I Stand Here Teaching
Tillie Olsen and Maternity in the Classroom
julia lisella “I Stand Here Ironing,” written in 1961, is Tillie Olsen’s landmark story about the conflicted feelings of a mother who works outside the home and wonders, as she stands ironing her daughter’s dress, what effect her crowded, overburdened life of scrambling to put food on the table has had on her talented but troubled daughter, Emily. I have taught this story in almost all my writing classes, and in some literature seminars, too. It could be said, I suppose, that teaching is half obsession, half stubborn determination, and it’s hard to say how the halves differ very much. Though I find the story moving and fascinating, up until recently the story did very little to aid my teaching objectives. In a first-year writing class, that objective is, mainly, to spark provocative conversation, which in turn ought to spark strong writing. And yet, each semester as I doggedly presented the story, I was struck by how miserably the story failed to engage my students in class discussion. Why could I not find an inroad to my students and their writing by using it? Why did I feel so attached to it? And why did I keep teaching it? Over time, I’ve discovered that I could not let this story go because it held for me essential and intrinsic links to my work as a teacher, a scholar, a poet, and a mother, all roles I inhabit simultaneously, though at times begrudgingly, stingily favoring one over another in the classroom.
When I first read the story, as a college student, I related most to the daughter, Emily. I wanted to be Emily with all her pain and difficulty; I wanted, simply, to be part of Olsen’s magic. I wanted someone’s prayers to be with me that I might be “more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron,” as Olsen’s narrator prays in the final lines of the story. It might have been easy, too, to see the mother as my own mother. Like this narrator, my mother was shaped by Depression America. Like this narrator, my mother had had limited traditional education, and because, like
Olsen’s narrator, my mother worked and kept house and relied on relatives for child care, she too must have worried in an obsessive way about her children and about her own mothering skills. But I rarely thought about my mother while reading this story in college. What I related to, what I really saw as the main character of the story, was the lyricism of the writing itself. The story’s language engaged me, pulled me in, and it made me want to be a writer, too, to be able to do that to someone else.
When it was my turn to play teacher, however, as a graduate student teaching first-year writing courses, I forgot that I might not be faced with a dozen future writers, but with students trying to place out of a second term of expository writing by getting a decent grade and moving on. So in all my naivete, the first time I taught the story, I hadn’t prepared much for discussion; I was convinced that the power of the story would be sufficient to keep the class lively and engaged. This speaks as much to my inexperience at that point as a teacher as to my own enthusiasm for Olsen. Perhaps, I reflected later, it was difficult for my comfortably middle-class students to relate to a story set during the hard times of the Depression. And even the few working-class students in my class seemed embarrassed by Olsen’s use of poverty as an “excuse” for average parenting. Slightly more experienced as a teacher, I next taught the story against the backdrop of 1930s Depression America; I discussed the role of the social worker in the lives of the poor; I asked students to imagine Tillie Olsen’s voice as a minority voice in Nebraska; and so on. Still, I met with silence or with disregard for the mother and impatience with the writing style, which some of my students described as undisciplined, fuzzy, too impressionistic. One student felt I must have assigned it to demonstrate writing with no thesis.
So the next time I taught the story I came equipped with a question that another, more experienced teacher had generously offered to me. He had told me that a fascinating discussion ensued in his class around the idea of whether the mother was a good mother. Hmm, I thought, this could spark controversy; this idea could get to the heart of things. So I initiated the discussion (sometimes we writing teachers are willing to sell our souls for a good discussion and an essay with a position). It was a starting place, but it took us down an awful road. Whether the mother in the story is a good mother or not is an argument that can only break down along partisan lines: if you’re a good liberal (like your teacher) you’ll realize the narrator was trapped by her circumstances; if you’re conservative and believe the welfare fraud arguments waged against poor people in this country you’ll believe this is a bad mother who can’t make it on her own. Such a discussion was
a pedagogical dead end that led to many unbearably moralistic or simplistic student essays.
Despite my own misgivings, I stuck with this approach to the story because it entailed a question I believed required some level of analysis. Meanwhile, my personal situation was changing. In the spring of my last term of course work I was pregnant. Oddly, through some fluke of the registration system, my students were all women. So when I used this question about whether the mother was good or not, I felt some queasiness, some discomfort that I could not attribute to the pregnancy.
In fact, the most telling experience of teaching this story happened when I returned to teaching from maternity leave. My daughter was four months old. I left her with a babysitter. But my daughter had had stranger anxiety from the time she was three weeks old—something I was told was scientifically, developmentally impossible. The babysitter would arrive at 11:00; I would leave at 11:15 with my baby’s small shrieking and howling following me down the stairs. She would cry until I returned at about 12:30. I had no babysitter for my prep time or grading, so I did all of that at night, along with some freelance proofreading and copyediting. I was exhausted most of the time, and grouchy, and, let me say it, angry. I was beginning to feel I was the mother in Tillie Olsen’s story. There were times when I just had to leave my daughter crying in the crib and go into the next room and howl in despair. She had to be held—by me—constantly.
