The Great Depression

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Tillie Olson’s semi-autobiographic story “I Stand Here Ironing” focuses on a mother’s reminiscing of the decisions she’s made regarding her first child, Emily, and the resulting impact those decisions had on her daughter. The mother, also the narrator, paints a picture of guilt, resentment, and remorse toward her choices while raising Emily. Throughout the story, there’s several instances that point to the mother possibly being a victim of postpartum depression. Emily. Although the consequences of the mother’s choices have already taken effect, she can’t help but to think about what she could have done or what Emily could be if she’d made the “right” decisions, as deemed by then society’s standards. The setting takes place during a time of struggle and hopelessness in the United States, the Great Depression of the 1930’s. The birth of Emily, in this trying time, made for a much needed contrast to the sense of despair in the air. “She was a beautiful baby. The first and only one of our five that was beautiful at birth (312).” Here, it’s apparent the joy that every first-time mother has. This effervescent sentiment only lasts for eight months, though, when Emily’s father abandons his family. For a young mother living in those times, that is devastating. Being a single-parent mother in the 1930’s was unheard of and extremely taboo. She’d be seen as an outcast and a failure to her family. In her mind, the only option was to leave Emily to her ex-husband’s family, in order to make a better living herself and her daughter. Upon Emily’s return, at the tender age of two, the mother hardly recognizes her and sees her in a new light. The baby who was once beautiful is no longer. “I hardly knew her […] All the baby loveliness gone (313).” The culmination of separation, as well as the angst and disappointment that she felt for Emily’s father has taken effect and is now transferred to her daughter. Everything about Emily, from her appearance to her walk, now reminded the mother of her estranged husband. That very moment reveals the reason behind Emily’s jaded life--- postpartum depression. Postpartum depression is a mood disorder that begins after childbirth and usually lasts beyond six weeks. Occurring in 8%-20% of all new mothers, postpartum depressed women exhibit behavior that is neither healthy nor motherly, which in turn has an adverse effect on the child. These effects became more than apparent in Emily’s case. PPD would help to explain the narrator’s constant distancing herself from Emily and difference of treatment her daughter received compared to her other children. The narrator’s environment, economic standing, social status, and many other factors contributed to her development of PPD. According to a study by Child Psychiatry and Human Development, children of postpartum depressed mothers have results showing a plethora of adverse outcomes relative to community sample children. Children whose mothers were diagnosed with PPD demonstrated lower ego-resiliency, lower peer social competence, and lower school adjustment (Doesum). These results heavily support the claim that the mother in “I Stand Here Ironing” had severe PPD in Emily’s early stages of life. The mother acknowledges her daughter’s social awkwardness in a passage from the story. I am glad for that slow physical development that widened the difference between her and her contemporaries, though she suffered over it. She was too vulnerable for that terrible word of youthful competition, of preening and parading, of constant measuring yourself against every other, of envy, “If I had that copper hair, “If I had that skin….” She tormented herself enough about not looking like the others, there was enough of the unsureness, the having to be conscious of words before you speak, the constant caring---what are they thinking of me? Without having it all magnified by the merciless physical drives. (316). In addition to these findings, girls of postpartum depressed...
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