Fat Girl Wearing Thin

Life beyond the loss.

   Dec 26

My definition of a Family

It’s no secret that my dogs are a very important part of my life.  Even if I could have children I feel that my relationship with animals would still be a special one.  I understand that not all people are animal lovers and there are those who flat-out don’t like dogs in general, just like there are people who don’t like the color green or straight-legged jeans.  Call me crazy, but if I do happen to like straight-legged jeans, the last thing you’d find me doing is making a thoughtless comment about someone because they prefer khakis.  Sounds crazy, someone being insensitive about another person’s clothing.  I mean, who cares what people wear, right?

Many years ago I was having a conversation with my best friend at the time.  I can’t remember the exact details of the conversation anymore but will never forget a comment she made when the subject of dog owners came up.  She made a flippant remark about how ridiculous it sounded when pet owners discussed their pets as though they were their kids.  ‘I mean, it’s an animal,’ she sighed.  ‘They’re not ‘family.’  Thank goodness you know that your dogs are just dogs.’ 

My friend had a family pet growing up; she had children of her own and yes, she knew that I could not have children.  Do I feel that her comment was malicious?  No.  I do, however, think it was incredibly insensitive.

Does this mean I’m called a crazy dog fanatic behind my back? When I ask someone about their kids do I immediately become offended when I don’t get asked about my dogs in return? Of course not.    But like a parent would for her child, if one of my dogs became sick or needed an operation you can bet that I would spend every spare dime I had in order to give him/her a fighting chance for survival.

Sometimes when I don’t express my opinion to another person whom I feel has spoken insensitively or out of line it’s not because I don’t know how to stand up for myself, rather it’s because I’ve been so stunned by what’s been said that it feels like I’ve just experienced an emotional sucker-punch to the gut.  By the time I’ve collected my thoughts and figured out a proper response the moment is over and I’m left feeling awkward about revisiting the subject.


I rarely have time to indulge in television shows, therefore I’m pretty selective – and you can forget about those reality shows.   Well, except for one…..

In late 2011 or early 2012 it wasn’t uncommon for me to spend a solid 5-6 days out of every month on heavy narcotics and curled up in bed, suffering from years of endometriosis that was growing worse.  It was during one of those spells that I perused Netflix and came across the first season of a reality show called Sister Wives.  The series follows a polygamist family as they tried to navigate through life while practicing their faith despite social prejudices.

I became hooked on this show from the beginning and finished the first season within two or three days.  When season 2 was added I quickly devoured that as well.   The series went on hiatus and I eventually forgot about the lives of these strangers as I dealt with my own ups and downs which included an abdominal hysterectomy in the summer of 2012.

To my surprise early last week I noticed that more episodes of Sister Wives had been added to my queue on Netflix.  Yesterday while on the treadmill I picked up where I left off last year: the fourth and youngest wife announced to one of the other wives that she was pregnant, which for those counting, would be the 17th child added to the family.  I watched as the 40 minute episode unfolded with the news being shared among the remaining family members while excitement grew and plans were made.   I watched as the wives described what it meant to be a family – that children made a family possible; children were the backbone of any marriage.

As the credits rolled I turned off the tv, powered down the treadmill and went back to my studio to paint.  Within minutes I felt like I was going to cry.  It didn’t take long to realize what was happening – the last time I saw the show was before my surgery, before my fate was permanently sealed.

I believe that the definition of a family is at the sole discretion of each and every one of us.   I am perfectly comfortable stating that my family consists of my husband, myself and our two dogs.  If we didn’t have dogs we would still be a family, even though we don’t have children.  I am happy with the life that I have, truly; but there are times when I ache to be a part of something larger and still, sometimes, it saddens me.

I have endured more backhanded remarks about members of my family than I can count for things that I simply consider being a responsible pet owner.  Leaving a party early because my dogs haven’t been let outside all evening have been followed with a remark.   When our dog was very ill and we used our vacation money to treat her instead, we were given an alternative opinion of ‘allowing nature to take its course’ instead.

