Growing Up With an Adopted Sister Taught Me the Most Important Life Lessons

It felt like an impossible dream come true the day my mom told me I'd be getting a sister. When I was young, I begged and pleaded for one, but the answer was always no. Eventually, I stopped asking, but I never stopped wishing. I was 8 years old when my mom decided to adopt a 5-year-old girl from Russia, and I finally had what I wanted most.

My mom told my best friend's mom about her plans, which were meant to be kept secret for the time being. But the next morning, my second-grade class was buzzing with excitement and everyone knew. So, she went ahead and had my teacher talk to my whole class about adoption.

My grandparents came to stay with me while my mom traveled to Russia for 10 days. We made "welcome home" signs and met her at the airport. I will never forget what it felt like to see my mother, who I had missed so much, step off the ramp holding the hand of a sleepy-looking little girl with short brown hair.

Alesya was a few days past her fifth birthday and she didn't speak a word of English. We learned a bit of Russian and had some Russian books at home, but it seemed like she immediately soaked in the language and began speaking just like me — in a bubbly, girlish, and highly articulate voice. Her bright little mind seemed to rejoice in suddenly being immersed in a world of language and interaction, so different than her world before.

I knew, of course, that my mom had not given birth to Alesya, but she made it clear from the start that this girl was in all possible senses one hundred percent my sister. As we grew, I noticed that people who would meet us often insisted that we "weren't sisters" or tried to label us as stepsisters or half-sisters, because we were not the same race. What people need to know about adoption is that it's just another way for a child to join a family. She's my sister, no doubt about that, and I don't need to call her my "adopted sister" any more than someone else needs to call their sibling a "blood sibling."

Elisa Cinelli

But that doesn't mean she doesn't have a unique experience. Being adopted is one of the biggest things that shapes her story and who she is. My sister comes from a traumatic past. During the first three years of her life, her birth mother severely abused her, leaving burn scars we still see today. She was also severely neglected, left alone in a single-occupancy motel for days on end, while neighbors tried desperately to shove bits of food under the door. The trauma she faced is unimaginable to me, and while she didn't remember or know about it as a young child, it still had an impact on some of her beliefs and behaviors.

The issues that my family grappled with during my childhood, like my mom and sister struggling to bond or my sister's persistent stealing, were so different than what my friends, from typical nuclear families, faced, that I found it difficult to turn to them for support. At times I felt isolated or ashamed of these things.

Sometimes when I think back to the problems that my sister and I dealt with growing up, I realize that I wasn't seeing things through her eyes. I had never experienced the feelings of being unwanted or desperate for my basic needs to be met, nor did I realize how a past like that would drastically change a person's perspective and how they reacted to different situations. Through my relationship with my sister, I've seen how trauma impacts a person's whole life, but I've also got the opportunity to see how much a person can overcome — and it's pretty amazing.

One big difference between me, a biological child, and my sister, an adopted one, was how we defined ourselves in the world. I knew my heritage well growing up, and I felt secure in who I was and where I was from. Alesya, on the other hand, found it difficult to form her identity without a direct line to her background. Not only did she feel unsure of where she was from, she also found it difficult to know what her future held. Through her teens and young adulthood, she did a lot of soul searching and learning about her heritage.

Today, Alesya and I share a close bond even though we don't see each other often. We still have a special connection that only sisters have. Our personalities are very similar and there's something about us that is always in sync. When we talk or get together, I love being around someone who really understands me.

Growing up with an adopted sister taught me that my capacity to love another person with all of my heart is not limited to those who fit under a certain umbrella. I came of age side by side with a person who was born in a completely different place, under completely different circumstances, but we were and will always be united.