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The Unique Role Of The Mother Essay, Research Paper

The discussion about our mother always evokes strong emotions in us. And it should! After all, we lived in her womb for nine months even before we experienced the light of this world. When we try to explain to others what she means to us, or what a mother should be like or do, each of us has a different expression. Each mother is, after all, different. The unique role of the mother will be viewed through the inspection of three short stories: “Boys and Girls” by Alice Munro, “The Boarding House” by James Joyce, and “I Stand Here Ironing” by Tillie Olsen.

The old, traditional view on the role of the mother is that of the female parent taking primary care of the children and the household. The mother is the hub of the wheel within the home, making sure everything runs smoothly. In “Boys and Girls” by Alice Munro, the mother actively plays this part. Although she has no apparent dynamic role within this story, the nameless caretaker has a vital function within each of her family member’s life, and plays the role of the socially accepted neutral fixture of the household. It is her job to be the continuous keeper of the home. Throughout the story, the mother remains in the background, buzzing about, taking care of everything around the house:

My mother was too tired and preoccupied to talk to me, she had no heart to tell me about the Normal School Graduation Dance; sweat trickled over her face and she was always counting under her breath, pointing at the jars, dumping cups of sugar. It seemed to me that work done in the house was endless, dreary and peculiarly depressing…. (530)1

It is apparent from the reader’s point of view that the mother’s place was in the home.

It was an odd thing to see my mother down at the barn. She did not often come out of the house unless it was to do something—hang out the wash or dig potatoes in the garden. She looked out of place, with her bare, lumpy legs, not touched by the sun, her apron still on and damp across the stomach from the supper dishes. (529)

It is overlooked that the father would also look out of place if he were inside the house during his workday, invading his wife’s territory, unless it was, of course, to come in for his prepared meal at lunchtime. Through the daughter’s descriptions, the reader can see that the father does his imperative work outside the home, and the mother’s job was not considered as being important: “work done out of doors, and in my father’s service, was ritualistically important” (530). It is evident within the happenings of the story that the mother is not necessarily appreciated for what she dutifully does for her family. “My mother, I felt, was not to be trusted….You could not depend on her, and the real reasons for the things she said and did were not to be known” (530). Yet, the narrator’s mother went out of her way for everyone else, neglecting herself. “She would tie her hair up [in a kerchief] in the morning, saying she did not have time to do it properly, and it would stay tied up all day” (529). She is too busy holding the never-ending task of mother hood and womanhood, carrying out her duties quietly and inconspicuously, knowing this is her job.

Every mother wants the best for her child, and typically wants to ensure that her child has the life she could not, or did not have for herself. She may make choices she thinks would be in the best interest of her child, having the experience of her own life and knowing what the consequences of missing out on a better life may be. These intentions and actions may be righteous, and common but, sometimes in doing such, the mother superimposes her lost dreams and control only to lead to hazardous consequences and lost dreams for her child. In “The Boarding House” by James Joyce, this is the role the mother, Mrs. Mooney, enacts. From the beginning of the story, the reader is conveyed the message that the leading lady is a strong, stubborn, strict, overprotective and “imposing woman.” It appears she has everything in order from the way her business is efficiently running, and how she “govern[s] the house cunningly and firmly, knowing when to give credit, when to be stern and when to let things pass” (427)2. Having had a failed marriage, Mrs. Mooney would be in the right to want her daughter, Polly, to have security and the best future possible. But Polly, a nineteen-year-old girl, does not have her future in check yet. Mrs. Mooney knew the men who lodged in her house were not permanent fixtures, and therefore, did not worry about anything serious developing within the boarding house between any man and her daughter; however, a relationship did ensue between Polly and one of the guests, Mr. Doran. Polly and her lover kept the affair quiet, knowing Mrs. Mooney would not approve. Little did the two know that Polly’s mother was just turning a blind eye to the situation. Little did the two know of the future involvement Mrs. Mooney would have in their relationship. Little did the two know the extent to which Mrs. Mooney would go, for her motives were far and great. Mrs. Mooney did not physically interfere in the affair; rather, she remained oblivious to it. But, by not physically interfering in the relationship, she shrewdly allowed events to occur as she had hoped they would. After all, Mr. Doran was a good candidate for Polly: he “had been employed for thirteen years in a wine merchant’s office” and had money of his own, being at the mature age he was. The day came when Mrs. Mooney knew it was her time to step in. Polly was pregnant! This was a tragedy in society’s eyes, as Polly’s honour had been stripped away from a young, impressionable, unmarried girl. Mrs. Mooney “dealt with moral problems as a cleaver deals with meat: and in this case she had made up her mind” (428). There was only one reparation in Mrs. Mooney’s mind: marriage. “To begin with, she had all of the weight of social opinion on her side: she was an outraged mother” (429). Being the respectable man Mr. Doran was, he could not afford to run from this situation “having had his moment of pleasure.” Mrs. Mooney was satisfied, having Mr. Doran agree to the resolve that was to be. “She thought of some mothers she knew who could not get their daughters off their hands” (430). The actions of the mother in this story of steered fates may not have been in the right, but she made her decisions with reality in mind.

