what makes a family
Caitlin Ultimo

Caitlin UltimoPet Parenting / Pet Stories

What Makes My Family: Pets, Partners and Love Through Imperfection

What makes a family?

Dysfunction.

Perhaps this word is the first to come to mind because of the time of year. There is nothing more frustrating than the preamble of an actual holiday. Who will host? Who will come? Who will say they’ll come and then change plans last minute? To me, this time of year truly can be a nightmare.

Holiday drama aside, though, family to me is unbuttoned. It’s messy. It’s as real as real can be. It’s not operational—it’s flawed.

But it is beautiful still. To me, the love that withstands all of the imperfection, the struggles, is what makes a family. I know that the unconditional support and commitment that we provide one another is what makes my family.

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Caitlin Ultimo

My family is about 10 years in the making. My husband and I met when we were very young. Before we even started to talk about marriage, we leaned on each other in order to survive in New York City on student incomes: waiting tables, working in the kitchen, taking odd jobs here and there. We paid our rents, were able to eat relatively consistent meals and even managed to afford a bottle of Two Buck Chuck on Fridays.

We went on with just the two of us for some time. I had graduated college in 2011 and we were on the hunt for our first apartment together. As was expected in the city, it took us some time to find an apartment within our budget. While in the midst of couch surfing across the tristate area, I received a call from my uncle. He wanted to know if I wanted to adopt a 1-year-old Dachshund-Chihuahua mix from a kill shelter. Without any hesitation, I said yes. I was also still without a home, but for whatever reason that had no impact on my decision. I knew before even seeing him that we were meant to be.

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Caitlin Ultimo

Dodger, my little black and white Chiweenie, became an irreplaceable part of our family unit. He went with us everywhere—and that was a fair number of places considering we were still bouncing from one house to another. Eventually, we landed in Bed-Stuy Brooklyn. After two years with the three of us, I spotted another Chiweenie from the same kill shelter Dodger was from on the rescue’s Facebook page. She looked exactly like Dodge but with blonde hair. The same floppy ears, the same long body and big eyes. She was also the same age.

With that limited information, I assessed that they must have been long-lost siblings. And Daisy was going to be a part of our family. Our fourth member and first daughter, Daisy rounded us out nicely.

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Caitlin Ultimo

A few years, a wedding, a serious accident, some jobs lost and found and a couple of moves later, we added a little human to our bunch—our second daughter, Valentina.

I don’t think any of us were prepared for how much that little girl was going to change our lives. In the early weeks it was just us—no extended family, no nanny, no night nurse around to help. I, admittedly, didn’t know what I was doing. Blindly, fearfully, I navigated the night feedings, pumping every three hours, cradling my teeny, tiny baby. Everything was new. Well, almost everything.

The one thing that didn’t change was having Dodger and Daisy by my side. I’d get up in the middle of the night and Daisy would jump off of the bed and sit next to me sleepy-eyed while I pumped. Dodger would cuddle with my husband and baby while she napped during the day. If the baby cried, they hopped up at her crib to help. They went on walks with us, watched us, made us smile.

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Caitlin Ultimo

Not much about those first few months was perfect. But looking back, it was perfectly us. We were messy. I was vulnerable. And life couldn’t have been more real. Through it all, though, we had each other, and our bonds only strengthened.

Emily Harris Photography

We didn’t just inherit our connections; we made them ourselves and continue to develop them. We love each other through every challenge and every season. We’re real, flawed and beautiful in our own way. We are a true family.

Read more:

What Makes a Family: A Constant Companion Amid the Chaos of Life

What Makes a Family: Pets, Partnership and Plenty of Love

What the Loss of a Pet Has Given My Family

By: Caitlin Ultimo
Caitlin serves as Chewy’s Executive Editor and Resident Pet Expert, overseeing all things content related, including Chewy’s blog, Pet Central, as well as petMD.com. Caitlin has been a writer, editor and digital content strategist for various brands and publications, including L’Oréal Paris USA, Bonnier Corporation and Meredith Corporation. She has also appeared as an expert throughout various media outlets, including Bustle, Romper, InStyle, AM New York and more.

Originally from New York, Caitlin is the proud pet-mama of two Chiweenies (Chihuahua and Dachshund mix), Dodger and Daisy and recent new mom to her baby girl, Valentina.

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