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Marianne Kraczek: Starting a family at the Yale School of Drama against all odds

Published: Saturday, Aug. 1 2015 6:25 a.m. MDT

Marianne Watts Kraczek and her husband started a family at the prestigious Yale School of Drama against all odds. (Provided by Cedar Fort) Marianne Watts Kraczek and her husband started a family at the prestigious Yale School of Drama against all odds. (Provided by Cedar Fort)

Editor's note: This is an excerpt from "Choosing Motherhood: Stories of Successful Women who put Family First," published by Cedar Fort.

Motherhood was not on my mind the summer I took a temporary receptionist position at a large international communications company in suburban Washington, D.C. I was 19 and had finished by first year of college.

When I found out I would be answering phones for the vice president of public relations, I was thrilled. I was a journalism major at the time and was considering an emphasis in public relations.

The vice president exemplified a high-power career woman and had the wardrobe to match: dry-clean-only suits and name-brand shoes. When she was in her large corner office with a wall of windows, she was always busy meeting with important people. She was also often away on business.

"Choosing Motherhood: Stories of Successful Women Who Put Family First" is a collection of essays compiled by Lia Collings. (Cedar Fort) "Choosing Motherhood: Stories of Successful Women Who Put Family First" is a collection of essays compiled by Lia Collings. (Cedar Fort)

Sitting outside her office at the receptionist's desk, I pictured myself with her job. I wondered if I would enjoy it and if this was the path to pursue. I found time to talk to her about working in public relations and we discussed internship opportunities. I also worked. Since this was before cellphones and BlackBerrys were in everyone's hands, I took all of her calls and learned when to interrupt her, when to take a message, and when to pretend I was taking a message.

It was when her little boy called that I started to think not about career tracks but about motherhood. He was about 6 years old. He called all of the time for his mother, but I always answered the phone. Often I was able to immediately transfer the call, but just as often I had to tell this boy that his mother was busy, either in a meeting or out to lunch or on the phone with someone else. When I would tell the VP that her son was on the phone again, I could see some anguish and wondered what she was thinking.

Then I thought of my own mother who stayed at home with me. I took for granted that she was always there. She was there when I came home from school. She was available to take me to lessons or to a friend’s house. She spent time with me when I needed her. When I called her, she always answered the phone.

After six weeks working as the receptionist and a child’s go-between, I decided that whatever it took, I was going to stay home with my children. I had a lot of time to think about that decision. It was 10 years before motherhood became a reality for me, and I had no idea how difficult it would be to stick to the decision I made at 19.

I went back to college that fall and later felt impressed to change my major. Instead of working in public relations, after graduating from college I taught social studies at a high school in Las Vegas. My future husband, Mike, was the theater teacher. We were friends for some time before we started dating. When he told me about his plans to attend graduate school, I knew I was in love because I felt sad at the thought of him leaving me behind. Fortunately, he didn’t want to leave me behind either.

Shortly after our marriage, Mike started applying to graduate programs around the country. While I supported his decision to go, I was concerned about starting a family. Already in my late 20s, I had a strong desire to be a mother. I was impatient and didn’t want to wait another three years. I instinctively felt Heavenly Father would not have us wait long either.

Remembering the promise I made to myself to stay home with my children, we discussed options for mixing parenthood and graduate studies. There were no easy solutions. With these thoughts weighing on us, we decided to delay baby plans until we knew where we were going. To prepare ourselves for the changes ahead, we started living on one income and saving as much money as possible.

When Mike was accepted to the Yale School of Drama, he almost turned the offer down. The cost of tuition worried him. Yale offered only limited financial support. Other schools offered tuition and stipend grants, and we could have avoided more debt. My husband, always conservative with money, nearly walked away from an amazing educational opportunity.

The biggest concern he had about attending Yale was how to afford a family while attending the most demanding technical design program in the country. Logically, the idea made no sense, but we both felt the impression that New Haven, Conn., was where we belonged. We moved forward, unsure of how we were going to do it all but believing that it would work out somehow.

