A Year of
Social Distance  
Dear Friends,

Sometimes I forget what life was like in the “Before Times,” when we New Yorkers rode the subway during rush hour in tightly packed cars, our bodies pressed up on nearly all sides next to strangers so close we could see their Candy Crush scores or read a few lines of a book without ever knowing the title. Or when we stood around tiny tables in crowded bars sharing pitchers of beer and platters of melted cheese in one form or another, raising our voices to a volume that made us hoarse the next morning. Or when we ran out of the house, maskless, and got to see familiar faces of neighbors walking their dogs and people spilling out of full elevators heading to work and school drop-off.  

Over the past year, my life has collapsed inward to its most essential form. Everything deemed non-essential has been relegated to a screen. Last month, Amanda Mull wrote in The Atlantic about weak ties, the people who we move with through our daily lives but don’t reasonably count as “friends” in a traditional sense, and yet, from whom in our shared experience of the world, we find joy and support.  

In my non-essential life, there were routines and rituals and relationships that sustained me. Every morning, I left my house at the same time as my neighbor, John. John is blind, which at first shaped our interactions. I would help him get his ticket for the crosstown bus that we rode together. We would chat casually while we waited for the bus to arrive, as I helped him navigate the curb and the steps to get on, and as we stood packed together in the throng of humans moving at rush hour. Rather than reading and responding to a litany of emails that landed in my inbox overnight, I learned about John’s life, his job, his family. And he learned about mine. In the course of the last couple of years, over the three stops across East 86th Street until John got off the bus just one stop before mine, we became friends.  

Nearly every day, I bought my coffee from the same cart, exchanging pleasantries about the weather or the city’s recent events with people in line and the guy behind the counter. And each week, I dropped into the same nail salon, where the manicurists knew me by name and always asked about my children, and I about theirs. Every month, I met up with a group of neighborhood moms I had become friends with during my first maternity leave. We met one day in the park with our newborn boys, all born within days or weeks of one another in March of 2013. Impromptu park outings with newborns turned into daily walks and texts. We grabbed on to one another and held on tight, each of us longing for connection and camaraderie during the deeply lonely months of the fourth trimester. To call these remarkable women “weak ties” insults the incredible solidarity and support we continue to offer one another during vital and difficult moments in our shared lives. (There really is no substitute for female friends.) Our “March Moms” dinners were a high point each month that I looked forward to with great anticipation. And yet, this celebration of friendship and motherhood, like the rest of my non-essential life, has been radically changed. Sushi dinners have converted to group FaceTimes, usually with a kid or two lurking in the background protesting bedtime. And my daily commute now consists of placing another pod into my kitchen coffeemaker and the six-foot distance between my desk and my bed.  

To name these missed moments is to list the seemingly ordinary pleasures enjoyed in the “Before Times.” This is to say nothing of the “water cooler” chit-chat, work lunches, and after-work cocktails I enjoyed through a wide range of professional relationships. Not to mention the random train or plane seatmates over my many years of work travel who became fast Facebook friends. As you can tell, I am a super-extrovert – very often to my husband’s chagrin, especially when date night turns into a dinner party with the tables on either side of us in a crowded restaurant, along with our waiter too! All of these points of contact with the wider world were moments of great joy in my life. To state the obvious, Zoom is not a substitute for any of them.  

Of course, the wide web of relationships from which the diverse fabric of our lives is woven is no substitute for the strong ties of parents and partners and even children on whom we have grown to depend so much during this trying time. But this period of history that has sequestered us from each other has further underscored what we already knew to be true: humans are inherently relational creatures. Cutting ourselves off from all of the weak ties that inspire and sustain us puts undue pressure on the closer relationships on which we so deeply depend. How could my absolutely adoring husband ever be expected to carry all of this relational weight? 

