A Different Parenting Story
Tillie Olsen does the unthinkable in writing “I Stand Here Ironing.” Olsen does not write about the joy of motherhood, or line the clouds in the story with any silver outlines. Instead, she writes a story about a mother who is painfully honest in her reflection of parenting. The unnamed narrator of the story does not make excuses for her shortcomings or subscribe to the societally accepted notion of painting a pretty picture of motherhood. In contrast, when speaking to a caller who is concerned over her daughter’s behavior, she surprisingly highlights the mistakes that she made as an early parent and uses their past together to explain that simply being a mother does not grant her additional insight.
“I Stand Here Ironing” focuses on the silent burden of motherhood, as depicted through the narrator’s difficulty with balancing motherhood with work and her struggles with following the advice of others. The narrator remains unnamed throughout the story; arguably strengthening the possibility that she could be any woman and every woman at the same time.
Robert Kloss deftly writes that “We get motherhood ‘stripped of romantic distortion’” in the story (Kloss, 1994).
This truth is immediately realized in the beginning of the story. An unidentified person calls to relay concern to the narrator over her daughter’s behavior. The narrator’s frustration over the burden of shedding any insight on it is felt when she reflects on how difficult it will be to go in and explain. “I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron” (Olsen, 2006). She further explains, “[…] I will become engulfed with all I did or did not do, with what should have been and what cannot be helped” (Olsen, 2006). It is clear that the narrator struggles with the poor choices that she made for her daughter in the past and that reflecting on these mistakes will not be an easy task. The fact that she cannot even reflect on her daughter’s past without this torment is a burden of motherhood that haunts her still.
The narrator also explains that she nursed Emily, “They feel that’s important nowadays. I nursed all the children, but with her, [I did it] with all the fierce rigidity of first motherhood, I did like the books then said. Though her cries battered me to trembling and my breasts ached with swollenness I waited ‘till the clock decreed” (Olsen, 2006). The narrator cared enough to read parenting books and carefully listened to the experts’ advice, doing what she thought was best, despite her daughter’s cries and her own physical pain. The difficulty of knowing whether to listen to one’s biological instincts and doing what child experts decree is a struggle that most mothers faces. This highlights another burden of motherhood, not truly knowing what is best for the child until it is possibly too late.
The narrator had a difficult time balancing the necessity to work with her responsibilities as a parent. Finding a place for Emily to stay while she worked was yet another burden for her. “She was a miracle to me, but when she was eight months old I had to leave her daytimes with the woman downstairs to whom she was no miracle at all, for I worked or looked for work and for Emily’s father […] ‘could no longer endure’” (Olsen, 2006). She also explains that once she got to an age where others said she was “old enough for nursery school” she followed suit. “I did not know then what I know now—the fatigue of the long day, and the lacerations of group life in the kinds of nurseries that are only parking places for children” (Olsen, 2006). Again, we see the struggle that the narrator had with listening to the advice of others and with the burden of doing “what is best.” However, the narrator’s burden of having to balance work with motherhood left little room for flexibility, “It would have made no difference if I had known. It was the only place there was. It was the only way we could be together, the only way I could hold a job” (Olsen, 2006). The narrator struggles with the burden of another poor choice when Emily gets sick with the measles which caused a bout of frequent nightmares.
The narrator explains that she would not go to Emily when she called for her in the middle of the night, “Twice, only twice, when I had to get up for Susan anyhow, I went in to sit with her” (Olsen, 2006). When Emily’s sickness continued to worsen, the narrator was “persuaded” to send Emily to a convalescent home and the distance between them lengthens. The only contact she could have with Emily there was to shout up to her from the bottom of her balcony, as physical contact or affection was not allowed. Again, the narrator does things that she feels are best for Emily, such as expecting her to be brave at night because she’s “old enough” or sending her to a convalescent home after receiving medical advice, but it would seem that every choice she makes with good intentions backfires. This constant struggle to do the “correct” thing for one’s child is another unspoken burden of motherhood. The narrator reflects on this while ironing: balancing motherhood with work and her struggles with understanding what was best for Emily. In the end of the story she realizes, “I will never total it all. I will never come in to say: She was a child seldom smiled at. Her father left me before she was a year old. I had to work her first six years when there was no work […] My wisdom came too late” (Olsen, 2006). The narrator’s final reflection sums up the burden she endured as a mother and realizes that she will continue to bear the weight of it still.
Olsen, Tillie. “I Stand Here Ironing.” A Pocketful of Prose. Vol. II. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2006. 69-79. Print. Kloss, Robert J. “Balancing the Hurts and the Needs: Olsen’s I Stand Here Ironing.” Journal of Evolutionary Psychology 1-2 15 (1994): 78-86. Print.
Cite this A Different Side of Parenting, “I Stand Here Ironing” by Tillie Olsen
A Different Side of Parenting, “I Stand Here Ironing” by Tillie Olsen. (2016, Nov 05). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/a-different-side-of-parenting-i-stand-here-ironing-by-tillie-olsen/