The Yale School of Drama was an amazing place to learn theater, but it wasn’t family-friendly. Unlike most of the other professional schools at Yale, YSD offered no financial aid budget for married students or their families. Students were not permitted to hold an outside job during the school year because of the intensity of the program. Loans and scholarships allotted us enough money for one person to live on — and live tightly. The reality was that only a small number of married students attended the school. Everybody knew that marriages often didn’t last at YSD. Separations were common and often led to divorce. This pattern mirrored that of the professional theater world where the motto is, “The show must go on,” even at the expense of personal lives. Theater professionals and students work days, nights and weekends. Time that is usually dedicated to family is spent on a production instead.

While married students were rare, babies were unheard of. What crazy people would try to have a baby while in graduate school at YSD? Well, we did. I worked our first year in New Haven and got pregnant during that time. While I was on campus one day, a long-time professor looked at my swollen belly and said, “I don’t think we have had a baby at the drama school in 30 years!”

I was excited for impending motherhood, but Mike was stressed. He didn’t have the same excitement when the baby kicked or when we went to our ultrasound. His prayers were filled with pleas for help to support a wife and child and keep up with school. We had significant savings to help subsidize our budget, but survival still looked impossible. Because no one in Mike’s program could show us how to do it, I looked for hope in the many other parents in our ward who were also in a similar situation. I thought somehow if they could do it, so could we. I tried to have faith that our Heavenly Father would help us because we were doing the right thing.

My husband endured a grueling schedule. Classes started at 9 a.m. and went until 2 p.m. At 2, production assignments started. There were always a few plays in the works at any given time. Work and rehearsals would continue until about 10 p.m. After rehearsals, the actors went home, but the technical designers had to stay to make tech notes and fix problems. This lasted until about midnight or later, and then Mike could come home. Oh, and there was homework too. With all of this responsibility, Mike’s biggest challenge was making time for family and church. During production assignments, we went great lengths of time without seeing each other except for Sundays. Mike committed to not working on Sunday unless he absolutely had to. I believe that the Lord blessed him for this and expanded his capabilities.

When I was four months pregnant, I lost my job. I agonized over how I was going to find another one. At the same time, Mike calculated our taxes and realized that we owed a lot of money in tithing. While he didn’t think twice about paying it, I couldn’t stop thinking about how much we needed that money. Among other expenses, I needed maternity clothes and had no money to buy any. We paid the tithing, but I admit that I did it grudgingly. A few days later, I was called back to work and re-hired. They had found more work for me. They also promised to keep me employed until I had my baby. I learned — again — that God will support us in keeping his commandments.

Small blessings added up like raindrops in a bucket. I discovered that my sister had kept all of her baby equipment, toys and clothes even though she was done having children. For years, she had been holding on to those things for me. I was elated and so thankful. When Mike and I did have to buy things, we were blessed to find them at a price we could afford. We found a slightly used high chair at a tag sale. It had been left out in the rain the night before, and because it looked dirty, the owner sold it to us for just $4. When we cleaned it up, it looked brand new. We didn’t have new things; in fact, the only new things we had were gifts, but everything was in good condition. We felt blessed to have spent so little and still have all we needed and more.

When fall semester started our second year, the dean hosted a schoolwide party. I was nine months pregnant and waddling. The dean lived at the top of a large hill, and I could barely make the walk up the driveway. When we finally arrived at the party, I felt like a circus sideshow act. I could have not been more out of place. I did my best to be friendly while brushing off the stares, the eye rolls and the hushed comments. Some people were supportive and excited for us, especially the ones from Mike’s class. But it was apparent at that party that many others were judging us.