In my daughter’s first year of life I taught, freelanced, and finished off two graduate course incompletes (which I had acquired while drugged up on terbutaline—a remedy for pre-labor contractions that makes your tummy calm but your heart race—and half mad from four months of bed rest!). I finally gave in to paying for twenty hours of day care a week so that I could cram a year’s worth of studying into three months to pass my orals, slogging through one more century of British literature or literary theory. I always felt a one-to-one correlation between babysitters and work— if you’re working, you ought to be earning money. And here I was, just studying. Lots of friends lectured me about the importance of finishing the degree, getting that PhD. And I wanted it, badly. But my roots were deep and thick in that relationship between work/labor and money. In retrospect, what a funny profession for me to have chosen—one in which there is no correlation between hours spent on an effort and the money awarded for it. At any rate, though Olsen and I were talking about different kinds of labor, and though during the early part of Emily’s upbringing, Olsen’s mother – narrator was single, there was no question in my mind that that harassed,
guilt-ridden mother from the 1930s and I had a lot more in common than I had been owning up to. My parents may have left their working-class roots behind as they ventured out to the suburbs of Queens for more middle – class trappings, but I had inherited their working-class sensibilities. The thing that had made it possible for me to teach Olsen from the position of a self-satisfied, educated, middle-class reader had also allowed me to fool myself about the academic life in general: I could no more replicate the erudite-nineteenth-century-gentleman model of intellectual pursuit than I could hide the spit-up stains on my favorite teaching outfit.
And yet, for one more year of my daughter’s young life, I continued to teach from a kind of untouchable class-less and perhaps even gender-less position, one I imagined as objective. I felt I had no claim or right to identify so closely with Olsen’s narrator. She was a young mother. I was experienced and in my mid-thirties. She had a life of manual labor. I had the life of the intellect. She had to rely on social services. I had private help: first, seven hours a week from two lovely college girls, and then later, a family day-care center. The college students would look into my face as I returned home from teaching to say, “It wasn’t too bad today, she stopped crying for fifteen minutes to take her bottle”; or “When we stood in front of the window she would only whimper instead of cry.” The caretaker at the day-care center was someone I trusted, loved, and respected. So who was I to lay claim to this narrator’s experience? And further, what use would it be to me as a teacher to say, “Yeah, me too, me too?” Hadn’t I been taught that encouraging students to identify with a character without any analysis led to a literary stalemate? How could I, or to what end could I, use the same method to teach this story?
In class I would still dutifully ask the question, “Is the narrator of this story a good mother?” I listened, full of patience, to the arguments against her. In addition, I offered an introduction to the story that explained both Olsen’s background as a leftist radical, a writer, and a mother, and the social and political backdrop of the 1930s and the realities of the Great Depression. I believed that arming my students with solid information about the struggles all working-class families faced at the time would make it more difficult for them to argue against the mother’s decisions to have another child despite the difficulties of caring for the first and to leave her child in the care of the state for a brief time and with her husband’s relatives another time. Rather than seeing the average single parent of the Depression era, who had to rely on less-than-perfect social services and limited family assistance, though, they still insisted on reading this narrator through the lens of their own present. This mother was the welfare mother their parents railed against at the dinner table, the woman who couldn’t stop having children whether she had a husband or not. And certainly, Olsen did not make my job any easier. She does not humanize her narrator. The writing instead complicates this mother by infusing the story with her sense of guilt, which in turn infused my students’ proud moral positions with authority. So though I was still asking them if she was a good or a bad mother, I would also sometimes mention that my own child, as we spoke, was being cared for by someone else. Did it matter to them? If I made that aspect of my mothering present did it make it harder for them, and for me, to judge this narrator?
One year into parenting, with my doctoral exam behind me, my confidence in my writing boosted by my selection of a dissertation topic, and all my incompletes completed, I approached the story anew. I had asked more students than I cared to think about whether the mother in Olsen’s story was a good mother. My acumen as a reader, a teacher, and a parent seemed to be growing exponentially despite my loss of sleep and my tendency to cram my scholarship and prep time into those tiny lulls between my daughter’s mini “power” naps and Playmobil rug play. I began to understand that whether the narrator is a good mother has as little to do with the story as controversy has to do with good writing. In fact, it was that tipsy daydream play between mothering, researching, reading, and writing that led me to my deeper feelings about that other question I always asked (and still do ask) my writing students, “What is good writing?”