Over the past year, every one of us has endured realities and events that we could never have foreseen. This has been a period of extreme isolation and for many of us, including me, illness. Untimely deaths, both within our own lives and on a vast scale. Many are experiencing economic hardship and uncertainty. Throughout this trying time, extreme political polarization and deliberately divisive media inside information silos have pushed us to dehumanize and villainize one another. As our public health systems have come under strain, so has our mental health. Our partners at Making Caring Common just conducted and released new research demonstrating that loneliness is off the charts, especially among young adults and, perhaps less surprisingly, mothers with young children. As I listened to the New York Times “Primal Scream” interviews, I found my breath in my throat, unable to swallow, holding back my own primal scream. As a working mom of two young children – with remarkable support from my partner, nearly full-time in-person school, and childcare – I’m still hitting my absolute mental load limit.  

Loneliness isn’t a physical state, but rather a feeling. This feeling is quite distinct from solitude, which can be a peaceful aloneness. As the former Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy writes in his most recent book Together: “Loneliness is the subjective feeling that you’re lacking the social connections you need. It can feel like being stranded, abandoned, or cut off from the people with whom you belong – even if you are surrounded by other people.” As my children Zoom-bomb meeting after meeting at my work-from-home desk, I am mourning the loss of the many people who during the “Before Times” swarmed my daily life with casual interactions. This is a new kind of loneliness for me, feeling excruciatingly cut off from the messiness of city living that I didn’t realize I loved and longed for so much.  

In the spectrum of idealist to skeptic, I tend towards the obscenely optimistic, constantly in search of the possibilities and ’how might we?’s, which offers a grain of salt to those who do not always see the glass half-full. Once the distancing fog of pandemic has lifted and we can reconnect with our broad web of ‘non-essential’ friends, my hope is that this extended, overwhelming period of relational withdrawal will help us see how we depend on one another, not just in ways that are essential to our survival, but in ways that are essential to our thriving.  

In Mull’s piece in The Atlantic, she notes that American culture prizes close ties over weak ones, romantic love over community care. But culture is made up of the tiny choices we each make day to day, week to week. After the social distance of the 1918 flu pandemic, America erupted into the sustained debauchery of the Roaring Twenties. No doubt, when the world is vaccinated and the time of social distance has passed, we will all have new appetite for late-night ragers. But with the choice of how to spend our time and with whom, I dream that we will also choose to spend more of it in loving kindness, not just towards our children, partners, and parents, but also towards other members of our broader community, who help lift our eyes and sustain our gaze. The person behind the counter taking our order. The person waiting in front of us at the DMV. Even the driver who just cut us off. The mom in the park sitting alone with her newborn. Each of these people has a story. They have experienced love and loss, just like the rest of us. What would happen if we each pushed ourselves to move beyond the rote “hello” and “I’m fine” to something more? What would you ask if you could? And, what would happen if you did? Perhaps with the new-found realization of how dear the choice really is, we’ll get to make those around us feel that much dearer to us and to each other, meeting our shared desire to be seen, known, and loved. 

Below, you’ll meet two frontline workers in our “Through the Prism” feature, a nurse and doctor, who share their experience providing nurture care to parents and infants in the NICU during the early months of the pandemic. You’ll also get to hear from Ira Hillman, our Bonding lead, who shares reflections on the importance of reading with his children to talk about race. Jonathan Gruber, our Building lead, shares new research about the surge in loneliness in America over the last year. We’ve also aggregated some new resources from across our partners and peers that may be of interest, covering topics such as the effects of COVID-19 on the life of infants to how the world is wrestling with diversity and division. As we collectively bear witness to the departure of half a million American souls and the on-going recovery of millions, we’re doing our level-best to break open with supple hearts. It has been an incredible year. Our relationships are more important than ever. Thank you for being on this journey with us. 

