Tillie Olsen's I Stand Here Ironing is a short story about a woman who narrates the history and current state of her relationship with her daughter, Emily. She narrates to a caller on the phone (perhaps a teacher or a counselor, we're never told) who had called to ask if the narrator could come in and give an 'interview' about Emily's childhood, personality, and so on. The narrator seems reluctant to agree, and instead decides she could summarize Emily's life there and then while she irons the laundry, as she couldn't possibly imagine what she could say about her daughter's personality.
She goes on to narrate the circumstances surrounding Emily's birth, how she hadn't paid much attention to her as she should've as a mother, and how her lack of attention to her daughter had taken its toll. Emily was passed from stranger to stranger, as she was placed in a neighbor's care while still a toddler, a neighbor who took no notice of her or cared at all for kids. She was then placed in the care of extended family while the narrator worked long hours, and from there she ended up in a convalescent home, a place that didn't allow for parents to interact with their children in any physical sense; no hugs, no kisses, simply a wave from afar off. Emily is finally taken back to her mom, and by this time she's already built a wall between herself and her mother, thus setting off the tense and in-communicable relationship they have. All this we read and sense from the narrator's tone and choice of words, even though her feelings aren't made verbal or voiced word for word.
The beauty of this short story is how the author tells us everything we need to know in less than 700 words, without much narration or description on her part. In this short, we sense the narrator's pain, even as she tries to sound as offhand as possible. We hear the guilt and sadness embedded in her heart at the loss of a connection with her daughter, who is now nineteen and a much admired actor and comedian, hence the phone call from the stranger to find out more about her. When we take a deeper look at the act of ironing that the narrator is involved in when she got the call, we see a portrayal of the endless chore of household and familial duties that have kept the narrator occupied throughout her adult life. We note this as one major factor as to why she's never had time for her first daughter. She had Emily at nineteen, and had to work two jobs to take care of them, hence Emily being passed from one place to another. By the time she got Emily back, she's married, later had four more children - all of whom she has a deeper connection with, leaving Emily to adjust to a new step-dad and to siblings that obviously took precedence and all attention over her.
As much as we sense the narrator's feelings and remorse, we can't help but feel for Emily as we imagine what she went through as a child, the sense of abandonment she must have felt during the years she spent moving from one household to another, feeling unwanted by others, most especially by her own mother, her step-dad, and her half-siblings. We understand the aloofness she must now feel towards her mother, the hidden spite born from years of hurt. Here, we sense and are able to understand both sides - the narrator's and Emily's. At the time, the narrator thought she was doing what was best for her child, and it is obvious that she now regrets how distant she was with her child, as much as she may have loved her inwardly.
Olsen's short story is indeed a compelling read; it leaves us thinking, wondering, and mulling over the lives of these characters. I encourage you to read it, you won't be disappointed!
I Stand Here Ironing (1961) by Tillie Olsen