, Research Paper
The first time I read “I Stand Here Ironing” by Tillie Olsen, the emotions it provoked made a tight ball of fear and guild appear in my stomach, I broke out in a sweat and my heart began beating triple time. There were so many similarities between the mother’s story and my memories of the last six years tat it amazed me. But after reading it a few more times, I didn’t feel quite so bad. The mother (I will call her Tillie) and I both have done what we had to do to raise our children.
One similarity is that when my oldest son, Charles, was born, I was barely nineteen. It was scary to be a parent at such a young age, but I loved him and took great joy in him. I had to leave Charles with someone else who did not enjoy him the same way I did when he was very tiny, just like Tillie had to leave her daughter: “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.” We both did what we had to do.
I wasn’t able to spend a lot of time with Charles when he was a baby because I worked seven days a week on a split shift. Circumstances had changed by the time he was a year old, to where I could stay home, but by then he was walking and talking some. I barely new him, just as Tillie barely knew her daughter when she got her back: “When she finally came home, I hardly knew her.” Soon, I had another child (Kevin) and less time to spend with Charles. There were many times that I wished I had more time with both of them. I can remember a few different times when I would get up in the middle of the night and sit snuggling both of them in my lap, sneaking that quiet time. Tillie did something of the same sort when Emily had to stay home from school, “Sometimes, after Susan grew old enough, I would keep her home from school, too, to have them all together.” We both did what we had to do.
Charles and Kevin have always been as diametrically opposite as two people can be. Charles has always preferred quiet times by himself ‘writing’, coloring or drawing. It is not often he shows the natual exuberance of a child. He’s like Emily, “she had a physical lightness and brightness twinkling by on skates, bouncing like a ball up and downup and down over the jump rope, skimming over the hill; but these were momentary.” Kevin, on the other hand, was always chattering, laughing, running and jumping. He’s never been still long enough to put effort into most things–they take too long. There have been many times that Charles has spent an agonizingly long getting a picture ‘just right’ olny to have Kevin snatch it as soon as his brother’s back is turned. Then Kevin will show it to me saying, “Look what I did for you Mom.” There is a good deal of similarity between my two children and Tillie’s first two children. Susan, the younger sister, was “everything in appearance and manner Emily was not; Susan, not able to resist Emily’s precious things, losing or sometimes clumsily breaking them; Susan telling jokes and riddles to company for applause while Emily sat silent (to say to me later: “that was my riddle Mother, I told it to Susan”).
Another similarity is that I have been a single parent since before Charles was three years old. With only a high school education, I could only obtain menial jobs like waitressing. Such menial jobs would not provide enough income to support us, so I decided to get a secondary education. In order to do so, I had to leave my children at a day care facility. There have been times when Kevin would cling to me and beg me not to leave him, but not Charles, he would just look at me. I knew he did not want to be left, but I had no choice if I was going to keep them in my custody. Tillie, also, knew that her child hated being left, but she also had no choice because she had to work: “It was the only place there was. It was the only way we could be together, the only way I could hold a job.” We both did what we had to do.
Behaviorally, Charles has always acted older than his age. Anything he does has to be done to perfection before he is happy with it. Because of this attitude, his teachers now say that he is ’slow’ and ‘has a problem completing his work on time.’ Emily, too, had this problem. “To her overworked and exasperated teachers she was an overconscientious slow learner who kept trying to catch up.” Also because of Charles’ seeming maturity, I tend to ex[[ect more of him than his age should allow. I ask him to help with the house and to take responsibility for walking his brother to school and back. Emily also had to help her mother. “She had to help be a mother, and a housekeeper, and shopper.” Tillie and I are both guilty of using our older children to lighten the load on ourselves. But we did what we had to do.
I sometimes wonder if Charles would have more exuberance if I had behaved with more lightness toward him. In the story, Tillie says that only with her other children did she remember to turn “the face of joy, and not of care or tightness or worry.” It was already too late for Emily. Hopefully, I’ll remember to smile more at my children and not to turn the face of worry toward them, and it won’t be too late.
After reading “I Stand Here Ironing,” I realized that I am not the only mother who has regrets about some of the things I have had to do. I don’t feel quite so guilty anymore. Like Tillie, “They were all the acts of love.” We did what we had to do.