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Betsy Kneepkens: Sending fifth son to college — where did the time go?

 A few shorts weeks ago, I was able to enjoy a picnic lunch with some old friends that have four kids under the age of six. As it happens with lots of little children, the parents appeared frazzled trying to keep their tots under control while holding a conversation with other adults.

Betsy Kneepkens
Faith and Family

All I could say to them is, “Cherish this; time goes by really fast.”

I heard my parents say this numerous times, and now I find myself saying it every time I come across a young couple with kids. What I know now that I did not understand then is that when parenting you can be consumed by the feelings of exhaustion, stress, and unruliness. When these conditions happen, you lose essential time just being your kids’ mom and dad. I know I am guilty of such.

In a few short weeks, I will be sending my fifth — yes, fifth — and last son to college. Where did all that time go, or better said, what did I do with all that time? I have just one daughter left at home.

From the time I had any memories, I dreamt of being a mother of many children. Looking back, I now realize I obtained the larger family dream but wasted too much time organizing and scheduling their events. Being just a mom and dad, present with them, may have slowed things down for us. Unfortunately, it is too late to make up for that time I wasted running 100 miles an hour.

It is not fair to my son, but I refuse to look at him as a college student. He is an emerging adult, and I am struggling to let him go there. Right now, I am trying to cram in little memory moments for “us” to hold on to.

My son is a trooper, and he is mildly cooperating — bonfires, wiffle ball games, and walks along the Lakewalk. I’m not sure how much tolerance he will have for me trying to do this for his remaining weeks.

Having him be the fifth to go off to college, I have grown systematically better at suggesting what he needs to get done and when. I have often had to remember that even if it is my fifth orientation or fifth roommate selection process or fifth grad party, it is still his first. I know these kinds of details are essential to him, but I would rather spend that energy grasping at what’s left of our mother-son bonding time.

The easiest part of this college ordeal is getting the supplies my youngest son needs to set up his dorm space. The first lesson learned over the years is that whatever is packed for college will have to be brought home, and if he is not sure if he is going to use it, do not send it.

More is less. Items he will need, like bedding, laundry baskets, and towel sets, are purchased as birthday and Christmas gifts from the time he was 16. The slow accumulation of needed supplies keeps the pre-college bulk cost down and the stress of last-minute shopping to a minimum. For our first son we packed a couple of carloads. My motto now is if it does not fit in the trunk of our car, the item is unnecessary.

I have learned to expend little time and money acquiring material supplies for my college-aged children. Universities are equipped for almost everything a student would need, so I now consider essential things like a change of underwear.

Without having to worry about material stressors, my husband and I have used that time preparing our son for the inevitable college “experience” that you can’t pack in the car.

Looking back, my husband and I were a little naive when we sent our first couple of boys off to college. What we did do was underestimate the impact the culture would have on oldest children’s long-term worldview. Rightfully at that time, we worried about sex, drugs, and academic floundering, and it seems, from what we can tell, they managed those pitfalls reasonably well. What we did not prepare them adequately enough for was the battles of differing ideology.

We now know that part of our job as Catholic parents is to make our son aware of the strong leaning found on nearly every campus around the country. We need to help him navigate this reality and give him the tools to keep an open mind but also question those leanings using logic and reason. We need to prepare him to stand up for himself even at the peril of being called intolerant and lacking compassion or being perceived as narrow- minded.

Some of the more recent college “norms” that our son will become more familiar with are things like “safe spaces,” “my truths,” and preferred pronouns.

My fifth son’s perspectives on life come more from a logical, or reasoned perspective than a feeling point of view. In the current state of college culture, we have shared with him that he is going to struggle with how they address things. Logic and reason are a sound way to seek the truth, but for many on college campuses, that method is old-fashioned. We hope we have instilled ways to be a compassionate listener while standing the ground of reason.

We hope when he sees things like safe spaces, he realizes we are spending money for him to be uncomfortable and challenged. He might not feel “safe” when they question his thinking and therefore question his character, but the only safe space he needs to concern himself with is the place where he spends his life into eternity.

When the college introduces the notion of “my truth,” we hope our son understands that individuals do not own truth, that truth exists outside of ourselves. We do want him to seek truth throughout his life, but we want him to understand the only thoughts he can own are his perspective. If an academic authority encourages him to find “his truth,” he needs to realize that sort of thinking lacks reason and is counter to Catholic intellectual thought. God is Truth, he created truth, and that is not malleable by individual ownership.

Undoubtedly, he will be confronted with well-meaning individuals who will ask him for his preferred pronoun. On this issue, I know my son will struggle. We have explained to him that he needs to remain patient and loving. We are trying to encourage him to use opportunities like this to evangelize and propose the truth of God’s plan for male and female that is quite literally stamped into our DNA. As parents, we are still working on helping him share the Good News without creating a wall between him and those who disagree with him.

The days are numbered, and it is less than a month until we need to pack the trunk and send our last son on his way. Just merely typing this brings tears to my eyes and a lump in the throat.

With each son we sent away, the dynamics of the family have changed. My fifth son has been a glorious gift, secure in his conviction and deeply in love with his faith. I have admired his love of Christ, and he has inspired me to understand you must will the good of another even if you are put down or marginalized for it.

He is such a humorous young man and fills the house with unexpected thoughts that I can’t even imagine what our home will be like without him. With just a trunk full of college supplies, it won’t take long for us to say our goodbyes, and he will be on his next phase of life. I will, however, spend the 10-hour ride home thinking about how time went by so very fast and try to use my time a bit more wisely with my youngest child.

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