Beneath the surface, a sisterly bond begins

When my husband, Andy, and I made the decision to add another child to our family, our daughter Tessa was 4 years old. We had adopted her from China when she was a baby, and, among our other reasons for wanting a second child, we felt that Tessa should have a sister who shared her cultural background.

During the year-long wait for our new child, we had plenty of time to prepare Tessa for the changes a baby sister would bring to her life. We set up the crib in her bedroom and talked to her often about what it would be like to share her space and our time. Nevertheless, she awaited her little sister's arrival as eagerly as she awaited Christmas.

"Tessa, are you still excited about having a baby sister?" I asked.

"Yes!" she said. "I can't wait for her to come."

"Even though you'll have to share a room? Even though she might get into your stuff sometimes? Even though she'll need a lot of attention from Daddy and me?"

"Yes," she said, nodding emphatically. "Is she coming soon?"

"Soon, honey," I said, hoping that her positive outlook would last.

Finally, Andy, Tessa, and I headed to China to meet our new baby. Lily, a year old, was small and frightened, but Tessa proved to be a model big sister. She helped change Lily's clothes, mixed her bottle, and soothed her when she was fussy.

We enjoyed the family honeymoon as long as it lasted, but after we returned home we fell into a more normal routine. Lily caught up quickly, learning to crawl, cruise, and walk within a couple of months. The fragile baby transformed overnight into a curious toddler. It wasn't long before Tessa was running downstairs wailing, "Mo-o-o-m! Lily is messing with my stuff!" Sharing a room no longer seemed so cozy now that her roommate was here in the flesh.

For her part, Lily idolized Tessa. Whatever Tessa did, Lily wanted to do. Even when she was being contrary with me, she was willing to cooperate with Tessa. "Tessie do it!" she insisted. It was Tessa who could feed her when she wouldn't let me give her another spoonful, Tessa who could get Lily's shoes on her when she refused to let me do it.

Tessa took her hero status in stride. But sometimes, tired after a long day, she would burst into tears at small frustrations and cry, "I wish I never had a baby sister! You're always paying attention to her and not me!" On those days, I had to ask myself whether they would ever learn to behave like sisters. We had hoped they would share their lives, and they couldn't even share a bedroom.

And then about a year after we brought Lily home, Andy and I met with Tessa's first-grade teacher for a midterm conference. While we were waiting, we had a chance to read Tessa's daily journal. These journals are intended to help the children become comfortable with writing. They write about play dates with friends, favorite foods, holiday celebrations – the people and events, large and small, that make up their daily lives.

To my amazement, on page after page, Tessa had written about her baby sister:

"I like to play with Lily. [She] is miy litl sistr."

"I like to play with miy sistr evrey day."

"Lily is anoeing [annoying] a lot and crise a lot to and sucs her bincy a lot. Lily is nise to, a little."

Her comments made me think. I have four younger sisters, and though they don't mess with my stuff anymore, sometimes they are "anoeing" too. But they're also my best friends in the world, and we still talk by phone or e-mail nearly every day. In a roundabout way, Tessa expressed in her journal what she could never have told us directly: That her sister is an essential part of her life, for better or worse, as my sisters are a part of mine.

I still hear the occasional cry of "Mo-o-o-m!" from my girls. But I'm equally likely to hear giggles and happy chatter. Either way, I'm satisfied. I realize now that Tessa and Lily behave exactly like sisters: annoying, and nice too, a little. I can't ask for more than that.

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