Beyond 9 to 5: One family's new post-COVID normal
A Pillar Interview
As most Americans ease into post-pandemic life, people are looking forward to — finally — getting back to normal.
But the “new normal” won’t be the same as life before COVID, and some families are aiming to make permanent changes to their lifestyles — at work, school, and at home.
The Pillar’s Charlie Camosy sat down this week with Cate Harmeyer, director of Catholic campus ministry at Christopher Newport University in Virginia.
Harmeyer said the pandemic was a chance to revisit the rhythms of daily family life, and to make some serious changes. She has a new job, her kids are homeschooling, and they family has found a new way of living, which goes well beyond any 9-5 schedule.
Before the COVID crisis, Harmeyer worked for 15 years in Catholic high schools, as a theology teacher and a campus minister. She moved into college ministry this year. She has a masters degree in theological studies from the University of Notre Dame, and a bachelors degree from the University of Virginia.
So, let me begin here: what, for the love of Pete, is ‘Cookies with Cate and the Kids?’
The college students I serve are passionate about alliteration. We have had Milkshake Mondays, Sunday Suppers, Lattes with Laura, Fellowship Fridays, Service Saturdays, Reps and Rosaries, you name it. I think there have even been events that never got off the ground because their titles lacked alliteration.
I’m proud to report this semester we have branched out to include rhymes with “Homily Anomalies.”
Since we homeschool our two girls, they come to work with me one day a week. We listen to our history lesson in the car on the drive up and they have a big closet-turned-desk area upstairs at the Campus Ministry House, where they do their school work.
At lunchtime, we break for “Cookies with the Kids and Cate” (I’m definitely last on the bill here). This is an “event” where we bake cookies and the college students come by during their lunch hour and eat them. Really heady stuff.
Outside of achieving the rare alliteration trifecta, “Cookies” achieves one of my goals for this ministry - to expose college students to people outside of the 18 to 22 age range. When I was in college, I had the opportunity to serve both in the South Bronx and in local Charlottesville YMCA after-school programming. I gained far more than I gave - and broke out of the bubble of “Grounds,” as we UVA snobs would call it.
Young adults benefit from having conversations and interactions with children. It snaps them out of their stress circles, screen personas, and many obligations. They can return to simply “being,” knowing that they are loved just as they truly are.
My girls adore their college friends and look forward to catching up with them each week. They bring their favorite stuffed animals and rush through their schoolwork so they can sidewalk chalk all over the fence with Taylor and Anthony, learn to blow the trumpet with Emilygrace, or play hide and seek and freeze tag with a gaggle of “girls.”
The attention and example of these tremendous college students encourages my girls to live and explore their Catholic lives each day. It’s a win-win.
My family is the most intimate extension of myself, and including them in my ministry breaks down boundaries to encounter with my students. It gives us shared experiences of joy. And the cookies don’t hurt.
These encounters are clearly made possible by your family’s choice to homeschool. I understand that you took kind of a rough path to get there?
Oh yes. We took a COVID path to homeschooling as so many did in the fall of 2020. My husband and I had considered homeschooling for a few years before the pandemic began, but it was never a reasonable possibility with our employment requirements. So, we went the traditional Catholic school route for our girls’ education.
When the world went virtual, we were home all day together. We saw the behind-the-scenes of elementary education. Finally, with a high-risk daughter, we were not especially keen to send our children back in-person in August 2020. Through a lot of prayer and conversation, we discerned that God was calling us to homeschool and had provided us the push we needed. We hoped we could follow this new path while both still being employed outside of the home. It did not work out with my employer at the time, and I walked away from a ministry and a school I loved, into a world of homeschooling I barely knew.
It was definitely a time of pruning and growth, and often pretty painful. We were building the airplane while flying it, in the middle of a pandemic, and I was in a time of mid-life discernment of whether or not the Lord was calling me to active ministry again. I was, at times, what my college students would call a “hot mess.”
But now, I can say without reservation that following God’s will is always the path to peace, if not always immediate happiness.
What can you say — particularly to professional women and families who would in theory like to move in this direction — about trying to make homeschool work?
And what can you say to leaders of Catholic institutions about helping them make it work?
Something I have learned from the pandemic is to not sketch out our futures too far in advance - we are discerning year-to-year our educational plans for our girls. I hesitate to make pronouncements about “how to” homeschool, since every family situation is different and we are still new to it. But, I do have some observations about this journey based on our experience.
