I stand here ironing is a story that tackles numerous societal problems including mother daughter conflicts, gender roles, diligence, personal effects of national economic struggles and the challenges of single parenthood.

These themes make the story relevant today as it was during the time of its writing

Theme in “I stand here ironing”

The prevailing theme in the book is challenges of single parenthood. Olsen is a single mother who is faced with the task of bringing up a sickly child Emily on her own. Things are further complicated by the fact that she is very young and quite poor – having come from an immigrant Russian family herself. Throughout the book, one cannot help but wonder what would have happened to Emily if her father had been around. Olsen lacked the strength to confront the social workers who recommended the placement of Emily in a sanatorium.

Perhaps things would have been different is Emily’s father was around because two people would definitely feel strong enough to challenge the health workers; especially if their instincts went against them. Emily ended up being very happy in the health facility because of her mother’s decision and this may have changed if she was not a single mother. The story illustrates that single parenthood often puts parents in a position where they cannot cater to their children’s needs thus compromising on what they become in the future. Emily’s mother found herself in these difficult circumstances after her partner opted out of the marriage when Emily was less than a year old.

Providing for her child on her own made it quite tricky to Olsen so she had to send Emily to relatives (Olsen, 6). These circumstances were somehow beyond Olsen’s control because she had tried all she could to make things work. Eventually, she had to accept that she could not be there for her child and subsequently sent her elsewhere. Olsen is filled with lots of self doubt in subsequent parts of her life over her choices concerning Emily and the manner in which she chose to raise this child. Mother daughter conflicts (or parent to child conflicts) are also an important theme in the book. As Olsen narrates the story of raising her first born daughter, one can see the guilt and loss of time that she feels concerning this matter. The relationship between mother and daughter in this narrative is quite complex thus leading to the negative feelings that Emily has towards Olsen. Emily feels that she missed out on some of the critical factors of growing up.

She did not get much attention from her mother and this makes her act out against her and the rest of society. In fact, at the beginning of the narrative when Olsen receives a call from an external party about Emily needing help, she starts to wonder what the problem was and what she could have done to prevent those problems. In a certain way, Olsen contributed towards Emily’s resentment of her because she did not offer her child stability. Minor signs of affection such as smiles (6) were a virtually unknown to Emily. This relationship between mother and daughter is therefore characterized by continual reflection and bitterness over the past and what could have been done. Emily longs to enjoy a normal life but may feel that too much has been said and done to allow her this (Olsen, 8). Her mother also goes through numerous reflections on the past and realizes that she could have offered her daughter a better life if she had been more knowledgeable or if she had been wiser. This story therefore places the mother daughter conflicts in perspective by illustrating the origin of these problems.

Motherhood in the story is not presented in the usual romanticized manner that most people have grown accustomed to in that era. The author was bold enough to present a realistic picture devoid of any alterations. It is essentially a story about internal struggles that a mother faces and the need to redefine herself and her understanding of this role as she reflects on the life of her daughter.

It shows how members of that society often struggled with selfhood and therefore had to sacrifice some of their other roles in order to meet these perspectives head on. Indeed, this story illustrates how a mother’s love for her children is very real it was. Olsen wishes that she was in a position to give her daughter a better life than the one she lived when she was young. This is the reason why Emily’s mother is filled with regret when she thinks about the choices and the life she accorded her daughter (Olsen, 8). As one goes through the narration, one can evidently see that most of the tough times this family went through were inevitable and that it was nobody’s fault that what happened actually did.

Olsen had the best intentions and actually did what she could at those times. Also, as one thinks about Emily, one gets this image of a girl who wanted an ideal parent and this was not possible at the time. The poor and strained relationship between this mother and daughter therefore illustrates a deep history between these two individuals. Emily is overwhelmed by her past which was filled with a lack of involvement by her mother and also lack of affection from the same individual.

This story shows that when relationships do not look as good in the present, then they have probably been brought on by a series of past incidences and events. All in all, it can be said that the book was responsible for bringing out a fresh perspective on motherhood. Stereotypical images of happy American families were challenged through this short story and therefore contributed to an understanding of motherhood as being an immensely personal and unique experience to all individuals. Another emerging theme in the story is the personal effects of national economic downfall. The story’s setting can be traced back to the nineteen thirties during the economic depression. Families all over America had to contend with economic challenges and nowhere were these forces more evident that in the single parent homes. Olsen found it hard to make end meets at such difficult times. The kind of jobs she could secure required her to sacrifice her time away from her family or the things that mattered most to her.

