Kamenetz combines stories from the frontlines with analysis of what happened to systems designed to support the nation’s children and their families — and how the pandemic revealed they were hardly systems.
As a correspondent for National Public Radio, Kamenetz received emails from mental health professionals in June 2020. Her message became more and more urgent as the months went by: The children are not well.
Depression among young people skyrocketed, as did the case numbers of exhausted therapists. Among the children whose poignant stories are told by Kamenetz is Oliver, a preschooler who simply stopped eating and went to bed when he realized he would not be returning to school.
We now know that learning loss was widespread during the pandemic. Tests conducted earlier this year found that 9-year-olds had fallen significantly behind in math and that their reading scores had fallen by the widest margin in more than 30 years.
There was much more at stake than learning. Given the country’s relatively weak social safety nets, Kamenetz writes, schools have often functioned like islands in a storm. Crucially, they provide a place for the children to be while the parents are at work.
For many youngsters, schools have also addressed dietary needs. As the pandemic forced closures, schools struggled to find ways to continue feeding some 30 million students who depended on free or discounted meals. Especially in the first few months of the pandemic, surveys showed not only an increase in household food insecurity, but also in actual hunger among children.
The strongest thread running through The Stolen Years may be Kamenetz’s take on the inadequacy of US childcare. Pandemic-related school closures have deprived 50 million children of the support systems their families depended on.
Unsurprisingly, moms have quit their jobs in droves. Those unable to do so were often forced into impossible shackles as childcare opportunities became scarce. Kamenetz cites the example of Shaina Bell, who was arrested in Ohio for leaving two children to go to work at Little Caesar.
For Kamenetz, the history of child care in the United States is a depressing almost-history. Group kindergartens emerged during World War II when mothers went to work, but after that attempts to set up a public day-care center failed.
The pandemic has driven home the tremendous amount of care that is actually needed. Senator Elizabeth Warren’s push to recognize child care as a form of infrastructure has received renewed attention. But even now, the upheaval caused by the pandemic does not appear to be enough to drive change. Although approved by the House of Representatives last year, a package of measures that included a child tax credit and paid family vacations were removed from the recently signed Inflation Reduction Act.
School closures hit low-income students and children of color the hardest. In “The Mamas: What I Learned About Kids, Class, and Race From Moms Not Like Me,” Helena Andrews-Dyer, a black mother, describes trying to raise two young children during the pandemic and the special pressures black families face in the hope of gaining a foothold in the middle class.
Even more than politics, all parenting is local. In a gentrifying Washington, D.C. neighborhood, Andrews-Dyer looked to a group of white mothers for friendship and advice, and examined her own often conflicting feelings about her approach to child-rearing (baby yoga and all).
Washington Post writer Andrews-Dyer weaves sociological insights into her witty, obscene account, expanding our understanding of how early, perhaps even inevitably, black children experience discrimination.
A black couple she knew, both professionals, had bent over backwards to protect their daughter by raising her strictly among other black people. Then, under the pressure of the pandemic, they put her in a mixed-race study capsule. She came home shortly after with a question: “Mom, are black people bad?”
Still, Andrews-Dyer feels humbled when one of the white mothers in her group compiles a list of 41 anti-racist children’s books in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. “All of them,” she admits, “I owned exactly two. Two.”
She concludes that, above all, the need for young mothers to find companions “cannot be overemphasized” – regardless of race. Ensuring that the children are safe also means that the carers are safe.
MJ Andersen’s column appears monthly.