For weeks, Tanya O’Donnell and her husband, Michael, worked full-time from their Edmonton home while struggling to keep their two-year-old son, Chase, entertained. Down the block, their neighbours were doing the same with their son, Silas, also 2. The couples would FaceTime, their toddlers not understanding why they couldn’t hang out in person.
In late March, when Alberta announced it would allow people to emerge from home isolation and pair up exclusively with one other family for help with child care, Ms. O’Donnell made a beeline for her neighbours. Overnight, they merged into a makeshift family of six – a “cohort family,” as Alberta officials called it.
Together, they’ve developed a new communal structure. They care for the children on alternate days: While one parent goes for walks, or does arts and crafts with the boys, the other three parents can work a full shift uninterrupted. They rotate a biweekly grocery run, one person shopping for both families. As a courtesy, they text message each other whenever anyone leaves the house for errands, a walk or a drive. They’ve negotiated thornier issues, too, such as whether the grandparents could safely visit from the porch. The pod ultimately decided against it, knowing the boys would run to the elders.
“It’s basically like you’re in a relationship with more people,” Ms. O’Donnell said.
Seven weeks into lockdown orders, officials in several provinces are acknowledging the frustration and fatigue of home isolation, loosening quarantine rules and allowing families to pair up and support each other. After Alberta introduced the concept of cohort families, New Brunswick launched “two-family household bubbles” in late April, with Saskatchewan also allowing visits with one or two other families. The idea is to let parents help each other with child care, stem loneliness and provide people with an emotional outlet beyond the homes they’ve been cooped up inside for weeks, returning some normalcy amid trying times, experts say.
But the bubbling arrangements also come with some charged rules. People must be “completely committed” to isolating away from others outside their cohort family, according to the Alberta government, which also discourages partnering with those who have underlying health conditions or are vulnerable to COVID-19, including the elderly. New Brunswick officials stressed caution around people’s pairing choices, urging vigilance for those still working outside the home. Bubbles must be exclusive: You can’t swap one for another if it’s not working.
The social experiment raises awkward and potentially fraught decisions. Which grandparents, in-laws, friends and neighbours do you prioritize? Who will get left out, and who will be offended? Who is best to care for your kids part-time, and who do you actually want to have dinner with routinely? What if your top-pick family doesn’t pick you? What if you prefer not to break quarantine for anyone? What if your second family is careless and you want to break up with them and rebubble with someone else?
The key is choosing your bubble carefully, making sure the other family has similar values and a shared sense of responsibility, said Allyson Harrison, an associate professor in psychology at Queen’s University.
“If you have two families getting together and one family is quite concerned about interactions and the other is more desensitized, that can be a source of conflict,” Prof. Harrison said. “There can be resentments or frustrations that arise when you discover that the other family’s doing stuff you didn’t approve of.”
Prof. Harrison recommends would-be bubblers draw up a formal agreement ahead of time to make sure everyone is on the same page with their expectations.
“You want these social interactions to help you function better and reduce stress,” Prof. Harrison said. “You don’t want it to add to your stress.”
After New Brunswick launched bubbling last Friday, psychology professor Lucia O’Sullivan wasted no time inviting her “best friend family” to join forces. The families live close by, travel and spend Christmas Eve together and each have children who are 11 and 13 years old.
“Saturday morning, I was gardening and I thought, uh oh, I better contact them and see. I felt rushed because I thought everyone’s going to ask them. They’re like the coolest family in town,” said Prof. O’Sullivan, who teaches at the University of New Brunswick.
“It’s like asking someone to the prom: Were they already taken?”
After hurriedly reaching out, she immediately felt guilty: What if her popular friends preferred bubbling with neighbours? What if partnering with aging parents was the more responsible thing to do?
Ultimately, Prof. O’Sullivan’s parents paired up with her sister, while her friend’s parents decided against breaking their quarantine. The best friend families bubbled up into a group of eight: two husbands, two wives and four kids. They’re using their bubble less to share the burden of child care and more for socializing, hosting impromptu dinner parties and planning a safety-conscious road trip within New Brunswick’s borders this summer.
In Edmonton, the O’Donnells and their neighbours are also seizing the opportunity to socialize, sharing Sunday night dinners. When the little boys reunited, they did laps around the kitchen, screaming, “It’s my friend!” Ms. O’Donnell said. Once, the husbands did a video-game night; another evening, the women drank wine together – those moments bringing back some small sense of normalcy, Ms. O’Donnell said.
“We are a fundamentally social species. Social connection and social validation are basic needs,” said Samuel Veissière, an anthropologist and assistant professor in psychiatry at McGill University.
“These provincial officials are responding to good science, understanding the manifold risks of isolation and the strains on families,” he said.
In New Brunswick, Prof. O’Sullivan and her bubble family met for the first time in weeks for a birthday dinner last Monday. Though her guests headed straight for the bathroom to wash their hands and nobody hugged hello or goodbye, the dinner felt like a relief, she said.
“When we were all hanging out around the dining-room table, all eight of us, it felt so comfortable and easy and good. I thought, this is the real check-in. All is right and in place again.”
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