For us, we discovered that homeschooling is not nearly as difficult as we anticipated it would be. The curriculum options available now to families are many and can be pretty overwhelming when you start. But once you break yourself of the false obligation of recreating traditional school at home, and decide the subjects you want to teach, you can fairly easily create a curriculum that suits your children. After you have picked your resources, you then can fashion a schedule for your family that works for your varied obligations and activities.
In fact, once you break out of the traditional 8-3 school and 9-5 work schedules, you discover there is far more time in your lives than you ever had before. And when things don’t work - a resource just doesn’t click for your child - you can switch gears whenever you like. Any pressure to succeed in a certain way comes from you and can be relieved by you.
It takes some intentionality, discipline, and the support of your employers, but the benefits of “making it work” are experienced by all parties involved.
We have to internalize the lessons of this pandemic - you don’t have to sit at a desk all day to achieve your goals. You don’t have to be in a conference room to collaborate. There is great value in working together in the same space, but for many fields, it doesn’t have to be all day, every day. If you examine the goals of your work, cross reference them with your gifts, and carve out the time to create, the work will be done, and done well. And in my case, when your work does need to be in person, you can even bring the kids along sometimes and keep the learning and work moving forward.
We are more than halfway through year two of homeschooling. Our daughters are healthy, learning, and happy. I’m now settled in a ministry that allows for (and lends itself to) an unconventional schedule. My husband’s employer has been accommodating to our family’s goals.
We are blessed to spend a tremendous amount of time with our girls, and we know their hearts and souls better than ever before. They are learning hands-on skills (in addition to traditional curricula) by being equal participants in the life of our home. They love spending weekly time with their grandparents, and get this - their favorite game is to “play school” with them. My dad enjoys reverting to his original role as class clown and my mom is teaching my oldest to sew - a skill she could never get me to learn!
If the family as the domestic Church is the means and heaven is the goal, syncing our lives to follow God’s call for our families will bring (again) peace. It may require living drastically counter-cultural lives, and sometimes swimming upstream, but it will bear tremendous fruit. Catholic institutions know this, and talking about the goals of their employees’ families is a beautiful place to start in creating an environment where the “work” is about God’s will and not merely earthly productivity.
I count myself incredibly blessed to work for truly Catholic, supportive supervisors who helped me create a schedule that serves my family and our ministry. They took a leap of faith with me, and it has made a tremendous difference to my family and I hope the ministry as well.
There's another very interesting aspect to your story here, though, and that's the very positive response your students have had to your RCIA program.
Didn't they ask you to do something that's being called ‘Catechesis with Cate’? What's going on here?
This is a beautiful story that I hope continues to grow, under God’s grace. Weekly, I meet with a student who is undergoing the RCIA through our ministry. Some other students would make their way upstairs in the “CCM House” and sit in on the instruction. More than once, they would come in and say “oh I’m sorry Cate, is this a meeting?”
I would respond “It’s the RCIA, but you can stay” (now I’m rhyming - these students are getting to me). And they would stay.
Then the next week, we had a few Protestant brothers and sisters stop by. And they stayed. I gave them copies of the apologetics book we were using. Next, our leadership team asked me to create a separate event called “Catechesis with Cate.” Our first meeting was virtual, but we had more than a dozen students attend. We discussed “What is the purpose of life?” for an hour.
(Spoiler: It’s “to go to heaven.”)
I love teaching and especially enjoy engaging the truth through the rational questions of young men and women. When a need or a goal coincides with a gift, God’s grace makes good things happen. And that “work” can happen at 5pm on a (gasp) Sunday!
What lessons do you think the Church can learn from your experience with these young people?
That’s the thing — The Church has nothing to learn from me. She has the fullness of the truth. She presents that truth in love, in its depth and beauty through her teaching and sacraments. If her ministers merely show up, offer connection, and follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit we, as servants of [Christ’s] bride, will not fail.
Practically speaking, for Catholic employers, I can offer this advice: see your ministers as human beings and children of God first. The ministry they serve outside of their families is often their second vocation. If you create space for the flourishing of their first one, you will co-create beautiful fruit for the Lord, both now and in the future, in both.
I think of my children walking with college students in Eucharistic Procession of Christ the King on a secular campus. Of a 20 year-old taking the time to review my daughter’s language arts lesson on beautiful and virtuous writing. And particularly, of me (re)learning that God’s grace is always creative when I cooperate with it. Even when it hurts. Even when it’s hard. It will always be redeemed.