Motherhood finally came. The anticipation didn’t prepare me for the divine joy our daughter would bring. She was worth everything. All the sacrifices we made seemed small in comparison to the happiness I felt taking care of and loving her. Sometimes I put off everything else just to hold her a little longer. Her smiles made me forgive sleepless nights and endless diapers. Having her fulfilled me in a way nothing else could. Even my husband, who questioned beginning a family at this time, was overwhelmed with joy.

I was committed to staying home with our daughter, but I still had fears of what life as a stay-at-home mom would be like. Would I be lonely? Would I miss working? The reality was that I was happier than I had ever been. Good friends helped.

I lived in a community of graduate student families — both members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and other faiths. The moms I met befriended me and taught me techniques and skills that helped me learn how to care for a baby. We relied on each other when our husbands were busy with classes and assignments and we had no other family nearby. Common experiences bonded us.

We baby-sat for each other and held play dates, more for us than for our children. We had great conversations and discussed current events, religion and books. We lived in apartments that were falling apart, and most of us had very few nice things, but we had great times, and I learned that is how being a stay-at-home mom should be. We should support each other as much as possible.

I am still amazed at how we lived off of so little. When money became especially tight and we didn’t know how to pay rent, blessings came in the form of a tax credit, a gift from a parent or an unexpected grant. We always got by and still had enough for some luxuries, like traveling and an occasional Broadway show. The divine help we received became clear by the end of the school year. Many of the single YSD students started to take out additional loans to survive until the end of the semester. We didn’t need (or want) any more financial aid. Our ability to stretch out our finances surprised other students, and they started asking how we did it. We had no logical answers: We just knew our prayers had been answered.

In our second and third years at Yale, more married students entered the technical design program. When they saw we had a baby, they started asking questions. By then I had information to share. I knew about resources on and off campus for families, and I shared my personal tips for living lean. Another YSD spouse and I started a group for spouses and significant others connected specifically to YSD. We created a handbook with information about Yale, the drama school, and living in New Haven. With permission from the assistant dean at YSD, we became an official group and met regularly for support, fun and information.

Mike and I decided to expand our family again, and I became pregnant with our second baby during Mike’s third and final year. This time I was not the only pregnant wife; at least two other YSD couples were expecting, and another married couple had just welcomed their first baby. After we left, every married couple we knew at YSD had children while in school. We started at Yale uncertain if we could start a family and get through graduate school, but we trusted God to help us. We had no idea that we could do that and start a baby boom, too. Incredibly, the drama school is now friendlier to families, and pregnant wives and children are not such an oddity.

Many times we never know why we are prompted to do things, especially when it doesn’t make sense at the time. But recently I went to a doctor’s appointment and learned that because of a condition I have, my fertility is declining much more rapidly than normal. While thinking about this news, I thought of our experiences, seven years ago, as new parents in graduate school. What if we had waited? Would I have all three of my children? I am grateful when I think about the promptings and desire to start having children at that time. It is comforting to know we have a source of inspiration that sees our future more clearly and guides us.

I have no regrets about my decision to be a stay-at-home mom. Although our finances are not as stretched as they used to be, we still make material sacrifices to live on one income. We don’t live in the biggest house; we don’t drive new cars; and we are careful about what we spend money on. There are moments when I miss working, and sometimes I envy a friend who has accomplished great things in the professional world.

When I feel this way, I remember that life can be lived in seasons. I will never get back this time I have with my young children, and I enjoy the freedom to serve them without restrictions that come from outside work. I can hold my child’s hand at the school bus stop and be there when she gets home. I can drop other plans when they get sick. I have time to make healthy meals. I can enjoy childhood again from their perspective, and I have no guilt about not spending quality time with them. I’m not the mother trapped in an office who needs an assistant to tell her child that she can’t talk to him. I know they will grow up fast, and when they do, it will be my turn to attend graduate school.

Marianne Watts Kraczek attended Utah State University and graduated in 1998 with a B.S. in political science and journalism. She served a mission in Spokane, Wash. She is currently a stay-at-home mother of three and lives in Orem with her husband.

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