Back to that conversation with my friend.  When I think about it even years later, the thing that troubles me most about it wasn’t so much what she said, but the fact that I didn’t speak up for myself.  I didn’t let her know that I disagreed with her opinion or that her words hurt my feelings.  Instead, I uncomfortably and halfheartedly nodded my head in agreement and sat in silence as she continued talking. I didn’t speak up for me and my family.

Isn’t it a wonderful thing that we are all different, that the word family can mean anything we want it to? No one should have to feel inferior just because they don’t fit society’s description of what a family should consist of.  Before my surgery I had a unique description of family, yes – but especially since my surgery I have felt free to further redefine my use of the word family.  I don’t limit it to who lives in my house or whom I call Sister, Brother, or Mom.  To me, family can be defined as friends in LA or Box Elder, my blog family; even my oldest friendships from high school. Anywhere I feel love is where I feel family.

Family is whatever YOU define it to be.  Don’t let anyone ever tell you any different.




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  1. Grace says:

    Hi Ellen, thank you for this post. I am in a similar position, my husband and I were not able to have children. While it used to bother me, now that I’m over 60, that sadness is in the past. In our travels lately, we were often asked if we had children. My answer was always “yes, his name is Buster and he has four legs.”

    I come from a dog-crazy family, as does my husband. We have always had a dog, and we would do anything for that dog. In fact, a few years ago, Buster had several medical emergencies for which we ended up spending in excess of $10,000 on his care in one year; we were fortunate to be able to afford it, and there was never a question that we would do everything we could to save him (as long as it was not simply prolonging his life if the quality of his life is gone).

    We have a few friends who don’t really “love-love-love” animals, and there were remarks made about spending that much money and time on “an animal.” To be honest, rather than feel self-conscious or inferior, I just feel kind of sorry for THEM. There’s no explaining the unconditional love you get from a dog, and people who have never felt that love are missing a lot of joy.

    I know a lot of people who “dislike” (or even “hate”) much of their “family” (i.e. biological relatives). In my estimation, that’s not the real meaning of family. Family is whoever you love…and that includes the 4-footed beings in our lives.

    • Ellen says:

      Grace, I’m going through this right now actually. Emmie has been ill for the last three months and we have been trying to pinpoint what’s wrong with her to no avail.
      I really love your attitude and appreciate your contribution to this post – and I couldn’t agree with it more.

      • Grace says:

        My 23 year old nephew just informed me today that he and his girlfriend have adopted a 9-year old stray from the animal shelter…a 5-lb Pomeranian that they have named “Fred”. They are over the moon with excitement about this little dog, and I am so proud of him and his girlfriend. It is exciting to see him carrying on the tradition of our “dog crazy” family… :-)

  2. Connie G says:

    I loved reading this post. I’m closing in on 50 and have never had children although we have two dogs (10 years old) and three kittens we just adoped!! We are now a family of 7 and are enjoying every minute of it. I would be lost without out pets/four legged children. I have found that some people who are not pet owners but do have children do look down on us when we talk too much about our pets and make remarks such as ‘but it’s not the same as having children’. I understand it’s not the same but I don’t like the fact that the statement somehow diminishes the value of the relationship I have with ourpets. Sometimes my answer to people with comments such as that is “well they are all I have’ and sometimes that seems to quiet them down.

    Like you said, family can be anything we want it to be from pets to friends and anything else we want it to be. My best friends children call me ‘Aunt’ Connie and I can’t even begin to explain how that melts my heart every time I hear it. I wouldn’t feel any closer to them or love them anymore if I was their ‘real’ aunt.

    I hope you had a great Holiday!

    • Ellen says:

      Thank you for this comment, Connie. Congrats on your new kittens – what a busy (and fun) household you must have right now!
      It’s never easy to know what to say to people, really. I know that most of them don’t mean to come off sounding crass but I guess when we hear it enough it just gets old.
      Your ‘nephews and nieces’ are very lucky to have you. xo

  3. Laura says:

    I adore this post – and until recently, I didn’t quite understand how an animal could so much a part of a family but I saw your love for your dogs, and understood that it was vital, important, and so very real. My parents have a dog that they adopted after I left home, so until this trip back to their home, I never really understood why Toby (our dog) was so important to them. As I spend weeks here, though, I’m developing this same love and attachment to Toby. He is so happy to see me – and his very presence comforts me in ways that I can’t explain. I even told someone I hadn’t run alone the other day – just because Toby came with me. It’s something that I hadn’t understood, and cannot to the extent that you do now – but I certainly see a piece of how they are your family. Even if I didn’t, however, I respect it.

