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Over so soon? Some people are dreading the return to a post-pandemic world

Tabitha Fineberg is concerned about how her dog Sirius will handle her return to the office.
Tabitha Fineberg is concerned about how her dog Sirius will handle her return to the office.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

When the pandemic closed her preschool, teaching assistant Susan Woods wanted to return to her kids as soon as possible. “It didn’t feel right not being there,” she said.

Even now, sitting alone in her Stoneham home, she often finds herself thinking, “It’s snack time,” or, “We’d be in music now.”

But despite pangs for her little charges, when Woods anticipates going back — to the parking hassles, the schedule, the pressure to get it all done — she tenses.

“Unless you win the lottery, you’ve got to go back to work,” she said. “But the longer you’re at home, the more you get used to it.”

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Obituaries for this pandemic are premature. But with Dr. Anthony Fauci predicting a potential return to somewhat normal-ish life sometime in 2021, albeit later in the year, some people who were worried this horrible interlude would never end are now worried about the day when it does. And they, of course, are the lucky ones — people whose health and families haven’t been knocked down by COVID.

As Boston therapist Elaine Espada observed: “We’ve spent so much energy adjusting to pandemic life that the idea of shifting back for many is also overwhelming.”

Espada sees so many clients who are stressed about the return to pre-pandemic life (which was not always a picnic, let’s be honest) that she has imagined a magazine style quiz: Which post-pandemic personality type are you?

The “Relationship Worrier” is stressed about being pushed into making a decision about a partner when the pandemic’s holding period ends.

The “Recent College Grad Worrier” is afraid he won’t be able to get a job in a tough market with no internships or extracurriculars on his resume.

The “Hustle-and-Bustle Worrier” is concerned about the looming hecticity.

The therapist herself is worried about returning to 2019′s pace, too. Before the pandemic, Espada was seeing clients at 8 a.m. in person, a schedule that meant getting herself and her children out the door at 6:40 a.m.

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“I don’t know how I did that,” she said. “And I can’t fathom doing it again.”

Do we even need to say that people are worried about their dogs adjusting to an empty house? In Peabody, Tabitha Fineberg, administrative director for academic programs at Hebrew SeniorLife, is already anticipating that her new rescue puppy, a black-lab hound mix (one of five dogs in her home), will miss her when she returns to the office full time.

“He is so used to mommy being home all day,” she said.

Introverts are also dreading the return, said therapist Sam Nabil. This pandemic is the best thing that’s ever happened to me, some have told him.

“They’re not looking forward to having to jump back into society,” he said.

With many people talking about the pandemic’s various “silver linings,” perhaps what we we need is a hybrid model.

The death, illness, and economic devastation would all be gone, and the kids would be back in school and day care full time. But significant features of this weird limbo period would remain:

The boss would understand child care hiccups. You’d have time to exercise without rising at 4 a.m. It would be OK to stay home Friday and Saturday nights. Society would be more understanding of human frailty.

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Heels would be out. Ditto, ties, waistbands, and pre-pandemic grooming standards.

As hard as it was to adjust to living life at home 24/7, nearly 10 months later, some who are fortunate enough to still have their jobs and their health see pluses to living like a shut-in.

“I am super extroverted, so [at first] I didn’t respond well to the COVID restrictions,” said Anjali Bal, an associate professor of marketing at Babson College “I have two young kids and that added a level of tension.”

But over time, she said, “I’ve gotten into it.”

She had so many Zoom get-togethers with college friends, pals from other countries, and colleagues, that she’s more social than before, when commuting and driving her kids around devoured her free time.

“This sounds weird,” she said, “but when things go back to normal, I’ll miss being able to socialize so much.”

Many people, of course, are counting the days until they can start living life again — travel bookings are spiking for 2021. But for those who are worried about reentry, perhaps there’s something to be learned from the animal world.

Trainers trying to acclimate a nervous dog to a new environment will bring something comforting from the old environment — a mat, maybe, or a crate the dog is accustomed to, said Dr. Terri Bright, director of behavior services at MSPCA-Angell.

Bright, who studies psychology across species, described the human version of the comfort mat. “If your work schedule now is loosey-goosey but when you get back to the office it will be 9-5, get on that schedule now,” she said. “That’s one thing you can control that will help you re-adjust.”

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With studies and anecdotal evidence showing that people have not only packed on the pounds during the pandemic, but let their grooming go, many are dreading the post-pandemic’s big reveal as if it were a high school reunion.

Here’s one suggestion for a pandemic-friendly business plan, courtesy of a suburban real estate agent who requested anonymity because she has not gained weight: “Salons should offer post-COVID reentry packages,” she said.


Beth Teitell can be reached at beth.teitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.