Yes She Can! Single Mom Balances Work, Parenting and Nursing Studies

Writer Liz Murtaugh Gillespie talks to Monica Zamora about juggling school, work and parenthood.

Working parents juggle a lot. Single working parents juggle so much, they tire of answering the question everyone always asks: “How on earth do you do it all?”

Monica Zamora juggles so much, she barely has time to field such a question. She’s a nurse and single mom who went back to school in her early 40s, finished her bachelor’s degree in nursing, and is now studying for her master’s degree at the University of Washington, where she’s on track to graduate as an advanced registered nurse practitioner next spring.

She took the plunge at an extraordinarily difficult time. When she was five months pregnant with her youngest child, now 5, the girl’s father left without warning—no explanation, no good-bye. “I was terrified!” Monica said. “After I made it through the most difficult period, I began to realize that if I had the strength to go through that, at the age of 42, there was no reason that I couldn’t accomplish anything.”

I’ve learned about Monica’s Superwoman life in snippets…as we pick up or drop off our daughters at preschool and on the sidelines at birthday parties. I asked her to share some of the ins and outs of her crazy-at-times juggle, knowing it would inspire others – maybe enough to encourage some of you busy-as-all-get-out working parents to overcome your misgivings about going back to school.

Here are excerpts from an email exchange we had after months of trying to coordinate her impossibly packed schedule with mine:

What time do your days usually start and end?

5:30 a.m.! I’m usually in bed by 10:30, but if I am behind on school I can sometimes make it until midnight.

What’s your work schedule?

I’m working 28 hours per week [Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday as a clinic nurse manager at the 1811 Eastlake Clinic, run by Harborview Medical Center and part of a housing program that provides health care and other support services to residents with chronic alcohol addiction; plus a clinic shift at Harborview].

What’s your class schedule?

It’s different every quarter. I have 4 classes this quarter and spend 10 hours in class total on Tuesdays and Thursdays, plus the 8-hour day at my clinical placement on Friday.

When do you study?

Between patients at work, on the couch in the evening while the family is watching TV and at family get-togethers in the middle of the chaos.

What motivated you to pursue your master’s degree?

In my current position, I work independently most of the time and so have learned a lot about providing primary care. Thanks to a wonderful MD who has become my mentor, I decided that the most logical thing to do was to become an ARNP.

How long will it take you to get your master’s?

One-and-a-half years of full-time study.

What do you like about nursing?

I love the human connection. I get to hear such great stories from my patients and meet such an interesting array of people that I would never have met in almost any profession. I get to help people through difficult things and advocate for folks who would have no power behind their voices. It really is privilege that I am constantly aware of, to be present with someone in an intimate time in their life or death, and it’s so rewarding to know that sometimes I make a big difference in their physical or emotional comfort.

What’s not to like?

I guess in the beginning the hours were difficult. It can be difficult to work within a budget- and rule-conscious system, but I feel like if you are good at what you do and passionate about serving the populations you care for, then you can create your own path and end up in positions that allow you to be creative and flexible.

How did you get past the fear that you wouldn’t have the time, money or energy to go back to school?

I just decided not to think about the energy required, and as for the expense, I would rather be in debt in order to have the education and career I want than to have extra money to spend on accumulating more things. It’s all a trade-off.

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