    I firmly believe that family is who we make it to be. It’s one of the many reasons I don’t oppose gay marriage, too. When we find the beings that we love, we make a committment to them and that creates a family – it has nothing to do with what anyone else does, says or feels.


    • Ellen says:

      Laura, thank you for such a warm contribution to this post. I appreciate your candidness – and you’re one of the most respectful people I’ve ever known. We are very much alike, you and I. We lead different lives, come from different backgrounds but still, we share the opinion that we’re all worthy of respect and kindness – and to get it is to give it in return which you do every day.
      I’m glad you’re growing to love Toby. What a great way to become accustomed to the joys of owning a pet.
      …and a big congrats to Utah! What a huge step in the right direction!

  4. Vickie says:

    My first instinct was the same as when I read a post where someone is having a difficult time with remarks about the actions they take for their weight loss. My favorite example is a blogger whose family used to comment on her early morning (before work) runs. And my response to that was that she probably should not tell them she was running before work. It wasn’t like they were standing on her front porch at 5am and saw her. The only reason they felt like her runs were up for discussion was because she talked about it. Actually she complained about it (extensively).

    But as I thought about that concept as it relates to your post, I realized it doesn’t apply because you were NOT complaining about going home to let dogs out or paying for vet expenses. You were sharing and voicing concern, and you were expressing this to someone you thought cared about the things you cared about. Or cared enough about you to understand.

    So I guess maybe you test the waters. And spoon feed the person to see if they will understand.

    I think we all have safe topics with certain people and other topics we never mention around others. I bet you have people who TOTALLY understand about the dogs. Particularly because they are rescued dogs.

    When people do not understand, Sometimes i think it is good to change the subject very abruptly so someone knows a topic is totally off limits. I don’t feel I have to lie or sugar coat or make nice about it. I think it can be better to be blunter about it so they know topic is off limits.

    Back to the woman running before work – she tried to explain, justify, substantiate. If she had been having this discussion in weight loss blog land, people would have understood that early morning runs were good/important for her AND also understood why she gripped about it. But her very over weight relatives were NOT going to understand. She had the wrong audience.

    Really good post.

    • Ellen says:

      You bring up a very good point here, Vickie. I talk about my dogs only to those who ask and are interested. I rarely bring them up in conversation unless there is something heavy that the household is dealing with (like cancer which is unfortunately common with goldens). I never discuss such issues as money when it comes to how much I spend on medical bills for my dogs, just like I never openly discuss what I spend on medications or surgeries for myself. I wouldn’t think about asking parent how much a medical treatment costs for their child, but for some reason expenses are always asked about when someone knows that my dog has been sick. Likely because people know how expensive pet care is without insurance. It is, for whatever reason an acceptable topic and therefore I think can be part of the cause for further scrutiny and lack of understanding. Those who don’t understand the bond between owner and pet are even further baffled when money that was spent for their care could have ‘easily been spent on a great vacation!’

  5. Kyra says:

    I can see both sides of the fence on this. Your family is your family. I have children, but I almost didn’t. I was one of those who didn’t know if I wanted kids, but then we tried and voila, a matched set. I adore them more than anything in this world. At the same time, my extended family stinks. They’re awful, so family doesn’t always mean Hallmark moments.

    Animals, well, they love you no matter what. They ARE the Hallmark moments. We have a whole freakin’ zoo here. We have pets because they offer truly unconditional love. They are family, and all about love, and what better teachers beyond parents could there possibly be for a child? Compassion, empathy, friendship, it’s all there.

    Are animals like children? No, they aren’t. They’re different, they just are – and I’m coming from a position of adoring both. Are they any less important then, especially in a family as you have? No (although, if I had to rush into a burning building, I admit I am saving my children first before any of the animals. I think it’s biological programming, but there you have it.) Do I respect that animals can have paramount importance to someone as a member of their family? Absolutely.

