I Stand Here Ironing: Parental Love and Regret

As a parent, I have many regrets: things I did, things I didn’t do, mistakes I made that will probably scar my children for life.

Much of my sorrow stems from a feeling that I didn’t spend enough time with them when they were young, and now that they’re grown, the opportunity is gone.

Here’s what I did do (though now, looking back, it doesn’t seem nearly enough): I greeted them each day when they got off the school bus, played countless games of “Amazing Labyrinth” (losing every time to my daughter) and “The Lord of the Rings Trivial Pursuit” (losing most times to my son), watched every “Land Before Time” movie at least three times, listened to “The Little Mermaid” soundtrack until I thought I would go crazy, and was blessed to have the most amazing conversations with both my son and daughter — usually when we were in the car running to music lessons or school activities.

But I was also taking care of the house, and the dog, and the cat, and playing doctor when someone was ill, and building a business, and doing the laundry, and the grocery shopping, and answering that damn eternal dinner question which even now vexes me. And sometimes I feel that my children got the short-shrift at the expense of clean clothing and vacuumed floors.

When I get to feeling this way, I think of Tillie Olsen’s short-story, I Stand Here Ironing, a tale about motherhood and love and regret so beautifully written that reading it breaks your heart.

Listen:

“She was a beautiful baby. She blew shining bubbles of sound. She loved motion, loved light, loved color and music and textures. She would lie on the floor in her blue overalls patting the surface so hard in ecstasy her hands and feet would blur. She was a miracle to me, but when she was eight months old I had to leave her daytimes with the woman downstairs to whom she was no miracle at all …

and:

“She was a child of anxious, not proud, love. We were poor and could not afford for her the soil of easy growth. I was a young mother, I was a distracted mother. There were other children pushing up, demanding … My wisdom came too late.

The emphasis added is mine because those phrases resonate with me. What parent hasn’t felt that way? The guilt over leaving your child with a caretaker or babysitter who doesn’t understand what a miracle your child is. The realization that you’ve asked your child, “How was your day?” and then asked it again, because you were so distracted you didn’t hear the answer the first time around.

I wish that you would rush out to the library and grab a copy of Olsen’s Tell Me a Riddle (where this story resides). Then you could read it RIGHT NOW. Or if you prefer, run to the bookstore or go online to order the book RIGHT NOW. So that you can discover what a great writer Tillie Olsen was. So that you can discover that you’re not alone with your feelings of parental regret.

But since I can’t make you do that, here’s a link to a Google preview of the story. It’s a cheat, because some of the pages are missing. But maybe it’ll be just enough to convince you that Tillie Olsen is a writer worth pursuing.

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