Saturday, May 11, 2019
May 11-12, 2019: "I Stand Here Ironing" and the Challenges of Motherhood
[In honor of this wonderful chance to celebrate some of the most wonderful people I know, how one of the great American short stories can help us remember the toughest and most inspiring sides of motherhood.]
On a short story that helps us remember and celebrate one of society’s toughest and most vital roles.
I would be the first to admit that I am doing what is without a doubt my most important life’s work—as a dad to these two crazy and crazy cute young dudes—in near-ideal conditions. However you slice it, from past role models to present support from family and friends, economic security to good health, neighborhood and community to (at least when it comes to something like mixed-race identity) a very tolerant and open-minded historical era and time period, I can’t imagine there being more positive influences on my ability to be a good dad (don’t worry, I’m knocking on wood while typing all that). And still, it’s hard. It’s hard especially on two distinct and crucial levels: on its own terms, it’s hard to feel day in and day out like I’m doing everything I can do for and with them, to prepare them for the best and happiest and most successful futures and lives; and in a broader context, it’s hard much of the time to feel as if I’m balancing out parenting and my career in ways that are mutually productive. And I don’t think those things are even vaguely distinctive for me—quite the opposite, I think they’re indications of just how hard these questions are for everybody.
But of course the reality is that these questions are much, much harder for a great many Americans. If even one of those positive influences that I listed above is replaced with a negative one—if one doesn’t have much familial or social support, if one’s financial situation is unstable or disadvantaged or bleak, if health issues become prominent, if one’s community is dangerous or threatening, and so on—the difficulties increase exponentially. And if multiple or even most of the influences become negative, if in fact being a good parent becomes an effort to rise above (rather than, in my case, to live up to) all of what surrounds one—as, I believe, is the case for many of the impoverished families and parents with whom my Mom worked for many years in a Head Start-like program in Central Virginia (although she and that program are, just to be clear, one extremely positive influence in their worlds)—well, I can’t even imagine how difficult it becomes at that point. And yet, as if so often the case, a singular and singularly amazing work of American literature allows me to imagine, even in a small way, what it feels like to be in that situation, to try to parent well, or even perhaps just to parent at all, in the face of most every single factor and influence and aspect of one’s situation.
That work is “I Stand Here Ironing,” a short story by Tillie Olsen. Olsen spent the first half of her life living with these questions, as a working single mother who was trying both to be a good parent and to find time or space to hone her considerable talents as a creative and critical writer; when she finally achieved success, with the book of short stories Tell Me a Riddle (1961) that featured “Ironing,” she spent the second half of her life writing about (among many other things) precisely these questions, such as in the unique and important scholarly study Silences (1978) which traces the effects of work and parenthood on women writers in a variety of nations and time periods. Yet I don’t think she ever captured these themes more evocatively or perfectly than in “Ironing,” a brief story in which a mother imagines—while performing the titular act of housework—how she might describe her relationship to her oldest and most troubled daughter (named Emily) to a school official who has asked her to do so. Although the narrator is now in a more stable situation, the first years of her daughter’s life comprised her lowest point in every sense, and for much of the story she reflects with sadness and regret and pain on all that she was not able to offer and give to and be for her daughter during those years. But she comes at the end to a final vision of her now teenage daughter that is, while by no means idealistic or naïve, a recognition that Emily is becoming her own person, that she is strong and independent, and that she has the opportunity to carve out a life that, at the very least, can go far beyond where it began.
It’s a beautiful and powerful story, and a very complex one, not least because no parent can read it with the perspective of simply a literary critic or a distanced reader in any sense. It pushes us up against the most difficult aspects of this role, makes clear how much more difficult still they can be than most of us (fortunately) will ever know, and then finally reminds us of the absolutely unalterable and singular and crucial meanings of what is, again, the most important thing we’ll ever do. Word to your mother. Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? Mother’s Day texts or contexts you’d share?