment. Instead of presenting an ideal example of a nurturing role model guiding her charges to success, Olsen gives us a protagonist who obsessively meditates on the harsher, more bitter realities of family life. The narrator deflates certain overblown notions regarding motherhood, in particular the primacy of the child-parent bond. The narrator no more understands Emily than the teacher or counselor who requests the mother’s presence at a face-to-face meeting. The narrator is not evil, abusive, or intentionally neglectful, but she is a conflicted victim of circumstance whose personal resources can go only so far. The fact that the narrator did not or could not participate more fully in Emily’s life may have led to the undefined issue that currently besets the young woman. The narrator is able to meet the basic physical needs of her children but is incapable of forming a deeper, more emotional bond with them.
Although the narrator remarks that with young children around, her ears are not her own because she is always listening for crying, it is a lack of listening that has likely sparked the problem with Emily that spurs the narrator’s reflection. Although the narrator laments the past, she still seems to lack enthusiasm for Emily and her pursuits and will probably only perpetuate Emily’s poor social adjustment and low self-esteem. The narrator can ignore Emily’s difficulties and hope that they work themselves out, but this is an attitude of defeat. The narrator has endured a life marked by problems and assumes that Emily will endure the same. One reward of motherhood is providing a different or better life for one’s child, and the narrator seems to have given up hope of winning even this fundamental pleasure.
As the narrator acknowledges her inability to improve Emily’s fortunes in life, she faces a spiritual defeat, and “I Stand Here Ironing” is the narrator’s meditation on the nature of guilt and regret in her life as a mother. The narrator recognizes the powerful influence of poverty and oppressive conditions that women were forced to accept in the early to mid-twentieth century, but she does not deny her own contributions to the maladjusted young woman Emily has become. The narrator’s attempt to “total it all”—that is, to take stock of her actions and decisions as a mother—reads like a list of crimes, a succinct, painful summary of her shortcomings. She offers herself some degree of understanding for the difficulties she faced as a poor and sometimes single mother, but she offers herself no forgiveness.
Emily stirs up guilt and regret in the narrator in a way that the narrator’s other children do not. Emily was the narrator’s first child, the one born into a state of crisis—hard work, little money, and no father around to help. The narrator was too frazzled and desperate to make ends meet to fully meet the child’s needs. With the other children, however, the narrator smiled more and became more emotionally engaged. In many ways, the narrator’s guilt is rooted in the possibility that Emily absorbed the anxiety and distress that once characterized the narrator’s life, as though Emily’s grim demeanor is a relic of this early pattern. The narrator also held Emily to different standards than the other children. She chides herself for demanding “goodness” out of Emily—not just an even, agreeable temperament but a stoic endurance of hardship and lack of resistance to it. Emily did not have the luxury of misbehaving or registering her disapproval in appropriately childish outbursts; instead, she absorbed the narrator’s expectation that she should simply endure unpleasantness. The narrator’s guilt and regret stem from her worries about what the long-term effects of Emily’s forced self-control will ultimately be.
Absence figures heavily in “I Stand Here Ironing,” as the narrator feels guilty about her emotional distance and decision to send Emily away for periods of care or recovery. Emily and the narrator have been absent from each other’s lives during significant portions of Emily’s development. In fact, Emily has known almost nothing but distance and displacement. The narrator sent her to an unaffectionate neighbor for day care when she was eight months old, then to the home of her father’s relatives, then to another caretaker, and finally to a convalescence facility. Each time Emily returned, she was forced to reintegrate into the changing fabric of the household, and the narrator notes how Emily grew slowly more distant and emotionally unresponsive.
After so much absence, the narrator intensifies her attempts to show Emily affection, but these attempts are rebuffed, coming too late to prevent Emily’s withdrawal from her family and the world. Although Emily is now at home with the narrator, the sense of absence continues even in the present moment of the story. Emily, the narrator’s central preoccupation, appears only as a fleeting presence. She enters the story only long enough to interrupt the narrator’s musings on the past. Mother and daughter exist on the edges of each other’s lives, and the narrator sees Emily as a mystery, even a stranger. The narrator tells her audience that she is not a key to Emily and is as unsure as anyone else about what kind of help Emily needs. All the narrator can do is benignly hope that Emily’s life will improve, although she must also confront the fear that what has been a virtually lifelong absence has created an unbridgeable gulf between them.