Not every mother can meet all of the needs of her children. Sometimes she must compromise resources and juggle realities in order for things to work on a day-to-day basis. Such instances occur in a single mother’s situation. After all, the job of raising children, keeping house, paying bills, and feeding mouths is not a task easily met by one person. Even tougher the task is if the single parent is a woman living in a male-dominated society during a depression era, such as the mother in “I Stand Here Ironing” by Tillie Olson. In the story, a mother who was young and inexperienced recounts with almost painful honesty her forced neglect of her oldest child, Emily, during the Depression when poverty was unrelieved by the maligned welfare state:

And when is there time to remember, to sift, to weigh, to estimate, to total? I will start and there will be an interruption and I will have to gather it all together again. Or I will become engulfed with all I did or did not do, with what should have been, and what cannot be helped. (474)3

As the mother stood there ironing, flashbacks of Emily’s early years flood in her memory. She recalls the difficulty she endured while raising the little girl as a single mother during the Depression. Through stream of consciousness, she recalls all of the miserable childcare situations she was forced to leave Emily in since she had to work when there was work available to her. Now knowing the devastating physical and emotional effects these arrangements had on Emily, the mother is filled with regret, but it “still would have made no difference if [the mother] had known. It was the only place there was. It was the only way [Emily and her mother] could be together, the only way [the mother] could hold a job” (475). Years of physical distraction were then added to the primary years of physical separation. The mother had other children to tend to, other worries to tend to. She knows there had not been enough love and attention for her oldest child when she needed it the most. Now seeing Emily as her grown nineteen year old child, the mother feels it is too late to stop her daughter from living the limited life she, herself, had: “My wisdom came too late. She has much to her and probably little will come of it. She is a child of her age, of war, of fear” (480). The parental guilt displayed by the mother shows the reader the natural instincts of any parent. This mother is searching for an honest assessment of past behavior and its consequences and for an accurate understanding of the role of cultural necessity, which allows for individual responsibility. She recognizes that there are questions “for which there is no answers” and some causal relationships which cannot be deciphered. Still knowing she did everything for her child that was within the realms of her world, she feels the need to defend herself: “Why do I put that first? I do not even know if it matters, or if it explains anything” (474). By the end of the story, the mother’s thoughts drift back to the present and she sees a shy, struggling girl who has a gift for comedy. She wishes she could help Emily in developing this talent, but knows that with the lack of money and resources, the young girl’s gift will probably wither and die: “Let her be. So all that is in her will not bloom—but in how many does it? There is still enough left to live by” (480). Pain and disappointment are felt for her daughter who was robbed of her mother’s love and affection, and she clings to the hope that her daughter will overcome her boundaries and realize she is “more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron” (480). In totality, the mother did all that was within her limited reach for her child, yet she is filled with maternal anguish because she knows there could’ve been a better outcome for Emily if all things were possible. There is much, no doubt, that many mothers whose “wisdom came too late” would like to convey to their grown children. This mother’s decisions were made out of necessity, rather than choice. Because of that, the mother, though she is literally ironing the dress, is the dress lying helpless before the iron of society.

The exploration of the above three stories found a mother who was the typical, selfless, socially accepted norm, a mother who would stop at nothing to provide what she thought was the best for her child, and a mother who could only do her best with what was possible for her child. Although these parents share the common bond of being the natural government of their children’s lives, they show the world that the role of the mother is unique for each woman who carries this title.



1 Alice Munro, ‘Boys and Girls’ in Introduction to Literature, eds. Thomas, Perkyns, MacKinnon, and Katz (Toronto, 1995), 530. Hereafter, all citations from ‘Boys and Girls’ will be from this edition and will appear in page numbers in the text.

2 James Joyce, ‘The Boarding House’ in Introduction to Literature, eds. Thomas, Perkyns, MacKinnon, and Katz (Toronto, 1995), 427. Hereafter, all citations from ‘The Boarding House’ will be from this edition and will appear in page numbers in the text.

3 Tillie Olsen, ‘I Stand Here Ironing’ in Introduction to Literature, eds. Thomas, Perkyns, MacKinnon, and Katz (Toronto, 1995), 474. Hereafter, all citations from ‘I Stand Here Ironing’ will be from this edition and will appear in page numbers in the text.

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