I nearly sobbed with relief when I learned, on Monday, that the mayor and schools chancellor had finally unveiled a plan for outdoor classrooms — because it’s been so punishingly rare during this pandemic for anyone with authority to use it creatively on children’s behalf. Yet, welcome as this plan is, it’s impossible to understand why they made us wait all summer for it.
Recently I ran into an acquaintance, a psychotherapist named Lesley Alderman, who told me that among her patients, those with young children were generally struggling the most. “Parents with young kids, they’re tearing their hair out,” she told me. Many of them, she said, “want their kids desperately to go back to school, and then there’s this kind of guilt: ‘Am I selfish for wanting this? Am I putting my kids in jeopardy? Are we putting the teachers in jeopardy?’”
These aren’t dilemmas that individuals should have to solve. “Why isn’t the government, particularly here in New York City, helping the schools, funding the schools properly, so that the schools can be a safe place where their kids can go?” asks Alderman. Though parents are blaming themselves for not being able to make their lives work, she said, “Someone failed them.”
Alderman works on a sliding scale, so her patients range from the middle class to the affluent. Because, in this environment, parents need a lot of money to have even a minimally tolerable quality of life, many whom she talks to feel both newly envious of others and ashamed of that envy. “They just feel like, all the sudden, what if I’ve done my kids wrong?” she says.
When safety and education are so profoundly privatized, when even the meager social supports America once offered to families simply disappear, panic and self-recrimination result. There are only two ways out of pandemic-driven insecurity: great personal wealth or a functioning government. Right now, many of us who’d thought we were insulated from American precarity are finding out just how frightening the world can be when you don’t have either.