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A new mother is full of joy -- and fear

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

For Marla Kanelos, the Writers Guild of America strike is shaping up like a soap opera story line. She should know; she's been writing daytime dramas for the last decade.

The 38-year-old WGA member, who until last week wrote for "All My Children," adopted a Russian orphan earlier this year. Her 19-month-old daughter came to California in April when a strike "seemed like a far-off possibility." Between the expensive adoption process, which cost well more than $35,000, and last year's purchase of a modest two-bedroom home in Sacramento where she writes, the single mother's personal savings are all but wiped out.

"I'm terrified," said Kanelos, who has been living paycheck to paycheck since the adoption. "This is not fun. This is not what I wanted to happen, but I will get a job at Starbucks before I'll cave.

"I love my daughter," she added. "But I don't have to support her by writing for the soaps. I'll do it some other way."

Networks say, despite the strike, they have stockpiled enough soap opera scripts to last into early next year. Many soap producers have vowed to keep their shows going even after the scripts run out by either writing them themselves or hiring non-union writers.

Kanelos' decision to strike was weighed as carefully as her earlier one to adopt Stella. And at first, neither idea seemed terribly compelling. But research, talking to family and friends, and personal experience came together to galvanize her resolve in both cases.

For much of her life, Kanelos, who also wrote for the soap "Port Charles" for seven years before it was canceled, wanted to have a family of her own. She'd always told herself that if she wasn't married by her late 30s, she'd adopt. So, when a serious relationship broke up a few years ago, she realized it was time.

Adoption was her only thought thanks to a vivid memory from when she was 8. On a weekday morning an unfamiliar man brought a 2-year-old girl dressed in "footsie pajamas" to their family's door. The man said he'd found the child on the street and that he had to get work, but asked if they could call the police.

"I remember asking my mom if we could just keep her," recalled Kanelos, who grew up in Sacramento. "It hit my heart so hard that this little girl was so unwanted."

Nearly three decades later, Kanelos found herself flying to Russia to meet another unclaimed little girl. Before arriving at the orphanage, Kanelos didn't even know what the child she would soon be raising as her own looked like.

"They brought Stella out to me and I put my arms around her," said Kanelos. "She looked like she could biologically be my daughter. It's just one of those things where fate leads you to a certain place and it just seemed like she was born to be my daughter."

Less than a year after one life-changing choice, Kanelos soon faced another. The rumblings about a writers strike were growing louder and became harder to ignore as she continued to hammer out her roughly 80 weekly pages of script for "All My Children."

"At first I was like, 'This isn't a daytime fight,' " said Kanelos, who has been writing for "All My Children" for three years.

The once massive audience for soaps has been steadily eroding over the years largely because of popular daytime talk shows and the explosion of cable channels. Kanelos said "All My Children's" ratings today, which are considered respectable, would have got a show canceled five years ago.

"The soaps are probably going to be the first shows to head to the Internet," said Kanelos, who first broke into the soaps after interning for "Days of Our Lives" and later lived in Los Angeles for years. "That's why the fight over compensation for new media is so important."

On the strike's second day, Kanelos was reminded of why she walked off the job. She was with Stella at the pediatrician's office.

"She just had a cold, but it felt good to know we have health benefits," said Kanelos, who flew down to Los Angeles on Thursday to join the picket lines in front of Prospect Studios in Los Feliz. "I can't afford to lose those benefits or my pension."

Already, the strike has meant cutting back, of course. She let go her 26-year-old niece who was her nanny. Going out to eat is a memory. And impulses to buy Stella new "cutesy" clothes are restrained.

In another month, Kanelos may have to dip into her home's equity. She may even apply for a loan from the Writers Guild, which has an emergency pool of about $12 million available to members to get them through the strike.

But eventually she'll have to find another job.

"This is for my future," said Kanelos. "Not only mine, but also my daughter's."

martin.miller@latimes.com

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