I Stand Here Ironing | Study Guide

Tillie Olsen

Download a PDF to print or study offline.

Study Guide
Cite This Study Guide

How to Cite This Study Guide

quotation mark graphic


Course Hero. "I Stand Here Ironing Study Guide." Course Hero. 21 Sep. 2020. Web. 22 Sep. 2023. <https://www.coursehero.com/lit/I-Stand-Here-Ironing/>.

In text

(Course Hero)



Course Hero. (2020, September 21). I Stand Here Ironing Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved September 22, 2023, from https://www.coursehero.com/lit/I-Stand-Here-Ironing/

In text

(Course Hero, 2020)



Course Hero. "I Stand Here Ironing Study Guide." September 21, 2020. Accessed September 22, 2023. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/I-Stand-Here-Ironing/.


Course Hero, "I Stand Here Ironing Study Guide," September 21, 2020, accessed September 22, 2023, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/I-Stand-Here-Ironing/.

I Stand Here Ironing | Themes


"I Stand Here Ironing" examines the deep guilt the narrator feels for her parenting choices. The story examines the ways poverty, circumstances, and responsibility have shaped the narrator's daughter Emily.


The guilt the narrator feels for her parenting missteps with Emily is the driving emotion throughout the story. Every choice the narrator unravels throughout the story evokes guilt in the narrator. There was never enough time, never enough money, and never enough energy for Emily. The narrator agonizes over every wrong choice she made regarding Emily and does not grant herself any grace or talk about any of the things she must have done well. She thinks about the many ways she couldn't provide for Emily and especially the inadequate emotional support she provided. The narrator had to make many difficult choices that were beyond her control. She left Emily with a cruel babysitter in her youth, sent her to live with relatives twice, and sent her to the convalescence house against her better judgment. She made these choices because poverty and circumstances made life difficult. However, the choices to leave Emily at home alone at night or to tell her to go back to bed when she was crying are hard to excuse. The narrator acknowledges that some of her choices were forced by circumstances and out of her control, but she can't shift the blame for all of her mistakes. She could have given Emily more attention, more smiles, and more affection in her youth, and she now sees it is too late to fix her mistakes. Emily has been shaped by the lack of affection and the added responsibilities into a shy and insecure young lady. The narrator says she's done better with her subsequent children, but she cannot fix the errors she made with Emily.

Working-Class Struggle

Poverty and struggles shaped Emily's life and the narrator's parenting decisions. The narrator struggled to provide the most basic needs for Emily and herself. She had to find work to provide food and shelter during an economic depression, and her poverty forced her to separate herself from Emily. This separation was unfortunate but unavoidable. The narrator's struggles reflect the common disadvantages and hardships of the working class. The narrator made choices based on Emily's survival, but the choices came at a price. Many working-class parents faced similar difficult and unavoidable choices to feed and shelter their families. The narrator and Emily would not have survived if the narrator hadn't worked, but the price of that separation was a strained relationship and difficulty showing affection. The demands of poverty left the narrator too physically and emotionally drained to give Emily the love and attention she needed. She provided for Emily's basic needs for food and shelter but couldn't give Emily what she needed to be a confident and joyful young adult.


The narrator and Emily are both deeply impacted by the responsibilities in their lives. Circumstances were not kind to the narrator when she became a young mother, and she had to take on difficult responsibilities alone. Her husband abandoned the family and left them in abject poverty which forced her to care for Emily all by herself. She had no family nearby to help and seemed to not have many friends to rely on. Emily was totally dependent on her mother, and the narrator had the urgent responsibility of finding work so she could provide for Emily's most basic needs. The narrator was able to feed, clothe, and shelter her, but doing so came at a great cost to the narrator. She was too drained from her daily responsibilities to show Emily affection. The narrator's neighbor pointed out that she should smile more at Emily. The weight of single parenthood was heavy, and the responsibilities of providing for Emily took their toll on the mother–daughter relationship in many ways. The narrator loved her daughter, but the responsibilities of being a single, working-class mother were so burdensome that the narrator couldn't muster the strength and joy to be the kind of mother her daughter deserved.

The cycle of unfair responsibility repeats with Emily who had to take responsibility for herself and her siblings to help the family manage. Emily is both the eldest child and a child born into poverty, and she developed responsibilities that her siblings did not share. She didn't have the luxury of throwing tantrums when she wanted something when she was a child. Instead, she learned early to be responsible for herself by keeping her emotions in check and trying to convince her mother of the things she wanted. She quietly resigned herself to her situation when she couldn't get what she wanted. As a young child, she was sometimes left alone at night. She tried to be brave, but she was too young for so much responsibility. Later, when she was sick with the measles and her mother would not come to her bedside at night, Emily was responsible for her own self-care and self-comfort.

Emily learned at a young age to take responsibility for herself and later for her siblings as a mother figure. Her mother's failings caused Emily to take on more responsibilities than a typical child, and a cycle developed where each woman is too overloaded by duty to develop to their full potential. Emily "had to help be a mother, and housekeeper, and shopper" in the household. She helped get kids ready for school, make lunches, and share some child-rearing responsibilities with the narrator. Emily was responsible for her own emotional well-being and had had to learn to be self-sufficient from an early age. So much responsibility at a young age shaped Emily into a quiet and shy girl and took away the joy and lightheartedness that should be the hallmarks of youth.

Questions for Themes

View all
Select two stages of development. Identify the main characteristics of each stage that influence the ability to learn. Describe three main teaching strategies for each of the developmental stages sele
Neither the cities nor the countries would take responsibility for their budget overruns. Can we keep this matter just between you and I? Only a few attorneys still have private secretaries. Our staff
The Amazon rainforest is an important global resource that is being exploited primarily for local benefit. Given the common interest in preserving this valuable resource, including its biodiversity, w
How can the internet be used both as a vehicle of freedom and as an instrument to advance totalitarian domination? Speculate: which of these two paths is most likely to define the use of the internet
Cite This Study Guide

information icon Have study documents to share about I Stand Here Ironing? Upload them to earn free Course Hero access!