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Nicole Dawn Vetter recognized as exemplary 'Working Mother'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 19, 2009 - Working Mother magazine has named 30 American women who balance career, self-development, and family as Working Mothers of the Year in honor of the mag’s 30th anniversary. Featured in the May issue (on stands now) with First Lady Michelle Obama is Illinois resident Nicole Dawn Vetter, mother of three and first-grade teacher at Damiansville Elementary School.

We all know – OK, maybe are – that mother who can’t walk through a room without picking up an empty glass or wiping off a countertop -- that mom whose cleanliness falls somewhere between godliness and, well, compulsion.

Nicole Dawn Vetter is not that mom. “If you’re coming over, let me know,” she says. Because when a decision about whether to spend precious time straightening indoors or playing outside with her 6-year-old son and 1-year-old twins presents itself, the clutter can always wait.

“Let’s go out and play,’” she says. 

Vetter has her heart in all the right places. From experiencing priceless moments at home to imbuing a passion for learning in her first-grade classroom, she is making it work in Damiansville, Ill., one afternoon at the park or hour in reading class at a time.

“I love the younger grades, because they’re so excited and they want to learn,” she says about her first graders. “We’re reading Judie B. Jones and A-Z Mysteries, and they’re like ‘Gimme, gimme, gimme … do we have to go to recess?’”

Listen to Vetter talk about teaching and the way she’s been able to reach her students, and you know this is a woman who has truly found her calling.

Vetter’s mother, Barbara Victorino, nominated her for the working mother of the year award and remembers when her daughter phoned from college years ago to say she was switching majors.

“She said, ‘Will you be mad if I switch from nursing to education?’” says Victorino. “I was kind of relieved. I always thought she’d be a teacher, but if you tell young kids that they end up doing the opposite.”

Vetter may have a special appreciation for motherhood because she knew she might not have been able to have children. She has had a medical condition called pseudotumor cerebri since she was 19. It causes an increase of pressure inside the skull whose symptoms mimic that of a brain tumor. The exact cause of the condition remains unknown, and women with pseudotumor cerebri cannot have children while they are experiencing symptoms. Luckily Vetter was able to become pregnant twice during remissions.

In a move to gain balance in her work and home life, Vetter transferred last year from St. Louis Public School District, where she’d taught for seven years, to Damiansville, which is in Clinton County. Doing so eliminated a two-and-a-half hour commute and allowed her to work at the same school her older son, Hunter, attends.

Most of Vetter’s current students come from dual-career families, she says, and she can relate to the work/life balance issues their parents encounter.  “Before I had a child in school, the homework didn’t get done and I couldn’t understand why,” she says. “Now I can maybe guess why.”

Yes, Vetter understands how the best laid plans for working on that science project, maybe, can get interrupted by a pediatrician run or an almost-forgotten baseball practice or any number of the other unexpected events one comes to expect when raising a brood. Lucky for her, she has a strong support network in the area through her mother, in-laws and friends. One of the many pluses is affordable childcare.

“Day care cost $160 per child, plus 10 percent off for the second – OK, I might as well stay home,” says Vetter. “To find someone who you completely and utterly trust is very important. … I have this, and it makes it so much easier.”  Even with help, each day is a long one. Vetter’s husband works in construction and is usually gone before sunrise, so she gets the kids up and moving each day. The twins either stay at home with Victorino or go to the in-laws or a friend’s, and Vetter and Hunter head off to school. After school, she is home again to make dinner, do homework, run kids to practices, and do baths and bedtime.

"She’s very busy,” says Victorino. “I’m always telling her, ‘You wear me out'.”

But Vetter wouldn’t trade any of it for peace and quiet.  “My oldest is a very good brother. … The twins, they are hilarious,” she says. “I tell my husband I want more and he looks at me like I’m crazy.”

Anna Vitale is a freelance writer.

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