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Betsy Kneepkens: Now I know why my parents wanted me home for the holidays

My parents deserve an apology, and unfortunately, it is too late to seek forgiveness from my father. When I was 18, I went off to college. I was an adult, paying my way. I was responsible for one person and one person only, myself. Like most older adolescents, my thoughts were, “When I am 18, I am out of here.” In my college years and a few years after that, I found going home to be a last resort option. After that, life was pretty busy and complicated; I found it difficult to manage the distance.

Betsy Kneepkens
Betsy Kneepkens
Faith and Family

My thoughts while in college were that I was the third oldest of 13, leaving 10 at home. Who would even notice if I was there? The household was chaotic and disorganized, and my dad, in those days, was rarely home. He went to work early and did not come back until after bedtime. If he is not there, why should I be? I was grown up and mature, what did I need a family for?

My father, in particular, was upset with me. He was extremely disappointed and therefore distanced himself, rarely even speaking to me. My mother would occasionally say something like, “Your siblings miss you.” For me, it wasn’t like I never came home; I came back every time I didn’t have someplace better to go.

Frankly, I just didn’t get my parents’ problem. They knew that I loved them, I called my family many Sundays when the rates were cheaper. I didn’t get into much trouble, and I was working hard in college. I didn’t think they needed me, and I certainly didn’t need them.

Well, it is more than 30 years since I thought I was all grown up. I haven’t reflected much about that time in my life until some recent conversations with my older children. Christmas and New Year’s is fast approaching, and I am trying to make some plans to have my four oldest children come home. Two are out of college and are working as young professionals, and two go to school in St. Louis.

I am not super greedy. I just want a few days when all of my children are home together. I want to go to Christmas Mass with all six of my children at the same time.

What I have to compete with are affordable flights, college schedules, working adult children that have limited vacation days, travel abroad opportunities, and their perception of the cost-benefit of traveling a distance in unknown winter conditions for what seems to them like a brief visit. There seem to be many good reasons not to come home, and I should be satisfied that they are trying. I can’t help but find myself thinking, “They do want to come home, don’t they?”

What I comprehend now but did not understand when I was a young adult is there is this sort of peace parents experience when all of their children are home under the same roof. No matter the age of the child, I sleep more soundly when all of my children are in their beds fast asleep. It does not matter if there are 10 additional people in our home — as long as six of them are mine, the sense of calm is palpable.

I find myself doing things I never thought I would for my children, like taking days off from work before they arrive so the house is tidy. This exercise is particularly funny, because it wasn’t tidy for them when they were growing up. I plan to make the few meals they like and create fun activities to do so they don’t run off and hang out with friends.

Unfortunately, what they think is fun and what I think is fun may be different. They do end up spending time with their friends, and I know they should. I get so excited when they come home, I catch myself treating them more like guests than family.

I want my children to want to be home. I know that if I make any one of my children feel obligated to come back for the holidays, the experience will create a whole bunch of other problems. And I know those attitudes impact those who want to be there, so pushing them beyond desire is fruitless. I extend a warm invitation, listen to their challenges, do what I can to mitigate as many obstacles for them as I can, and accept their decision, even if that choice aches my heart.

Christmas has been and always will be about the birth of Christ. And my family will continue to do faith directed activities each Christmas season, no matter who might show. Perhaps this Christmas I need to reflect more on the challenges Mary and Joseph encountered on their pilgrimage to Bethlehem, which will help me refocus and better accept my children’s pilgrimage back to Duluth or their inability to come.

I know I owe my mother and late father an apology. I wasn’t mature enough to get the more important concept of this holy season. I sincerely understand what my parents felt now and reckon that some of my kids might not be too far from what I was thinking 30-some years ago.

I know I have work to do, because Christmas ought not to be about me and my feelings. I need to find joy first in foremost in the celebration of Christ’s birth and enjoy the union I will get to experience with whoever can make their journey home.

Merry Christmas to all, with the hope of a safe and blessed New Year!

Betsy Kneepkens is director of the Office of Marriage and Family Life for the Diocese of Duluth and a mother of six.