This eventually affected her parenting abilities. In fact, the story revealed how the economic history of the country affected lives of Americans personally. The predicaments faced by this young mother would have been much less if her external environment had been less harsh. In fact through Olsen’s eyes, it is possible to see the inevitability of certain situations. Life may sometimes be determined by factors that cannot be controlled by specific individuals. In such circumstances, all one can do is try and cope with the challenges rather than resist them and deal with the consequences later. As one reads through the story, one realizes that Olsen was a victim of circumstance.

First, she had to abandon the plans that she had for her education. At the tender age of sixteen, Olsten could no longer go to school because her family needed her to make economic contributions to their income. This put Olsen at a serious disadvantage because the lack of education meant minimal access to great economic opportunities and hence a life of poverty (Olen, 4). The fact that her family members were refugees from Russia did not help either because it was this difficult situation that caused them to resort to child labor from their daughter in order to make ends meet. External factors are therefore critical in determining how the lives of individuals eventually play out. Olsen also got involved in communist centered movements such as the Warehouse union and the Young communist league.

She probably got involved because she was a member of the working class. The unfairness and difficulties inherent in the class system were a harsh reality to the young Olsen. Her involvement in these movements was therefore a way of protecting her interests as a working class mother and member of an exploited class. Gender roles are also another important theme in the book. The book was written at a time in America’s history when the feminist movement just started picking up. In this regard, there was a need to highlight the plight of women who were confronted with unfair situations. Olsen was abandoned by her husband and left to fend for her family at an early age (Olsen, 5).

It did not matter that both these adults were responsible for bringing Emily to the world; it was a woman who was left to handle the responsibility alone. Indeed the story of Olsen was one that was rarely told in fictional tales at the time. This explains why it became a reference point for explaining how women were often ignored during difficult times. Olsen had been abandoned and had to find a way of coping with poverty. This illustrates that American society at that time was quite tolerant of runaway fathers who do not take responsibility for what they had done. Furthermore, society had not instilled certain social support services such as welfare and the like. This meant that the biting realities of poverty were quite inclined to one gender over the other.

Additionally, the image portrayed of women in this story is one of an unfair economical system. Throughout the story, one does not find any description of women who happen to be economically successful. Even the narrator herself appears to hold insignificant jobs in her life. At the time when she is reflecting over her life as a mother, one gets the picture of a stay at home mother who has not gotten an opportunity to make a substantial contribution to her country’s economy. This could be an illustration of how unfair the system was to them. The issue of persistence in the face of turmoil is also an important theme in the short story. As Olsen thinks about her early life with young Emily, she creates an image of very difficult circumstances.

She talks about all the poverty that they had to deal with. Furthermore, she highlights how difficult Emily herself was. She used to complain a lot of times and was never happy with the way they lived. In addition, Olsen was left by her spouse. Some individuals facing such hard times would simply decide to give up and let go of their responsibilities. However, Olsten persisted through all these problems. Eventually, she was able to come out of her difficult predicaments and thus show some optimism for the future.

A number of issues crop up as one looks through the life underwent by Emily’s mother. First, she was lonely; at the time of her spouse’s departures, she had no one to give her support, to share her struggles with or even to look up to but she still overcame this problem (Olsen, 4). Emily’s mother was also very vulnerable. Because of the nature of her background, she was not in a position to stand up for her rights. This was probably why she got convinced by Emily’s father to get involved with him.

Her economic situation made her settle for less even when she knew that she deserved better.


I stand here ironing is a personal and rich piece of literature owing to the fact that its subject matters have not been presented as black or white; they each have their own flaws and inadequacies. However, through the use of theme, readers can identify with their circumstances and hence understand the source of their troubles.


Kelly, Joseph, ed. I Stand Here Ironing by Tillie Olsen The Seagull Reader Stories. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001.


I'm Erica!

Would you like to get a custom essay? How about receiving a customized one?

Check it out