Unlike the insensitive, unconscious mother in “The Watcher,” the mother who is also the narrator in Tillie Olsen’s “I Stand Here Ironing” lets her readers know in the first sentence that she is tormented, and in the second sentence she reveals that the source of her torment is her daughter. Torment is a heavy word connoting possible guilt and regret, and the use of the present tense “stand,” in the title, indicates that it is ongoing. “I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron. ‘I wish you would manage the time to come in and talk with me about your daughter (10).’ ”
While the mother in “The Watcher” appears to the reader totally culpable in her gross negligence of her daughter and son, the mother in this story struggles to examine and, at the same time, resists sifting, weighing, estimating, and totaling the consequences surrounding the choices she made about raising her daughter, and the unavoidable circumstances that swept them both into an eddy from which there seemed to be no escape. The poignancy of the story lies in: (1) the narrator’s developing awareness that the accumulation of her choices involving Emily had a devastating effect on Emily’s character, and (2) the relevancy it bears to many of our lives and choices made, combined with circumstances endured, by the women who raised us.
This relevancy would be as true for the students in my classes and should be a means of raising questions about choices and circumstances with their own mothers, grandmothers or women who raised and/or are raising them. There are many opportunities for meeting oneself as either a mother or a daughter in Tillie Olson’s story.
Beginning her reflections chronologically, the mother describes her daughter, Emily, as “a beautiful baby,” and Emily’s need later to be told by her mother how beautiful she had been as a baby and would be; “…and was now to the seeing eye.” And then the mother abruptly halts the flow of the prose, admitting, “But seeing eyes were few or nonexistent. Including mine (11).”
At eight months the mother had to leave this baby who “was a miracle to me,” with a woman in the building, to look for work and for Emily’s father who had left them. The mother explains that it was the worst years of the Great Depression. After she leaves her with the woman downstairs, it doesn’t get better; it gets worse. She has to bring her baby to the family of her husband and leave her there. And then it was nursery school “…parking places for children.” Emily hated going but her pleadings were indirect, and her mother knew the teacher was evil, but she had no alternative. “It was the only way we could be together, the only way I could hold a job (12).”
The narrator adds that Emily had to get used to a new daddy. And they left her alone nights, “telling themselves she was old enough.” “Can’t you go some other time Mommy, like tomorrow?” Emily would ask. “Will it be just a little while you’ll be gone? Do you promise?” The mother remembers that one time when they came back, Emily was “rigid awake (13).”
Her mother remembers being persuaded by the clinic to send Emily away to a convalescent home when she was not recovering her health after having red measles. What her mother painfully recalls is that the home would not allow Emily to keep the letters that her mother had written to her; a seven-year-old was not allowed to keep her mother’s letters. Emily got frailer at this home. After this episode in the convalescent home, her mother recalls that Emily would push away when she tried to hold her.
At least twice in her narration, Emily’s mother refers to it being “too late!” Emily’s mother confides to the reader that she will never total it all. But it is apparent from the account she has so painfully rendered that Emily’s mother made many choices about raising Emily that, in retrospect, she does not consider to be good ones. These choices, often informed by circumstances, had a profound effect on the young woman that Emily has become.
Emily’s mother admits, “My wisdom came too late… Only help her to know --help make it so there is cause for her to know -- that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron (14).” The profound regrets of Emily’s mother concerning both her choices and the circumstances surrounding those choices in raising her daughter are palpable. There is much, no doubt, that many mothers whose “wisdom came too late” would like to convey to their grown children.
There is an opportunity after reading and discussing this story to explore options for single parents today that might help prevent situations like this one. Teachers need to be aware that it may be too painful for a student to relate his/her own experiences to Emily’s, or for him/ her to have a dialogue with the women who have raised or are raising him/her to learn what circumstances informed the choices they made when the student was growing up.