Column

How ‘Social Pods’ Can Help Families Find Joy Again

In areas where the coronavirus pandemic has waned enough for real reopenings, families are trying to bring some happiness back into their lives

People gather for a picnic in Central Park on July 4. Photo: Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

It started with a hike. My nine-year-old hadn’t seen her best friend — or any friend — in months, so in early June we decided an outdoor activity where everyone could stay six feet apart would be all right. The day was an unequivocal success: Sure, it was hard for my daughter not to hug her friend, hold hands, or whisper conspiratorially, but just being around another kid for a few hours made her happy in a way I hadn’t seen in months.

Now we’ve decided to form a “pod” with that same family. Our daughters are best friends, we’ve all spent a lot of time and vacationed together before, and so we jumped at the chance to broaden who we consider family.

Pods have gained traction throughout the country: The idea being that you expand your isolated immediate unit to a small number of trusted friends or family members. You can go to each other’s homes, hang out without masks, eat together, play games — socialize as normal — because you trust your pod is taking the same precautions you are. (Also because a pod is small, if someone does get Covid-19, the number of people exposed will be limited.)

What used to feel mundane now feels incredibly special.

The time we’ve spent in a pod has been a game-changer; not just for Layla, who is an only child, but for my husband and I, as well. All of our moods have been better, and — most importantly — we have something to look forward to. That’s a big deal in a time when every day feels like Groundhog Day. All of a sudden we can make plans again — whether it’s for a family dinner or a playdate. What used to feel mundane now feels incredibly special.

Pods may not be the best solution in places where infection rates are rising — in many parts of the country, the safest bet is still to stay home with immediate family. But in areas where things seem to be getting better — like in New York state, where I live — families are doing the same thing we are: trying to figure out what’s safe. More to the point, who is safe.

But how do you sort out who to start a pod with? How many people do you bring in? And what if someone wants to be in a pod with you that you don’t feel comfortable with? It’s a whole new world of socializing and trust. As Christina Cauterucci explained in Slate, it’s sort of like dating: “We were trying to feel out one another’s level of comfort with a potential exclusive relationship — a delicate dance rarely undertaken in platonic friendships.”

The biggest questions around my socializing used to be about how early to get dinner (I’m 41, give me a break) or if anyone coming over to eat was a vegetarian. Now who I choose to see and how I see them is a matter of health, life, and death. That’s not the kind of pressure you’re used to associating with old brunch buddies!

There is a level of risk in almost everything we do now. Going to the grocery store, picking up mail at the post office, seeing a doctor, or getting gas are no longer benign everyday chores. And in the same way we need food for our pantry or gas for our car, humans are social beings and need social interaction with others. Most of the ways we saw other people — at restaurants, baseball games, workplaces — aren’t safe; and so it makes sense that we’ve come up with “pods.” Necessary, even: The social isolation in America has become a mental health crisis. We just need to ensure that we keep them small and safe; that we listen to experts and not take this as an opportunity to open our homes willy nilly.

Since we don’t have the ability to have all of our friends over or to socialize in the exact way we’d like or used to — we have to really appreciate and savor the socializing we can safely do. We spent this last weekend at our friends’ home — our kids running around on their lawn outside and huddling up with each other before bedtime. For a moment, everything felt normal — it was a strange, almost guilty, feeling. It felt like an indulgence. Maybe that’s okay for now — being with friends is a privilege, and it’s more special than ever.

Feminist author & columnist. Native NYer, pasta enthusiast.

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