After months quarantined at home, caring for three young children while her husband worked long hours in his home office, Andrea Ulloa de Gallois felt herself sinking, slowly, into the depths of isolation-induced depression.
Then, a friend in a similar state threw her a lifeline, by text.
It was a modest proposal: The two families could buddy up, staying in isolation except for one another. This double bubble would be exclusive — increasing risk, yes, but in what felt like a controlled fashion.
“We agreed instantly,” Ulloa de Gallois said. They discussed terms and agreed on twice-weekly meetups, in their homes or yards, without masks or other extra precautions.
The relief has been enormous. “Seeing our friends is just the mental support we all needed," she said. In particular, she’s noticed the benefits for her oldest, who is 4, and had been anxious, not sleeping or eating well. “I am always telling her, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that!’ It’s a lot of ‘no.’ So at least in this moment, I don’t have to say no. She can be a little kid with other kids again.”
As offices extend work-from-home plans through Labor Day and parents brace for a summer without camp, many families and individuals are looking to enlarge their sphere just enough to create breathing room. Some provinces in Canada have approved exclusive, two-household pods as part of their stay-at-home orders.
Here, people are making their own rules.
Some, such as Mark Rekant, a Moorestown orthopedist, are doing so casually — hanging out with five or so families in their homes or by his swimming pool, letting his teenage kids attend gatherings of up to 10 or 20 friends, with the understanding that, “if I’m saying 20, there are probably instances where it’s been 30.”
Others are undertaking such decisions soberly, engaging in detailed conversations about one another’s social interactions, hygiene, shopping practices and more before deciding to join their quaranteam.
For some, the “pod” includes extended family: a mishpodchah, a play on the Yiddish word for “family,” one Jewish Mount Airy woman called the arrangement with her daughter’s West Philly family and their nanny. They all share grocery shopping, twice-weekly visits, and group decision-making.
Others are singles who, staring down months of isolation, decided to grab a partner.
That was the case for Joan Fanwick, 24, of Point Breeze, and Elizabeth Drellich, 33, of Graduate Hospital. Fanwick, who has immune deficiencies, first came to stay with Drellich because her own roommate wasn’t taking the same safety precautions that Fanwick was.
Since then, Fanwick’s roommate left town to be with family — but Fanwick stayed, on a futon in a room off of Drellich’s kitchen. It’s not luxurious. But, Fanwick said, “Neither of us want to be alone.”
Drellich agreed to follow Fanwick’s lead as they set protocols on everything from face coverings to footwear (no outdoor shoes allowed), and began sanitizing grocery packages as they arrived. Fanwick, an autism language instructor for the school district, teaches online in one room, while Drellich, who taught high-level math to Haverford students, another.
“Having another person who exists in 3D every day is really important,” said Drellich — given that everything else, from work to dating her boyfriend of a few months, is done through a screen.
Karolina Lazarov, an Ardmore-based psychotherapist, said she’s urging her clients to find ways to connect as the prolonged stay-at-home orders exact a toll on mental health. To her mind, that does not have to include in-person contact.
“What I encourage my clients right now is to learn how to coexist. If you cook dinner, put someone on FaceTime and cook dinner together. I find it’s really comforting,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be a deep conversation.”
Still, people of all ages are choosing to co-quarantine in real life, for very different reasons.
Janet Goldwater wanted to be able to help her daughter when her newest grandson was born — but she was a risk vector while living with her husband, a neurologist at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Her solution was to move in with friends of 50 years, Fitler Square residents who are not even leaving home to go grocery shopping.
For Goldwater, that meant the pod could include her daughter’s family. But it excludes her husband, whom she now sees only on socially distanced bike rides or sunset dates on opposite ends of a park bench.
It’s not exactly easy, but she believes that she’s making the best choice she can for her family.
“We’re all picking and choosing what we’re afraid of,” she said. “My circle of friends, we’ve all made the same decisions. Maybe we’re overreacting, but we feel safe.”
One key to podding is finding like-minded people, said Jessica Villanueva-McCollum, 41, a West Philadelphia mother of three, who agreed to pair up with another family for visits once a week or so. “We knew what their exposure was and what their comfort level was,” she said.
Even though they’re limiting the visits to outdoors only, they’re still a source of solace for the adults and especially for her kids. (Though, she warned, “It does open that door: Can we stay longer? Can we go to their house?”)
It’s also important to accept that, as difficult as it is, other people will have to be excluded from the circle.
For Caitlin Liston, 31, of Wynnewood, that decision was not easy. She and her husband, and their 1- and 3-year-old daughters moved in with her parents and her 15-year-old sister last year. In April, they decided to become “socially monogamous” with Liston’s sister and her fiance, too.
The price was that the couple could not see other friends or family, just as Liston is avoiding contact with her own in-laws for now.
“I’ve definitely been feeling some of the in-law guilt,” she said.
In the end, though, getting to see someone who does not live in the house has been profoundly important.
“Now we can sit together on a couch!” she said, halfway between joking and sincere enthusiasm. “It’s amazing!”