How my dogs helped me rediscover my lost agency through covid-19 lockdowns
The mental health benefits of having dogs are touted all over the internet, but for me, as an immigrant woman in a foreign country, they helped me carve out a bit of belonging
In March, just as the UK teetered on the edge of its first national lockdown, Luna—my tiny Borador (Border Collie x Labrador)—greeted me at the door with a gently shredded, now oval copy of The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The story in the book hinges, of course, on the almost prophetic nature of this welcome, so to clarify, while it is not at all unusual for Luna to help herself to a chew toy by Penguin Publishing, it is very odd for her to have picked this particular book.
In keeping with my profession as a bookseller, my bookcase is ordered from A-Z by author’s last name, which means that Gilman would have been on shelf 3 of 6. In order to reach said shelf, Luna would have had to place her tiny white paws on shelf one and stretch to pluck it out. Additionally, Luna would have had to bypass two books in her preferred format—hardbacks with textured dust jackets, to go for this waif of a paperback. Coincidence? I think not.
This situation rings a little too unlikely, which leads me to my conclusion: my year-old mongrel, descendent of the smartest breed of dog, was warning me of the impending lockdown and the effect it would have on my mental health by using a core feminist title to remind me to keep my head on.
Lockdown in the UK has been devastating for everyone across the board, but has disproportionally affected vulnerable groups, particularly women. With the stay at home order, women, particularly working women, have borne the brunt of child-care and housework—while also balancing their jobs. Frontline and health workers are mostly women, in the deep end of the pandemic with patient care. And then you have women like me, unable to work from home, earning 80% of their base wage, trapped between four walls.
Despite the immense privilege of having a roof over my head and being furloughed, these lockdowns (we are now on national lockdown #3) can cause a depressive spiral worthy of Esther Greenwood (the protagonist and narrator of The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath). Lockdowns have obliterated, for me and a lot of the women around me, spaces where we are able to exist outside of the social expectations of us, places where we can choose who we want to be. It has, for a lot of us, cost us our agency.
In March 2020, as the high street (including my bookstore) bolted its doors, I felt the first twinge of panic. I draw a lot of self-worth from my job; despite minimum wage. I work in a store I love, doing something I’ve long dreamt of doing, and I feel confident in my ability to perform these tasks. It’s a job that provides financial independence, purpose and agency, all core tenets of adulthood and feminism, and unfortunately, all things that can be yanked away in one fell swoop. Lockdown meant I was rendered to a supporting role, helping my partner who was juggling his full-time job and home-schooling his children. It was never something I was asked or expected to do, but as the times get tough, we do what we can to help each other.
So I went from earning my keep in a fulfilling job to playing second fiddle with little to no self-realisation, and I reacted the way Luna had warned me not to, slowly losing a tight grip on reality. I had lost my ability to be what I wanted under the weight of all the things that I felt I was needed to be. The toil of day to day tasks had eaten away the freedom of owning my own time, and of having space. And it was drowning me.
My dogs however were, once again, the haloed heroes of the shambles I call my life. During lockdown, we are limited to only essential trips (groceries, medicine etc.) and one form of exercise outdoors a day. By virtue of having my dogs, my form of exercise is a walk a day, and by virtue of having these two (active, possibly on speed) dogs, my form of exercise is a long, exhausting walk. From the second I open my eyes, I have eight legs and two tails shadowing me, waiting, beseechingly, until I take us on our newest adventure. We have swum rivers, climbed hills, escaped swan attacks (it’s a long story), run through boggy marshes and discovered carnivorous plants in the wild, and in the middle of this chore that was walking the dogs, I clawed back a sense of agency over my life.
The mental health benefits of having a dog are touted all over the internet—they help you get exercise, they provide companionship and decrease stress. But for me, as an immigrant woman in a foreign, cold and wet country, they helped me carve out a tiny bit of belonging and space for myself. In a time when my ability to do was diminished, they helped me discover an incredible freedom in fresh air, bark-shaved-knees and mud. I have found, as I race them down a hill slippery with pine needles, lungs aching with the effort of laughter and exertion, an odd happy completion. It’s completion that comes from being who you want, under open skies, and choice.
The choice to swim in freezing cold water, just because; the choice to hang upside down from oak trees, just because; and the choice to chase hornbeam trees up and down forests, again, just because. Far away from people and the expectations on who I need to be and what I ought to be doing, I found adventure in these pockets of time, of us drawing joy out of each other and the expectation that we were there to play, however we wanted–Luna chasing pheasants and sprinting through puddles, Dudley selecting pinecones and digging them into the red earth, and me having a solo dance party between prickly holly bushes. They claimed their space and their time, and watching Dudley spend another ten minutes picking up and rejecting pinecones on criteria unknown to anyone else, I learned to do the same.
Dudley and Luna have helped in countless ways: cuddles on the couch, a reason to wake up in the morning, a friendly loving face to see, but during the lockdown they have drawn me out- both of myself and the house. They have taught me to unapologetically claim time for myself, and that I am allowed to take up space and expand into the vastness that exists outside my tiny, (no longer wallpapered in yellow) walls.
The writer is a student, bookseller and mother of two dogs and a cat in Bournemouth.