by Monica A. Ross, LPC
In 1961 Tillie Olsen, who was a writer, teacher, and activist, won an award called the O. Henry award for a short story named “Tell Me a Riddle.” It was the title story in a collection of short stories that she wrote. In my junior year of high school we read one of the other stories in the collection called “I Stand Here Ironing.” In that story the protagonist, who is a mother, reflects on the way she parented her first child. As she is recalling her firstborn Emily’s growing up years, she is talking in her mind to who appears to be Emily’s school guidance counselor.
She is standing at an ironing board in her home as she irons and in her mind is the conversation. She is thinking of the things that she wants to say and address with the guidance counselor once they speak in person or on the phone. We can all relate to those almost meditative moments when we’re doing a mundane task and placing ourselves in a future moment, a conversation.
The guidance counselor has got her thinking because he called her out of concern for her daughter. You hear in this mother’s words as she self-reflects her feelings of guilt. She struggled in raising her children. She reflects on how each child grew up in a different way.
Each child’s critical period marked a different moment in the family’s history—the time Emily’s father deserted the family, the time Emily’s mother worked hard as a single parent. The protagonist reflects on how she got better at parenting over time and with the other children and how that concerns her as well when she thinks of Emily. Perhaps Emily didn't have that same advantage.
The short story ends with “Let her be. . . .There is still enough left to live by. Only help her to know—help make it so there is cause for her to know—that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron.”
And so, as a reader, one begins to think. Is this how the mother felt about her life—with the iron as metaphor? Did she feel helpless in a way by situation and circumstance and does she want better for her daughter?
Or is this a reflection on the time period overall and women’s rights, or both? The reader begins to think so. The story takes place in the 1950s and the protagonist reflects back to the 1930s and 1940s.
But why this short story is so compelling and the reason for my even mentioning it here is that it is a commentary, as well, on a parent’s circle of influence. The protagonist mother talks about her 19-year-old daughter Emily, the one the guidance counselor called in concern over and about how much of how her daughter appears today is an amalgamation of so many things.
There was all the parenting that her mother gave, but also all the things that Emily came across in her environment, the people, places, and things there were beyond her mother.
“There is all that life that has happened outside of me, beyond me,” she says.
I observe sometimes in parents concern about their children and outside influences. There is the ex-wife who is concerned about how her former husband lets their child stay up until 3 a.m. on a Saturday night when the child is at his house.
Or maybe there is the grandparent who overdisciplines the grandchild and is overly strict. One or the other of the parents may worry over that. There is the caregiver that worries over the experience the child had with bullying in school.
Or maybe there was that summer that the child wasn’t able to go on the high school trip when their band played in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade because they had the flu—and what impact did that have? There was the tragic death that happened in the family when the child was at a young age. These are all fictional examples or examples that I draw from friends and family.
But whatever that thing is that is outside and beyond the parent and exerting an influence—situational factors, people, places, things—those things are there for a reason and for the benefit of the child. And though I see parents in pain sometimes over not being able to exert control, those things actually can work to their child’s advantage.
Even the things that aren’t so pleasant, because what happens is that the child learns how to adapt in different environments. It builds their capacity, for instance, for resilience.
I want to say to these mothers, like the mother so beautifully portrayed in the short story, like my own mother—it’s going to be okay, it’s all going to be okay. Those things your child went through, the traumas of life, they have the capacity for making your child oh so much stronger.
We are mysterious beings—and it’s a wonder how some have the capacity to develop resilience in the face of adversity and how some struggle. Why, for instance, for some does a bad experience contribute to an excuse for continued undesirable behavior, while in others the same experience becomes a reason not to continue in undesirable behavior?
If we as clinicians could just get a lock on how to do that better—how to better build resilience. We have different tools and techniques to try in order to build that capacity, but at the end of the day every person is unique, every situation, every family.
One child grows up with an alcoholic parent and never touches alcohol as a result. Another child grows up with an alcoholic parent and themselves become an alcoholic. I spoke earlier about epigenetic effects and perhaps with this example both children have the marker for alcoholism, but something in the environment triggers the expression of it for one and not the other.
And maybe it is as simple as that.
But that puts a lot of influence and control in the environments we find ourselves in, and I think it takes away from acknowledging a person’s ability not only to be influenced by the environment, but to exert influence over one’s environment.
The goal is to reach a place maybe of being able to respond to what appears before us throughout the course of any given day and not always just to constantly react, react because of past hurts and traumas and automatic negative thoughts and negative core beliefs and the like.
And I really do believe that therapy can help with that. That is the whole purpose of what we’re trying to accomplish here—to alleviate personal suffering, to heal, to prevent people from harming others. This profession that I’m in, it really is a noble one with an ambitious aim. And it’s one of the reasons why I love it so much.
It’s not perfection we’re aiming for, but it is an attempt at improving things—a sometimes faltering and feeble attempt and a sometimes steady and stable attempt. The struggle to overcome adversity—some liken it to learning how to walk.
They say the toddler, when she falls down, doesn’t say to herself this walking isn’t for me. She gets back up and tries it again until she masters it.