Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Tillie Olsen and the Working Woman

"I Stand Here Ironing" could have been written yesterday or it could have been written one hundred years ago.  As a working mother, I relate to the main character much more than I'd like to admit.  I remember trying to wash dishes with my daughter wedging herself between me and the sink and pushing me away, trying to get my attention and not understanding why I seemed to be more concerned with dead crockery than with the growing little girl who needed my love.

 But in the 1950s, this was an untold story.  The Donna Reed/June Cleaver image of mothers dominated the cultural ideology of motherhood, pushing all other narratives by the wayside.  In truth, their images still hold enormous sway, and I find their images cropping up year after year when students write essays including phrases like "back before women worked" or "when mothers stayed home with their children."  The reality that this time never really existed for families who weren't of a given income is unfathomable.  I tell them of 19th century American women factory workers who slung their babies from meat hooks to keep them out of the dangerous machinery or the slave women who left their children with an older slave who was no longer able to do field work and I show them pictures of British women working the looms at cotton mills, but none of these narratives is powerful to off-set that which they've grown up with: the pearled and smiling stay-at-home mother in her heels bearing cookies to children home from school.

The assumption, too, is that the working mother is inferior because of her divided attention.  The narrator here is far more keenly aware of her failings than of her successes, but I think the question of whether she has failed is a pertinent one.  She definitely could have used more support--better daycare, more financial aid, etc--and yet, I can't help but feel her love and concern for her child.

My friend Kirsten, an amazing writer, tells stories of her child trying to pull her away from the computer, saying "no more poems, mommy."  I, too, have made my daughter wait while I wrote.  I suspect any writer with children shares this experience, but for mothers it's especially potent.  Men, for right or wrong, have long been urged to put work first, but women are supposed to put their children above all other concerns.  On those days I put my child in front of the television so I could get another half hour of writing time, I couldn't do it without pain.  What kind of mother was I?  How dare I think my feeble attempts to write could even compete with the real and pressing need of my daughter?

I eventually came to the conclusion that, if not always offering her the care she demanded, I was offering her something that was equally valuable: the image of a woman who worked and who valued her work.  I was giving her, in short, what my mother gave me.  There's little in our culture to validate this decision, but I can't help but feeling that it is by no means less important for that.  My children will grow up with an image of a woman who felt she had something to contribute, and hopefully, that is something they will find within themselves as well.

Emily, in Olsen's story, seems to have found a voice, though it was long in coming and not without pain.  It's a piece of the story that should not be overlooked--especially in light of her mother's deep-seated conflict.


  1. Oh, I love this post! You said everything I was thinking and trying to say in mine. The guilt we carry as mothers! My little girl asks: "Mommy, you got homework tonight?" when she wants to see if I have time to play with her. It breaks my heart. And, we won't even talk about how little attention I was able to give her when I was a social worker (I lived at my job)! My own mother told me a quote she heard recently: "It's hard to be employee of the month and mother of the year" (or something like that). That's why I'm so glad you assigned this story. It literally made me weep. Thanks for also pointing out the positive examples we are setting for our daughters too. They will appreciate one day the sacrifices we had to make for them.

  2. AWWW--I didn't want to make you weep, but I'm glad you liked it! My mother was a social worker, too, and I know what you mean about living at the job. While she was earning her MSW, she left for school in LA (two hours from our home if traffic was good...but traffic to LA in rush hour is never good) at 5:30 AM, leaving us with a baby-sitter. After school, a baby-sitter watched us until she got home, usually around 7:00PM. Once she finished grad school, work itself tended to be 8:00 AM to 7:00 PM.

    Somehow, I ended up a good kid and functional adult. I've come to think that her model was very good for me. Even though she couldn't always be home, I always felt I was of utmost importance in her life. I never felt un-parented, yet I had a lot of freedom to become my own person.

    Working moms get a bad rap, but they give something precious to their children as well: autonomy.