One couple's experience with international adoption and raising their two daughters in the U.S.

By Suzanne Rust

No sparks flew for Lisa when she first met Matthew while out one night in 1991. She thought he was cute but was actually more interested in his friend—who turned out to be married. Still, she ignored Matthew's overtures and went on to date a string of what she calls "losers du jour." Six months later, one of her girlfriends said, "You know, if you had played your cards right, you'd probably be married to that nice guy Matt Sicilian by now!" Lisa recalls, "She told me that she was going to call him and make him invite me to dinner. Then she proceeded to do exactly that—in front of me." A date was made and the couple wound up talking until 3:30 in the morning. They will celebrate 21 years of marriage in July.

Their union grew richer when they decided to become parents and adopt two young sisters from Ukraine. Natasha and Victoria were both under 5 when they were sent to separate orphanages 100 miles apart. "About a month before we arrived in Ukraine, a Swiss couple had wanted to adopt only Natasha; they didn't want an older child. But back then the country had an all-or-nothing policy—you had to adopt both siblings, unless you could convince a judge to split them up," explains Lisa. "The judge in this case called the orphanage and asked to speak to my older daughter to see if she even remembered her younger sister. Victoria said of course she did, and the judge told the Swiss couple she would not separate them. Fortunately for us, they went home empty-handed!" When Victoria was 6 and Natasha was 3, they joined the Sicilian family.

While many adopted children experience specific ups and downs, Lisa says all kids have their own challenges as they navigate their way through life, and her girls are no different. "There are all the traditional teen-related things, like attitude and messy rooms, but children who've spent time in an orphanage can have really big problems, and eventually the whole 'I'm adopted' thing can rear its sometimes ugly head. We've had to deal with issues our older daughter experienced as a direct result of things she witnessed and endured before being adopted. We gave her the resources she needed to get help, and both girls know there isn't anything we wouldn't do to protect them and keep them safe."

The family was tested two years ago when Natasha was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease. Lisa says the initial shock felt like "a punch in the stomach," but they knew they had to hold themselves together and be strong for Natasha, and so they did. "I wouldn't allow any of the doctors to use the word 'cancer' in front of her because I didn't want them to frighten her. As her mother, anything she was going to hear about this disease was going to come from me," Lisa shares. "We got through it just like we get through anything: We learn all we can, we find the humor in everything and nothing is off-limits." Natasha handled her treatment like a champ, and her doctors were amazed. She is doing well right now and the family is grateful.

The Sicilians have much to be thankful for. Matthew has been happily teaching middle school for the past three decades, and he says parenting has actually made him better at his job. "I find myself being empathetic and sympathetic not only to my own kids but to the kids I teach, because I know not all of them come from the same background. They each bring different things to the classroom." And Lisa, after a career in corporate accounting, has been bold enough to tackle nursing school. "It's been pretty terrifying, but it was something I absolutely knew I had to do," she says. "Without sounding sappy, it really feels like a calling, just like adopting the girls felt like a calling. Neither was—or is—without obstacles, but I just keep on pushing forward."

Lisa gets lots of encouragement from Matthew and draws inspiration from her daughters. "I think my girls are incredible, and I know they're going to be strong, independent women. Their resilience never ceases to amaze me," she says. "These two little girls just accepted me as their mother, followed me halfway around the world and settled in for the ride."

What surprises you most about parenting?

We thought we had won the lottery because we were beyond diapers and bottle-feeding. Ha!

Lisa, what do you love most about Matthew?

Lots of things, but his ability to make me laugh harder than any professional comedian ever could is tied with his ability to talk me down off the ledge when I bite off more than I can chew.

Matthew, what has being an educator taught you about parenting, and vice versa?

Being a parent and a teacher is a fine balancing act. I find sometimes I am harder on my own kids than I am on my students, only because I know from experience that if you don't have a strong structure when it comes to schooling, things can fall apart very quickly. I realize that my kids are no different than the kids that I teach. Each child I teach has her own strengths and weaknesses, just as mine do. As a parent I have to nurture both in my own kids.

I'm very sympathetic to the plight of parents of the children I teach. I know what their days are like—our jobs don't end with our workday. I am very cognizant of that and I try my best to keep some of the pressure of school from traveling home. I tell my parents that at the beginning of the year. "If I can't get done at school with what I need to, then I am not working smart." They honestly appreciate it. I can't tell you how many allies I gain with that and how much more support I get from parents. I try to deliver that same philosophy very subtly to my children's teachers!

I used to think it was a corny ploy at teacher workshops when a presenter would leave an empty chair up front and ask us to imagine our own child in that seat. I guess I have wised up over the years because I do imagine my own child in that chair and it makes me a better teacher.

Lisa, you are switching careers. What was it like going back to school for nursing? What are the hardest aspects and the pleasant surprises?

Going to school for something as demanding as nursing, that requires both class and hospital time, is demanding and makes it hard to keep on track—it's the age-old juggling problem for me. Fortunately, Matt is great about staying on top of the girls with their schoolwork and sports. I try to cook as many meals in one shot as I can and freeze things so at least I know they are all eating something other than pizza!

The easiest thing for me is how well I feel I fit in with classmates who are almost all young enough to be my own children. In quite a few instances, I'm older than some of my professors! That was something I really agonized about before starting school and I've found it's been a complete non-issue. I love being around these "kids" and it cracks me up when they tell me I'm older than their mothers, but I'm "not like that." I guess age really is just a number.

As busy working parents, what's your take on juggling it all?

Well, everyone has to juggle. Matt and I try to divide up what we can. I think it's extremely important not to expect or demand perfection, because that only makes you feel a million times worse when one of the many balls gets dropped. We always say, "Almost nothing is so broken it can't be fixed," and that's really what we live by. Mistakes get made, people get angry, doors are slammed, voices are raised sometimes, but you just deal with it and move on.

How do you calm the chaos that comes with having a family?

Sometimes you just have to make sure there are days where nothing is on the calendar and then work hard to keep it that way. It's a real sense of relief when Matt and I are discussing the upcoming week and we have nowhere to be on the weekend. The kids sleep late, I can cook breakfast for them, and we can decide if we feel like doing anything or just staying in our PJs all day long.

What's your favorite part of the day?

For me, it's first thing before the kids get up. Matt and I can have coffee together, talk about all the stupid things our friends post on Facebook, watch the news and share about our mutual dislike of our governor and what we have going on that day. Then the girls get up and get going and we talk about what they have coming up, or just chat. Some days it's the only time I will see them since I get home after they go to bed.