Did I have to become a mother myself to teach this story or to understand it? I’m not sure. Such a theory would certainly counter all my poststructuralist theoretical training that railed against any kind of essentialist discourse: one need not be a woman to write in a woman’s voice; one need not be white to write from a white perspective; one need not be a mother to understand Olsen’s writing. My training, however, did not rail against experience; and what I had now as a teacher and a writer and a mother was experience. What else could I do but bring all I had of myself to my teaching? How else to reach my students but to bring the whole package of me to the classroom?
Many may argue against the poststructuralist theoretical practices English majors are currently mired in, but one thing such training brought us at the height of the 1990s was that the best way to know anything was to accept that it was fairly impossible to know anything. What we could bring to a discussion were good questions. Similarly, I have come to feel that the only way to teach writing is to teach students how to repeat their inner questions out loud, not to argue a controversial point, but to care about what they don’t know or don’t understand, to ask questions about what outrages them, or just bothers them, just a little. So when I teach Olsen’s story now, I don’t care to ask those questions anymore, who is good? who is bad? What do such questions mean in the scheme of things? And finally, how artfully Olsen’s story itself frustrates and resists such reading performances! Olsen’s narrator calls for one thing only, an audience to listen, to consider the difficulty of what she is trying to tell us about guilt, limitations, potential, power, writing. Now I try to teach to the difficulty of this story. “Whom is the narrator speaking to?” I ask. “Is the ‘you’ the same throughout the story? Does any aspect of the story resonate in your own life? Why or why not?”
There never would be a golden time for me, a time when I could sit alone to contemplate my literary studies and my writing. Class preparation, reading, writing, revising, research—for me they are all still done in a commotion between domestic tradeoffs with my husband, pickups, children’s band concerts and dance performances, making lunches, quelling nightmare fears, cleaning up vomit. It is all work. It is all my life. And there aren’t any excuses for what I have or haven’t accomplished. The story Olsen tells, and learning to teach the story to my students, both replicates and honors my own struggles and the struggles most Americans face.
By the end of the story, the narrator’s focus seems to change: the explanation of Emily’s behavior to a hypothetical school counselor is replaced with a kind of prayer. It has always been a troubling shift to understand. The narrator seems in love with her own prayer/song/story/request and there is a connection between the words and their music that offers solace not to Emily, the possibly neglected daughter, but to the narrator, the mother. This is a very unmotherly gesture; indeed Tell Me a Riddle, the collection in which “I Stand Here Ironing” appears, is guided by a series of gentle revelations of unmotherly gestures. This is not something my students say or understand right off. But I do think they feel it, and it’s an uncomfortable feeling. Being able to name this feeling is what has kept me connected to this story. Most critics like to note that during this narrative shift, the mother is no longer at the ironing board. She is at the desk. She is making this offering for the salvation of her own mind. That triumph isn’t only about Emily. It’s about language and survival; it’s about how one can’t have one without the other. As a young would-be writer, single and without children to care for or to complicate my feelings about this story,
I could appreciate one aspect of this narrative—its lyric pull and tug. But as a teacher now with children of my own, I enjoy listening to my students find their way through it. I like asking, finally, what they think the mother thinks of herself. Surely, some still reject this story or simply don’t enjoy Olsen’s writing. But others read the effort and have an interesting change of heart. They come to see the mother as working-class hero; the daughter as heiress of that frustration and hope. It is not just that writing triumphs, or that the writing individual survives; in fact, I like to sidestep that reading because most college students don’t really understand the contested nature of writing. Instead, for me, what is important is that the narrator succumbs only to her own judgment—she was both good and bad at what she did, but nevertheless her children remained intact. Mothering itself survives the telling of truths about mothering. Could students relate to that; do they have the ability to tell truths about their own lives and survive the telling?
As I have unfolded the years it took me to allow my life experience to help me read and teach “I Stand Here Ironing,” it has occurred to me how frightening it is to bring my whole self to my academic tasks—and how rewarding, too. Bringing one’s whole self to the project of teaching seems essential. It’s a long and difficult walk away from concepts of good and bad (good and bad mothering, good and bad literature, good and bad teaching) toward some more complicated picture that includes the grays, the distractions, the kinds of prayers that help break down my own and my students’ silences and resistances. But ultimately, it’s certainly a walk worth taking. I once read about a photographer who had a long-range photo project involving his son: he would place him in the same adult outfit every year and take a picture of him. Each year the child would fit more nearly into the outfit, until at his twenty-first birthday he fit into the outfit exactly right. It would be sheer delusion for me to suggest that my teaching style now fits perfectly into the arms and legs of “I Stand Here Ironing.” No, I think we are all both the narrator, the one who believes we have the control and power to change things, and the daughter, the one who is both helpless like the dress before the iron, and somewhat evasive of and oblivious to such constrictions. But it is appropriate, I think, that I end this essay about teaching Tillie Olsen’s complex and idiosyncratic story with the image of a parent trying to capture the growth and development of his child, even if only to reveal the surreal and comical edges of that story of parenting, of teaching, and of making art.