    In some ways, animals are more painful and scary to have than children because although they’ll love you forever – their forevers are very short. Painfully short. We put Cosmo to sleep last month and Max last year, and the losses just come so much more swiftly as we get older. Their little lives are so much shorter. *sigh*

    Your family is your family, and that deserves respect. (And I would leave a party early to let the dogs out too, been there done that. I think perhaps that is less about them seeing the dogs as your family and maybe more about the host not being compassionate towards another living creature, much less your dogs.)

    I’ve personally had some bad experiences in reverse where some of my childless (by choice) friends have looked at an issue we have with the kids and tell me that it’s no big deal, because they’ve gone through something or other with their dogs. Maybe it’s less about the dog vs kid issue, and more about just being kind to one another.

  6. Hi Ellen, I’ve been reading, but haven’t commented for so long! I suck! :) not really!!!! Happy Holidays, and may 2014 be the best for you and your pups. Roz

  7. didi says:

    Family is whoever you think of as family. I have friends that I consider family members. Chris is my family even though we aren’t married. My English Shepherd, Lali, isn’t my child, but she is a part of my family. I don’t call my cat a “fur baby”, but he is a part of my family too. Cripes, some of our plants are family! And on the other end of that, I have blood relatives that I do not think of as family at all. We are blood related, and I wish them well, but that’s about it. YOU choose who you allow in your inner circle. Maybe you can’t choose your family when you are little, but as an adult you sure can!

    Very recently, I had to make the decision to put down the orange tigery cat, Pipkin, that I got when I was ten years old. He was a major part of my life for just shy of twenty years, and if somebody told me he wasn’t really family I would have laughed at them for saying something so obviously idiotic. I know that animals are not human beings. Each species has its own culture, and I understand and respect that. However, that doesn’t mean that connections can’t be made. A family bond can be experienced by both sides in an animal-human relationship, and a person doesn’t have to be a flakey weirdo to know and see that. Love is love, and love to me means family.


  8. Val says:

    Ellen, you’re hurting my fee-fee’s !!! I get asked to gaze into my crystal ball ALL THE DAMN TIME for long-distance diagnosis; yet you haven’t asked me anything about Emmie?!?
    Send me whatcha got so I can butt in w/my not-so-humble opinion 😉 !
    Remind me how old Emmie is?
    (I came by to brag about my yoga print; I LOVE IT! Gotta find nice frame now)

  9. Well you’ve certainly had quite a week…between being hit head-on with the realization of the finality of losing your ‘womb’ to dealing with Emmie’s health issues I’m amazed that you were able to pull together such a brilliant post. I lost my horse, Maxx, within months of finding out I would most likely never be able to have children (I was 23 years old). It was devastating…and a pivotal point in my life…everything changed when these 2 storms collided.

    My cats kept me sane when the shit hit the fan in my life. They kept me grounded, they made it okay to be home “alone”, they made me smile even during the darkest days when I couldn’t manage to get out of bed or face leaving my house…they curled up next to me in bed when I suffered a surprise tubal pregnancy (I wasn’t even supposed to be able to get pregnant and here I was with a tube rupturing and no “family” to help me), they comforted me when I was left all alone to recover from emergency surgery…again, with not a single member of my “human” family able (or willing) to be by my side.

    I’ll take my animal family over some of the “humans” I’ve was led to believe defined what family was. BTW, I remember in my 10th grade AP Anatomy and Physiology class being told that being unable to bear young means one is a “Biological Failure”. That was the phrase that came to mind when the surgeons told me I wouldn’t be able to have children…I was(am) a ‘biological failure’. It’s taken about 15 years to truly come to terms with this fact. And sometimes it still gets me…when I see parents who are unwilling or unable to care for their children, like mothers who give birth and throw their babies away or parents who abuse their kids…it can seem unfair. So, ya know, I say “screw you” to the people who want to dictate to ME who can be in MY family. Their the one’s who can’t even come to that party you have to leave early from because their kid’s sick or they don’t have a sitter. Ooo, a bit of a hot topic for me! =)

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