Tillie Olsen's short story "I Stand Here Ironing" portrays a mother faced with an overwhelming internal conflict with her oldest daughter, Emily. The mother wants Emily to have a better life than what she has had, and feels as though she is partly to blame. Throughout the story, the mother reflects upon various events in Emily's life that shaped the person she is today. Olsen's use of language, imagery, and diction reveal the life and regret of the mother struggling to raise her oldest daughter.
The language used throughout the story resembles the language of a mathematical equation. This language reflects the theme that the mother is trying to solve a problem regarding her daughter. The problem is first introduced while the mother is "ironing" (1) and Emily's teacher comes over to her house to share her concerns about Emily's schoolwork. The teacher states that Emily is a "youngster who needs help," (5) and she believes that her mother can help her figure out how to help. The mother then questions the teacher's belief that as Emily's mother she could "use [her] as a key" (9) to unlock Emily's problems. This simile demonstrates that although she has been Emily's mother for "nineteen years", (10) she is still unknowledgeable as to why Emily is acting indifferent towards her schoolwork. The mother then uses more mathematical language to express her frustration. She feels that there is no purpose in looking into Emily's past "to estimate, to total" because she "will start and there will be an interruption and [she] will .
have to gather it all together again" (13-15). Emily's mother does not want to solve the problem because she is afraid of looking back upon her past mistakes and regrets. For example, the mother remembers how Emily's "cries battered [her]" (30). This onomatopoeia reflects one of the moments of the past that the mother wishes to forget. Later, after Emily's mother has reflected on her past, she realizes that she "will never total it all" (65).