Emily is a double for the narrator, reflecting the narrator’s fears that she has transferred her hard, hopeless life to Emily, continuing the legacy of poverty and lack of opportunity that plague some women of limited means. A “double” in fiction is a character that serves as a twin for another, usually more central, character, embodying either similar or opposite characteristics. In a flashback, the narrator recalls having Emily when she was only nineteen, the exact age Emily is in the present moment of the story. This similarity links the two characters, fusing their experiences and potential futures. The narrator remembers being nineteen and a single mother during the Great Depression, while Emily is now nineteen and in a similarly dire, though unspecified, situation. Both women began or are beginning their young adulthood facing a personal challenge of some kind.
Just as the narrator was left to deal with problems on her own two decades ago, Emily is left on her own to face whatever problem is plaguing her now. The narrator does not make an effort to help Emily or intervene in her life, despite an unnamed person’s attempt to draw the narrator in. The narrator’s own life could have been altered had she been helped, but she fails to see that the same could be true for Emily. In this way, Emily’s life starts to clearly mirror the narrator’s. Actual mirrors appear briefly in the story when the narrator brings Emily and Susan “two old dresser mirrors,” subtly suggesting the ways in which a generation mirrors the one that came before it. The doubling of mother and daughter in this story is not positive. Instead, the narrator dreads the idea of Emily being a reflection of her, because she understands that Emily’s grim nature is likely a result of the narrator’s pervasive worries and inattention, and that Emily’s future may turn out as burdened and unfulfilled as her own.
The iron represents the chores and responsibilities that prevented the narrator from engaging with Emily’s life more profoundly. As the story’s title suggests, the narrator is constantly embroiled in the duties she must perform to effectively care for her family. This is ironic because it is these duties that drew her away from Emily and lessened the quality of her care. The repetitive motion of the iron moving back and forth across the surface of the ironing board mimics the narrator’s thought processes as she moves back and forth over her life as a mother, attempting to identify the source of Emily’s current difficulties. The distance the narrator feels from Emily is embodied in this simple act of ironing. Although Emily’s welfare is the central concern of the story, the narrator is more actively engaged in unwrinkling her daughter’s dress than in the life of the young woman who will wear it. The narrator’s final wish is that Emily will have a strong sense of self-worth and believe that she is more than the dress that is “helpless before the iron.” This comment suggests that the narrator hopes Emily will be able to transcend the narrator’s mistakes, rather than succumb to the circumstances of her birth.
The convalescent home where Emily recovers from tuberculosis represents the narrator’s inability to effectively care for her children. A social welfare agency has stepped in to provide Emily with the care and attention she does not receive at home—Emily can recover only if she is looked after by strangers in an unfamiliar place. The facility is supported by society women who have placed the children’s convalescence center on their list of causes, and they help support the facility through fundraisers. These women couldn’t be more different from the narrator, who has struggled for her entire life to make ends meet. The wide green lawns and “fluted flower beds” contrast starkly with the narrator’s drab world of ironing in her cramped walkup apartment.
Emily’s balcony in particular represents the emotional distance between the narrator and her daughter. While Emily is at the recovery center, she is cut off from almost all communication. Even the letters the narrator writes to her are read to her once and then thrown away. Parents are allowed to visit only every other Sunday, when the children line up on the balconies of their cottages and conduct shouted conversations with the parents who stand below. The narrator seems unable to establish direct contact with Emily, either in the recovery center or their home life. The narrator refers to the “invisible wall” that divides them, both then and now. A sign instructing visitors not to “contaminate” their children through “physical contact” suggests that the narrator herself is a source of contamination, allowing her daughter to sicken while she devoted her attention to other responsibilities. The mother’s emotional neglect of Emily has permanently “contaminated” her as well, infusing her with a bleakness that the narrator fears will never disappear.