With loving kindness,

Jenn Hoos Rothberg
Executive Director

Through the Prism
with Nurture Specialists
RN Erica Lui and Dr. Christiana Farkouh-Karoleski 

Our Reflections on
Human Connection & Belonging
The 3 Rs: Reading, Relationships, and Race 
Addressing America’s Loneliness Pandemic 
A Year of Social Distance
Resources and Reflections from
Partners and Peers
On March 18th, funders are invited to join the Early Childhood Funders Collaborative (ECFC) and Einhorn Collaborative for a discussion with Columbia University researchers on the findings of the COVID-19 Mother Baby Outcomes (COMBO) Study, a research initiative launched in spring of 2020 to evaluate the impact of COVID-19 on mother-infant health. This funder discussion will focus on the study’s findings and how funders can support on-going efforts to understand the impact of the pandemic on early childhood wellness. Register here.
Read | “Is Dialogue Enough to Bridge Racial Divides?” by Lennon Flowers
The co-founder and executive director of The Dinner Party and The People’s Supper reflects on her experience supporting the people of Erie, PA through the process of recognizing and addressing their racial and economic disparities in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial justice protests of the summer of 2020. 
Read | “People in More Diverse Countries Are Less Prejudiced” by Jill Suttie 
A new study finds that people in diverse communities feel a greater sense of commonality with othersand have greater well-being, too, which highlights the benefits of America’s diversity.  
Read | “'We Are Still Sick, and We Are Ready to Act' A Covid Community Struggles to Be Born." By Pato Herbert and Dr. Alexandra Juhasz 
Two professors from NYU and Brooklyn College share reflections on COVID-19's unending recovery and the process of finding support and solidarity among those who have also survived this grueling disease. 
Read | “Break Open Not Apart” by Courtney Martin 
Martin encourages us, in this time of overwhelming heartbreak, to break open our supple hearts, to expand our capacity for many forms of love.  
Read | "How to Do Great Journalism on Polarizing Issues Instead of Making Things Worse" by Hélène Biandudi Hofer
The author shares four ways journalists and columnists can use intentional listening, complexity appreciation, and relationships to effectively counter confirmation bias and build public appreciation for difficult issues.  

Listen | Ira Hillman and Dr. Katie Beckmann Discuss Demystifying Philanthropy on the Reach Out and Read Podcast 

Philanthropy touches our lives on a daily basis, but the decision-making process by those who hold the so-called ‘purse strings’ can be seemingly shrouded in secrecy. Dr. Katie Beckmann from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and Ira Hillman from Einhorn Collaborative, go behind the scenes to help demystify the world of philanthropy. 

Read & Watch | “It’s All About Relationships: Systems-Based Changemaking” by John Esterle, Malka Kopell, and Palma Strand 

Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE) published a co-authored commentary that highlights the role of relationships in complex systems. This piece is expanded on in a follow-on webinar featuring comments from our Building lead Jonathan Gruber, here

Read | “The Pandemic is Fueling a Crisis of Connection. The Next Surgeon General Should Tackle Both.” by Niobe Way, Rick Weissbourd, and Marc Brackett 

The authors urge that we must continue to wear masks and stay six feet apart, even as a growing number of people get vaccinated. Just as urgently, we need to change our culture so that we value the we over the me. That means recognizing that our social, mental, and physical health are intimately intertwined. 

Share the Love with the Loving-Kindness Meditation

Want to feel closer and more connected to others? One way is by increasing your capacity for love and kindness.

In that spirit, we’re sharing with you Greater Good Science Center’s Loving-Kindness Meditation, by Dr. Emma Seppälä, Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. This 15-minute practice is a perfect tool to use when you’re feeling disconnected from those around you by helping you become a vessel of love and caring in the world.  


This practice is one of the hundreds offered through Greater Good in Action, an online repository developed by synthesizing hundreds of scientific studies, offering the best research-based methods for a happier, more meaningful life.  


Greater Good in Action not only shares with you what to do, but also why it works and the science behind the practice, in an easy to navigate and digest format, right at your fingertips.  

Have 15 minutes now? Use the Loving-Kindness Meditation here.
See our humanity in a new light



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