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.