I Quit My Job To Spend More Time With My Dog
Six weeks after adopting my dog Cody, I quit my job.
At the time, I cited work burnout and a desire to freelance. But I can now admit that what I really wanted was more quality time with my new, beloved pooch. In other words, I took a "pawternity" - a version of maternity or paternity leave designed for new furry family members that's catching on in the U.K., and offered to about 1 in 20 new pet owners there.
So, I decided to try it: I left my full-time job in Chicago to spend more time with Cody - and I have no regrets.
"I went years sans pet, waiting to be in the right life stage"
I'd wanted my own dog ever since I left my family's beagle-mutt Yoda behind when I left for college. But I knew how much attention and care dogs required, so I went years sans pet, waiting to be in the right life stage. Fearing cubicle boredom after I graduated, I worked at independent bookstores; later, my husband and I lived in a series of "no dog" apartments while pursuing busy careers.
I worked as an arts and culture writer until I was, inevitably, laid off post-2008 financial crash. During the year that followed, I freelanced and dog-sat for friends - pooches weren't technically allowed in my building, but a few days at a time flew under the radar with my landlord.
At the same time I began an MFA program, I started a day job in marketing. At first, the job was pleasantly boring and stable. Since the company paid for my tuition, I tried to put aside my lifelong hatred of cubicles and office attire.
My husband tried to help me cope by creating a cute animal blog curated with an intended audience of only me, to help lift my mood during work hours.
It worked somewhat.
Then, one year in, everything changed. My company was bought out and my work environment quickly changed from a sleepy one in which I could do coursework during lunch, to a toxic, intense one.
It became common to see managers' doors slam, and hear them yell specific names of staffers seated just outside. Layoff rumors abounded. It was chaotic and crazy-making but I couldn't quit because if I left before graduating, I'd have to pay the tuition money back.
"Anything to get me through the day"
Eventually, I developed carpal tunnel, tendinitis and such extreme anxiety that Xanax became necessary to sleep. I'd often retreat to the company bathroom to try meditation, "tapping," soothing mantras - anything to get me through the day without bursting into tears and rage-fits.
True to my type-A, Midwestern work ethic, I tried coping with my ailments by doing more: more physical therapy, more yoga, more meditation, more ergonomic objects at my workstation. Nothing worked; I felt awful, inside and out. Somehow, I finished my thesis and completed my MFA, shifting to a new marketing job soon after. My degree didn't feel triumphant; I limped over the finish line, in pain and miserable.
But once I finished, I knew we were finally ready to adopt a dog.
Three days later, we rescued Cody, a golden retriever mutt. He had a sweet, gentle Buddha-like demeanor - but like me, he was needy and anxious, shredding books and papers, and eating pillows after we left for work.
Over several weeks, we figured out dog-proofing, bought chew toys and arranged a four-walks-per-day schedule with a dog walker while we were at work. Then one day, he got very sick from eating an entire bottle of multivitamins.
When I asked to work from home, my boss refused - the whole team needed to be on-site, my higher-ups said. That was the moment that I thought, "That's unacceptable." I could say it for Cody's sake, if not for my own.
I realized I desperately needed a "break" - more quiet moments with my beloved new dog and my frazzled mind. Instead of more, I felt a strong need to do less, to slow down.
My peaceful moments of Cody-bonding - rubbing his belly, brushing his long fur, taking walks in the park and couch cuddling - sparked a growing feeling that these were the things that would heal me and what I needed more of, in order to feel human again.
This is perhaps unsurprising, with canines being increasingly used to comfort people in crises ranging from PTSD to surgery to disaster survivors. Pets are also known to lower blood pressure, decrease cortisol levels and raise levels of feel-good brain chemical dopamine.
"Owning a pet gives you a sense of purpose and belonging that can increase feelings of positivity and lower stress levels, all of which translates to health benefits," says Allen McConnell, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Miami University who studies human-pet interaction.
"I started to calm down and refocus"
I decided to quit and embark on the freelance life, with Cody as the driving force; I told myself my dog needed me at home. Looking back, my "going freelance" plan wasn't great, and could be considered irresponsible. I had only a small savings and had lined up just a few gigs.
Health insurance was covered on my husband's plan, but otherwise, I needed income to cover my share of bills - and fast. I hustled for any kind of paid work (including working as my parents' tech-guru/house painter/yard caretaker for a few weeks) to make ends meet.
But without the job pressure, and at home by Cody's side, I started to calm down and refocus. Cody became my mentor for how to be in the moment. He taught me how to take calm walks, play with abandon and sit quietly without constantly worrying about the next task or emergency.
I used that calmer state of mind to start scrapping together work - novel editing, travel stories, copywriting. Building my business wasn't easy, but it was a self-directed chaos I could manage.
It helps that Cody is an incredibly good-natured animal and honest-to-goodness guru material. He exudes a peaceful grace. If another dog barks at him, he just turns away. When toddlers stick their hands in his mouth or accidentally poke near his eyeballs, he just smiles and pants, soaking up the attention and nuzzling them.
That's not to say he's angelic. I've known angelic dogs. Bella at the dog park, who lies down on everyone's feet and cuddles chew toys instead of destroying them. Or my friend's border collie, Mavis, who licks your face when you're sad. Or Kenya, a friend's now-departed chow-chow who lap-cuddled for hours at a time.
Cody is gentle but also has an independent, mischievous streak. He remains a blackbelt-level counter surfer and still occasionally finds plastic bags to shred when we're away. But his free-spirited personality only makes me love him more.
"I try to give him adventures"
When I consider dogs' healing power, I always think about this quote by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, author of "Dogs Never Lie About Love":
"Perhaps one central reason for loving dogs is that they take us away from this obsession with ourselves. When our thoughts start to go in circles, and we seem unable to break away, wondering what horrible event the future holds for us, the dog opens a window into the delight of the moment."
Cody teaches me so much on a moment-to-moment basis that I barely feel qualified to "own" him. I believe my role as his caregiver is to help him feel as free as any domesticated animal can.
I try to give him adventures and am always on the lookout for dog-friendly places to bring him (patio restaurants, hardware stores, corner bars, the dry cleaner). I mostly let him choose the direction and pace of our walks, and let him lead me onto new paths, new scents.
I left that marketing job two years ago. Since then, I've gotten freelance traction and made my small-business lifestyle work pretty well. It's not easy: I keep even more spreadsheets that I did when I was on a company's payroll. I make copious to-do lists. I chase down invoices and court new clients.
It's a hustle but I love it and Cody is interwoven with every part of my day. It helps that his default mode is one of total joy. He wakes us up by jumping in bed for a loving nuzzle. He and I take a walk, eat breakfast and play in the yard, and then I sit down to work.
We do a noon walk and a game of chase, and I return to my desk until dinnertime. But my day is happily peppered with belly rubs, games of tug-of-war, cuddles and the occasional co-nap with my coworker.
"I believe my pawternity saved my life"
I'm pretty risk-averse, so when I think back on that "rash" decision I made to quit my day job, it still makes me shudder. But all I know is, if I hadn't made a choice that others might have considered irresponsible, there's no doubt that my chronic illnesses and anxiety would have taken me down a rabbit hole of misery. I believe my pawternity saved my life.
And the Cody-lessons continue. His latest thing is begging to go out for a walk; then, once outside, promptly plopping down on the cool grass to roll on his back and refusing to move.
The old me might have been irritated or anxious by this delay in my schedule. These days, I just look into his animated face and at his wriggling, exposed belly and laugh. Then, I plop down to join him. The work on my desk will still be there in 10 minutes. This hilarious and delicious moment with my fur ball is only here and now.