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Finalist 4 – Julie

Changing diapers, cooing a smiling infant, reading books on sleep-training, zoos and museums, homespun art projects, math and reading homework, breaking up sibling fights, bandaging boo-boos, chaperoning field trips, birthday parties, food allergies. I often wondered, aside from the pure joy of raising my children with love and compassion, where would these surmounting skills and my personal growth as a parent take me? Back to school!

As a single mother of three young children, ages 2, 5, and 8, it’s not the case that I lack quality skills. In fact, I proudly list on my résumé the following qualifications under the experience heading, “Mother:”
• Providing physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual support that growing children require
• Multi-tasking, planning, organizing, being flexible and resilient, honing effective communication skills

I am back to school to take full advantage of my life experience as a mom. I am studying Counseling Psychology, on track to be a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. Family Systems Theory? Anyone can read it in a book, but only a mother can understand the family dynamics that cause one family member’s mental illness to ripple out to the others. Only a mom can understand the emotional and behavioral ramifications that a family in transition faces—whether from a birth of a new baby, a relocation of the family home, a broken arm, a death of a grandparent, a change in elementary schools, or a parental separation. Life is full of challenges and changes, and moms understand intuitively what that means to a family. And yes, these stressors can have a major impact on the wellness of any or all family members. And yes, Mom often knows a great deal about how to soften the blow of a family disruption, pre-emting the subsequent damage control efforts she will make.

Furthermore, when I learn about early childhood development, I understand the intricacies of how child attachment is made with the primary caregiver. Those mirror neurons at work as Mom smiles back to baby. “Parent-child attunement”? This is Mom knowing just exactly why it’s so important to spend an extra 10 minutes for a child to tie her own shoes on a given day. Personally, I know the stages of child development like the back of my hand. It is a beautiful experience to witness the growth of a human being from day one onwards. And guess what? I’ve been taking notes!

I also know how hard it can be on a mom or dad when they haven’t slept in days, when there’s a choice to be had when a child “isn’t a good fit” for a school, when a lifelong disease is diagnosed in a 4-year-old, when in-laws stay for a month in a small family home, or when the marriage comes to a close. I know the challenges of juggling multiple children in multiple schools with multiple activities and friends, while preparing documents for a family court hearing.

You know what helps Mom a lot? Therapy! In fact, I believe in it as a key element of holistic wellness for all people. I believe in it so whole-heartedly, that I am training to be a “feelings doctor,” as my daughter calls it, myself. And when I sit in the classroom, as other single parents might understand, it does not feel like work. It is akin to a day at the SPA! My perspective as a parent leads me to more fully appreciate intellectual stimulation among adults, sitting still in a chair for 3 hours, finishing my thoughts without 10,000 interruptions, and the like. Staying up all night to write a research paper? No sweat! That type of mental energy expenditure is nothing compared to the loving agony of surviving a night soothing a crying, sick child.

Yes, I learn with total appreciation of the gift of time, the gift of furthering my personal development. I am an active participant in my educational experience, and an advocate for my needs. I reach out for the lessons I want to learn from sources external to my program. Mothers have to be good at seeking what is needed for their children at every turn, so it is a naturally transferrable quality to my life as a student to do so. Only, this time it is on my own behalf.

As I write, I know that my endeavor of going back to school is not entirely self-centered. I have motivational factors that some of my peers might not. For one, I am studying to have a career that can sustain the lives of my children. Those little people DO like to eat! Beyond sustenance, I am providing a role model to my kids of a grown-up going back to school. In more than words, I express my zeal for life and for learning. I plant a seed in them to believe in the potential of all people to follow a dream and contribute unique gifts to the world.

It has been challenging to get back into a groove with school and pick up the slack on using technology; but I tell you, after giving birth three times and having to subsequently learn the ropes of parenting 1,2, then 3 children, I am not easily intimidated by simple matters of inquiry, effort, and perseverance. In the field of psychology, we call this resilience. My children have taught me to let go of perfectionism and to allow the everyday teachings of life to permeate my expectations. This is living mindfully.

I may look young for my years, but if I happen to mention to a client that I have three kids of my own, that I am a single mom and full-time student, they get it—I have a wisdom that cannot be learned elsewhere in life. My best teachers, I maintain, are my children; and, while I am gaining vast, powerful knowledge about the theory and practice of psychology, my wisdom still stems from my life as a mother.