I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron.
The opening line of “I Stand Here Ironing” establishes the oppressive world of domestic tasks that punctuate the narrator’s life and form the background for any consideration of more abstract concerns. The quotation also provides one of the story’s central metaphors. Just as the narrator is pressing her daughter’s dress, so too is she “ironing out” the path of Emily’s development and the problem she is facing. The act of ironing imparts smoothness and order to a garment, and the narrator wishes that Emily’s life could run more smoothly as well—although she stops short of taking steps to help Emily achieve this goal. The word tormented reveals the extent of the narrator’s guilt at the lack of attention and limited opportunities Emily has suffered. However, the act of ironing, part of the never-ending cycle of domestic duties, is what the narrator falls back on when she subtly pleads her defense. With so many chores to perform, the narrator argues, there was little time to devote too much attention to Emily’s personal development. The narrator feels guilty about her shortcomings as a mother, but her guilt is not enough to make her put the ironing aside. The ironing is an inescapable fact of life, and the narrator, although “tormented,” can do nothing about it.