MAKING THE MOST OF WRINKLES
“I Stand Here Ironing” by Tillie Olsen is a short story that calls attention to the struggles and hardships of a single mother, who remains nameless, and her child, Emily. I was a young single mother and can relate to the narrator of the story. Feelings of guilt and regret plague a mother when she lacks the ideal emotional and financial support for childrearing.
A mother always wants what is best for her child, and the first born is a kind of test. A young mother strives to be perfect and to care for her child as professionals say she should. The narrator in the story reflects, “I nursed her. They feel that’s important nowadays. I nursed all the children, but with her, with all the fierce rigidity of first motherhood, I did what the books then said” (par. 6). I did the same with my daughter and felt I could not do enough for her. Like the narrator of the story, I had no financial support for my child and needed to work. Every time I sent Kali to a sitter, she would cry, and it broke my heart. I felt I was going to miss a major milestone in her young life. I did not know anything about how a child’s mind worked, so when I had to send her to her paternal grandparents for a weekend or week, I thought she would not know me when she returned home. Emily’s mother barely recognizes her when she returns from her grandparents’, “When she finally came, I hardly knew her, walking quick and nervous like her father, looking like her father, thin and dressed in a shoddy red that yellowed her skin and glared at the pockmarks” (par. 11). When I read this part of the story, it reminded me of the summer I sent Kali to Ohio to stay with my sister so I could work and go to school. Samara called me a week after Kali arrived to inform me, not so nicely, that my daughter had chickenpox. I felt horrible because my baby was sick, needed me, and I could not be there for her. I cried a lot that summer. My sister, who was not yet a mother, made me feel like a worthless parent. At one point she wanted to take my daughter from me because she felt I could not care for her properly. Kali was my life, and I was doing all I could!
Like Emily in the story, Kali was often sick as a child. She was plagued with ear infections and strep throat. She was seeing her pediatrician at least twice a month. In the small town I am from, young single mothers were rare. People would stare at us when we walked down the street, and while some felt sorry for us, when I would take Kali to the doctor’s, the nurses always looked down on me. They would ask me what I was doing to make my daughter sick and tell me I needed to keep her home from daycare since she caught everything the other children had. They did not realize I had no choice but to send her if I wanted to feed, clothe, and keep a roof over our heads. I was doing it all on my own. Many people do not realize how much a single mother gives up for her child. Many nights I cried myself to sleep wondering if I was going to have enough money to feed my daughter for the next week, if I was going to be able to pay my rent, or if I had enough love in my heart to go on.
The guilt I felt while Kali was growing up was overwhelming. I could not be there for her when she needed me. At times I resented her because, unlike the narrator of “I Stand Here Ironing,” I came from a privileged home and felt I should be doing better for myself and for her. The mother in the story seems to feel the same way, and it shows: “The old man living in the back once said in his gentle way: ‘You should smile at Emily more when you look at her’” (par.17). A single mother has a hard time smiling at her child and showing her love when she is worried about rent and where their next meal is coming from. A child can sense her mother’s unhappiness, and it reflects in the child’s demeanor.
Kali and I, like the narrator and Emily, struggled with life; however, we came out better in the end. My daughter saved my life, and I will be ever grateful to her. People always feared for Kali’s future and thought she would end up being a young single mother. Plenty of others her age have, some in similar situations, some not. Instead, at the age of fourteen my daughter published her first poem, and at sixteen she qualified for early graduation but decided to stay in school for the experience. We have been through hell and back together, and that makes our relationship stronger. I am very proud of her and our accomplishments. We grew up together, and because of her, I am a stronger person. The mother in “I Stand Here Ironing” says, “ She is so lovely. Why did you want me to come in at all? She will find her way” (par. 52). My daughter found her way, and I could not be more proud. Children are resilient, and when they see how their parent struggles, it makes them stronger. A single mother does not want her child to see the hardships they face, but it is inevitable. One can only hope they learn from it, and, as in my daughter’s case, that the struggle makes them a better person.