Mothers are expected to live a life of selfless sacrifice for their children in order to be valued by society. At the same time, absolutely nothing can protect mothers from accusations of causing their children's problems. Tillie Olsen gives a mother a chance to speak about this paradox in the short story “I Stand Here Ironing.“ Very carefully and slowly the mother admits her mistakes in raising her first of several children. Her self blame is based upon not fullfilling society's idea of motherhood, apparent ideal also adressed in Susan Rubin Suleiman's essay “Writing and Motherhood.“ Suleiman's main ideas contradict the traditional expectations by suggesting that mothers deserve their own voice and the right to live their life not as martyrs but as full individuals with own wishes and needs. Suleiman's work is a significant mile stone for real and fictional mothers that can be used as a theoretical guidance in intepreting “I Stand Here Ironing.“
Is a mother to blame for a child's exclusion from the world which surrounds her? The short story by Olsen starts with a mother who describes her moves of ironing as “tormented“ (209). The next sentence exposes what tortures her: someone, probably a teacher or a school advisor, wants to talk to her about her oldest daughter. This person wants “to understand [...] a youngster who needs help“ by inspecting her mother (209). The mother is to be understood as the main connection to the condition of the daughter (a young individual that does not conform to the expectation of a happy girl with many friends). Suleiman would probably suggest this teacher or advisor is looking for clues in the mother to simplistically explain the daughter's difficulties and to show an easy-fix solution to this “problem.“ Probably, the teacher or advisor also wants to personally observe the “measure of goodness“ of the mother (Suleiman 623). One might wonder how a mother's value can be observed by a stranger within a short talk. This problem has a very easy solution: the teacher or advisor would find out within the conversation whether this girl's mother “has no interests of her own“ a necessary criteria for “the ideal mother“ (Suleiman 623). It is a well know fact, after all, that a mother with the ability to live through her children needs nothing else but her children to live. Only if a mother does not expose this willingness to absolutely surrender to the good of her children will the children suffer from her selfish behavior, or not?
The mother in the story is in some ways slightly liberated from this restriction of a mother's role as the cause of child's suffering. She freely admits that: “You think because I am her mother I have a key, or in some way you could use me as a key?“ (209) The mother realizes that the teacher or advisor looks for clues within her being. The idea that an outsider of the family believes that a short talk with the mother can give him or her the “key“ to a young suffering soul is silly and suggests that he or she is willing to take only a superficial look (209). A superficial look is not enough to see the truth in the area of human interrelationships where no absolute truth exists. The mother in the story knows “there is all that life that has happened outside of me, beyond me“ (209). There is more to a person than her or his mother. The daughter lived a life, even though a relatively short one, that is influenced by so many people, events, and places. The mother knows that no one can be easily understood despite what society choses to believe.
No one can escape the ideas and norms of the society they live in. Despite the knowledge of her limited influence on her daughter's life, the mother looks for clues of her wrongdoing. In reflecting upon her actions, the mother admits that she followed society's idea of raising children because she “did like the books (on good motherhood) then said“ (209). The mother chooses to listen to society's guidelines, what “they“ say, more closely than to her own instinct (209). One example is when she waited until “the clock decreed“ to breastfeed instead of doing it when the child cried out of hunger (210). The mother seeked guidance from authority in her newly gained responsibility for a new being. In modern times, a mother lacks the support network of a big family that helped young women adjust to their new found status as mothers and gave them role models of how to overcome “the fierce rigidy of first motherhood“ (209). Young mothers lived in households with older, more experienced women who were not only a source of advice but also a big support group. Unfortunately, the mother in the story appears to have no one to advise her; therefore, she turns to the authorities of society such as doctors, child psychologists and other professionals that were probably male, generally referred to as “they“. However, it is a rather common phenomenon for the authorities to revise their stand on what exactly is most beneficial to the subject of their care. Research often demonstrated that after the authorities took many cross roads, in the end, the natural way of the mother turns out to be best and now with the scientific blessing. It would be nice to see the authorities to trust a mother's instinct for a change.
The mother in this story describes her daughter as a “miracle“ (210). She loves her daughter very much, and at the time of the daughter's infancy, she tried very hard to support both of them by herself. The mother was forced to leave her little daughter with a neigbor who did not care as much for the little girl as the mother would have liked, but she had no choice but to leave her daughter there. However, the mother's own consciousness did not allow her to keep up this arrangement for too long, so she “found a job hashing at night so (she) could be with her days“ (210). The mother must have endured a time of much stress and exhaustion by finding a night job. A night job for a single mother means that she is constantly on the run. During the day there are household things that must be done: dipers changed, food bought and made and during the night there is work. Little time is left to sleep and no time to the young mother herself. Therefore it is understandable that “it came to where [she] had to bring her [daughter] to [the father's] family and leave her“ or absolutely break down (210). Society is unforgivable of mothers who abandon their children without ever considering the circumstances. It is possible that during the time the mother was tortured by society's prejudices and that installed a grain of self blame and guilt in the young mother despite her success in bringing her daughter back. This young mother will probably have difficulties in forgiving herslef because “when (her daughter) finally came, (the mother) hardly knew her“ (210). The split caused grief for both mother and daughter, however, it is unlikely that they will blame society for a lack of support systems for young single mothers that struggle to keep their children. They both will probably also chose the mother-blaming approach.
Even if a mother knows the power of circumstances beyond her control, Suleiman notices that she still is in a constant “struggle against herself“ (628). The mother feels responsible for the problems of her child; she believes that these problems must be somehow connected to her she must look for them in her behavior. Even with the knowledge of her limited influence on her daughter's exposure to life, the mother already internalized the concept of mother-blame. This concept was developed as a way to ignore many problems in society because they are “mother-blame.“ If the mother is the cause, society can ignore that particular problem with a clear conscience. Ironically, even though a mother is basically seen as a root to almost any pulse of the individual's existence, society never gives a mother the right to exercise this tremendous power according to her own instincts. Instead, there are many expectations of how a mother should behave. Therefore, does society indirectly cause what mothers are blamed for? It is time to let mothers be; their life is hard enough without the weight of what might go wrong with their child.
I have a theory. Taking into account that a woman was basically permitted no life of her own, many women were urged into a life they were not meant to live. Women had little possibility to develop their personality and to find out who they truly were. Only women knowing who they are can love themselves and therefore also have the ability to love others. Lack of freedom could have caused their resignation to motherhood and a lack of love or affection to their children. The (male) children took that notion of lack of love and blamed it not on the position of their mother in the society but on the mother herself, the easier approach to take. So, if a woman would not have been oppressed in the partiarchal society, people would have no excuse for their issues and would have to blame themselves for the internal problems. I truly believe that seeing themselves in a more self determining way would give people a better approach to life: the approach of the activity and self determination instead of passivity and mother-blame. This new way to live life would probably result in a better society constructed by responsible citizens, not by individuals that are caught up in mother-blame.
Olsen, Tillie. “I Stand Here Ironing.“ Women & Fiction. Ed Susan Cahill. New York: Signet Classic, 2002. 207-218.