Rita Dove

My Mother Enters the Work Force by Rita Dove

‘My Mother Enters the Work Force’ by Rita Dove is a powerful poem about a mother who enters the workforce. 

The poem celebrates the mother’s perseverance and willingness to set aside her own needs during the Great Depression. She makes enough money to make ends meet. By the end of ‘My Mother Enters the Work Force,’ there is enough food for them both, and the daughter gets a new pair of shoes she’s been wanting. 

My Mother Enters the Work Force by Rita Dove


‘My Mother Enters the Work Force’ by Rita Dove is a thoughtful and descriptive poem about the speaker’s mother.

The first lines describe how the mother luckily found work as a seamstress—something she excelled at. The speaker analyzes the mother’s days and nights and her time working as a business student. By the end of the poem, it’s clear the mother has worked hard for a long time and reaches some well-deserved success. 

You can read the whole poem here.

Detailed Analysis 

Stanza One 

The path to ABC Business School
was paid for by a lucky sign:
needed the damp cloth
to steam them perfect.

In the first lines of ‘My Mother Enters the Workforce,’ the speaker begins by describes her mother’s path to “ABC Business School” and was paid for through her mother’s hard work. She noticed a hiring sign, applied, was tested, and got the job working as a seamstress. She was great at her job, working hard and always completing her work to the best of her ability. 

Stanza Two 

Those were the afternoons.
Evenings she took in piecework,
the treadle machine with its
And now and now sang the treadle,
I know, I know….

Despite the steady seamstress work, her mother still had to do “piecework,” or smaller individual projects, to help pay the bills. Often, the speaker notes, their evenings were filled with her mother working at her sewing machine. The words “locomotive,” “lit,” and “path” are used to suggest the steady movements of a train down the tracks. While this work was being done, the speaker took note of the different fabrics. They included “taffeta” and “velvet.” The poet uses a simile to describe the velvet as “deep as a forest.” 

The poet uses personification to describe the machine as speaking. The speaker heard it say “now and now” and “I know, I know.” This helped drive the work onward.

Stanza Three 

And then it was day again,
all morning at the office machines,
until she could break a hundred words
with no errors — ah, and then

In the third stanza of ‘My Mother Enters the Work Force,’ it’s the day once again, and the mother is back at the “office machines” where they “chatter” and “clack” on another “journey.” This one is “rougher” than that which took place before. It soon becomes clear that this stanza is describing the mother’s work as a student. She could work hard, as she always did, typing more than a hundred words without making an error. At this point, after the mother’s hard work, there was a bit of relief. The “ah, and then” signals this at the end of the third stanza. 

Stanza Four 

No more postponed groceries,

The speaker notes that after the mother secured their finances, that there were “No more postponed groceries” and that she could finally get the speaker that “blue pair of shoes.” This suggests that up until this point, the speaker’s mother had only been allowing herself the minimum. Life’s luxuries were not in her reach.

Structure and Form 

‘My Mother Enters the Work Force’ by Rita Dove is a four-stanza poem that is divided into uneven sets of lines. The stanzas are written in free verse. This means that the lines do not follow a specific metrical pattern or rhyme scheme. Despite this, there are many examples of literary devices that help to make this poem feel unified. 

Literary Devices 

Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to: 

  • Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two of the first stanza and lines three and four of the third stanza.
  • Alliteration: can be seen when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “puckered— puffed” and “morning” and “machines.” 
  • Caesura: a pause inserted in the middle of a line of verse. For example, “never puckered — puffed or sleek.”
  • Imagery: can be seen when the poet uses especially interesting and memorable descriptions. For example, “needed the damp cloth / to steam them perfect.”


What is ‘My Mother Enters the Workforce’ about?

This poem is about the poet’s mother’s life and the hard work she did to be able to afford business school. The speaker celebrates her mother’s accomplishments and ensures that readers walk away with an appreciation for what she did.

What is the tone of ‘My Mother Enters the Workforce?’ 

The tone is reverential and loving. The speaker is well aware of how hard her mother worked, and she admires her for it. She spends the lines describing how her mother handled herself. 

What are the themes in ‘My Mother Enters the Workforce

The themes at work in this poem include hard work, perseverance, and life struggles. The mother struggled for a time, working multiple jobs and working as a student. But, finally, after reaching milestone after milestone, she was financially secure enough to relax a little and enjoy her life. 

Similar Poetry 

Readers who enjoyed ‘My Mother Enters the Work Force’ should also consider reading some other Rita Dove poems. For example: 

  • Canary’ – a short poem that commemorates the life of Billie Holiday, an African American jazz singer.
  • American Smooth’ –  a thought-provoking poem in which Dove describes a memorable moment between two dance partners. 
  • Voiceover’ –  explores the impossible beauty of nature, discussing the impossibility of remembering such incredible sights.

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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