Pining for the Intimacy of Pandemic Pods

It was the kind of raucous night out that Reece Clark, 32, a lawyer who lives in Olathe, Kan., had been dreaming about during the dark days of 2020: a boisterous group of friends and colleagues packed into a tiny karaoke room, with music and laughter ricocheting off the walls.

But even while enjoying this long-overdue party a few weeks ago, Mr. Clark felt a strange longing: nostalgia for lockdown; or more precisely, longing for the intimacy of his pandemic pod.

For seemingly endless months last year, his social bubble, which also consisted of his wife, Katelyn Clark, 34, and another couple, did everything together — game nights, UberEats banquets, even a road trip through the Southwest.

As everyone started to drift back to their regular lives, Mr. Clark felt an absence.

“How often as an adult do you get to connect on that deeper level?” he said. The empathy, the shared experience. And now, he said, “I miss that feeling of closeness.”

It might sound strange to suffer a case of breakup blues over a social arrangement that in many cases was the equivalent of a lifeboat bobbing in stormy seas (and may, of course, return if the spread of the Delta variant goes unchecked). But as vaccination rates increased and social calendars began filling this summer, some people found themselves pining, and are still pining, for their pods’ camaraderie and sense of collective purpose.

“There is just a feeling that something is missing,” said Shana Beal, 41, a communications director at a technology nonprofit who lives in Greenbrae, Calif., looking back on the three-family group, called the “Coronavirus Crew,” that formed simply because her family was sharing a house in Lake Tahoe with two other families over a long weekend in March 2020, as U.S. cities started to shut down.

Before the pandemic, the three couples were just parent friends from the neighborhood, Ms. Beal said. As soon as lockdown started, they were inseparable, inhabiting a tiny world of six adults and six children who dined together, exercised together, and coached each other through anxiety bouts, marital spats and moments of despair.

As restrictions in California eased, the Coronavirus Crew vowed to stay tight. When one family moved to Austin, Tex., Ms. Beal cried. With the remaining families, “the kids are in summer camps, but they’re different summer camps,” Ms. Beal said. “They’re taking vacations, but they’re not together. Now, I actually have to reach out to them and say, ‘When are you free?’ I almost want to put their travel schedule in my calendar.”

Who could have predicted this? Pandemic pods often were thrown together on the fly, with kinda-friends or whoever happened to be willing and available. For most, they were intended as a stopgap measure. Hey, backyard margaritas with those folks down the block are at least better than another Zoom trivia party, right?

As months rolled on, however, an us-against-the-world spirit began to take over.

“It was like college,” Ms. Beal said. “It was just understood that we were hanging out together every weekend, because we were the only people to hang out with.”

For decades, sociologists have identified three conditions to making close friends: “proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other,” according to Rebecca G. Adams, a sociologist in The School of Health and Human Sciences at the University North Carolina Greensboro. (The quote comes from a 2012 New York Times article about the difficulty of making friends over 30.)

Those conditions were all too apparent in many pods, particularly when podmates bunked together.

“Our pod lived in a house with no secrets,” said Sabine Heller, 44, an executive at a medical start-up in Manhattan who spent a large chunk of last year podding with a handful of friends at a house in the Hudson Valley.

Despite brutal remote-work schedules that often had them hunched over laptops past midnight, the housemates forged powerful bonds during fleeting moments of downtime, Ms. Heller said.

Christening themselves the Quarantine Commune, members joked about their vaguely cult-like strategies for decompressing: straining through group Zumba classes, meditating together in a group sound bath, and enjoying breakfast together wearing the same Desmond & Dempsey pajamas.

“There’s so much I miss about it,” Ms. Heller said of pod life. “The ease, the comfort, but more than anything, the complete lack of artifice and pretense.”

And, of course, the trust. Beyond the game attempts at recreation, people in pods were bound by the same mission: survival. Even the simple — or not so simple — act of enacting safety protocols that everyone in the pod felt comfortable with required a deep level of trust, said Thrupthi Reddy, 41, a marketing executive at a tech start-up who lives in Oakland, Calif., and spent much of last year podding with two other families.

Do we wipe groceries? Do we hang out with people outside the pod? If so, how many? Where?

“When you live on your own and have your own nuclear family, you tend to put your own needs first,” Ms. Reddy said. “In a pod, you’re thinking about the collective good, and the comfort of everyone, because you have to — you need your pod to survive.”

Sharing household duties also brought them closer.

“I grew up in India, and you mostly raise a kid there with the whole ‘it takes a village’ mentality,” she said. “I kept thinking, ‘This was probably how it was back in the day. One person cooks dinner while another takes the kids to the park, or bathes them.’”

This is not to say pod life was a halcyon experience by any stretch. Anxiety, restlessness, frustration, and gloom invaded even the happiest pods, and isolation often felt like torture, for extroverts in particular, several said. (And learning pods, a different form of lifeboat, brought other stresses entirely.)

Many introverts, though, were unusually content. Sarah Tiedeman, 36, who lives in Seattle, Wash., lost her job with a London-based adventure travel company early in the pandemic and ended up forming a pod with another couple. Months removed from life in the bubble, she said she misses the freedom from obligation that she discovered there. There were no must-attend parties with friends of friends. There was no F.O.M.O.“It just felt like a cocoon,” Ms. Tiedeman, 36, said.

No wonder she felt a little wistful for those quiet days when she was on a recent camping trip in the Snoqualmie Valley with about ten other people, most of whom she did not know well.

“I guess it was fun — fun with a question mark?” she said. “We were drinking beers, out on a river. But just making small talk with people you barely know, it was sort of like, ‘why are we doing this?’”

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