HomeLearning CenterThe Constant Work to Keep a Family Connected Has a Name

The Constant Work to Keep a Family Connected Has a Name

Originally published by Danielle Friedman for the New York Times

Every December when Erienne Fawcett was growing up, her rural Minnesota home transformed into a showcase of snowy miniature villages, complete with tiny reindeer and carolers.

As a child, the intricate scenes felt like “pure magic.”

It wasn’t until she was an adult that she realized her experience was the result of “hours and hours and hours of work” by her mother — all part of an elaborate effort to make Christmas special.

Eventually, Ms. Fawcett became a women and gender studies teacher at North Dakota State University, where she taught her students that this form of invisible labor, dedicated to family bonding and magic-making, has a name: kinkeeping.

References to kinkeepers began cropping up in sociology literature in the mid-20th century. Researchers defined the role as a family communicator who helped the extended group stay in touch by sharing family news and planning gatherings.

In recent decades, sociology and psychology researchers have expanded the definition to include things like creating or carrying on family traditions, buying gifts for birthdays and holidays, coordinating medical care and performing all sorts of emotional caregiving.

A kinkeeper is someone who cultivates a sense of “family solidarity or connectedness,” said Carolyn Rosenthal, a professor emeritus of sociology at McMaster University in Canada who researched kinkeeping in the 1980s. It’s someone who, in many ways, is the family glue.

One thing that has remained consistent through the years is that most kinkeepers are women: When researchers sought out kinkeepers for a 2017 study, more than 91 percent of the volunteers were women.

Dawn O. Braithwaite, a professor emeritus of communication studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who coauthored the 2017 study and a related one in 1996, was struck by how little the gender breakdown had changed over the years.

“I thought that maybe men would have kind of picked this up more because of the technological piece,” given the ease with which we can now communicate via text and social media, she said.

Eve Rodsky, a writer, researcher and activist for fair division of labor at home, believes kinkeeping is still mostly done by women because “We still have a huge time disparity in how women and men use their time.” When women set boundaries on their caregiving time, she added, they can experience guilt and shame.

In 2022, one of Ms. Fawcett’s students, Molly Westcott, a college sophomore, created a TikTok video about kinkeeping that quickly racked up millions of views.

In the video, Ms. Westcott lays out an analogy comparing family life to a play: Men are the actors, and women are the production crew, the ushers and everyone else working offstage.

“There’s a lot of effort and time and energy that goes into a play,” she says in the video. “But at the end of the day, when the play is done, people are not clapping for everything that they did not see.”

The observation struck a chord. “It was really exciting that more people got the vocabulary to describe how they were feeling,” Ms. Westcott, now 20, said in an interview with The New York Times.

Ms. Westcott’s video propelled the term “kinkeeping” into the vernacular, inspiring tens of thousands of comments and responses along with podcast episodes and, last month, recognition as Dictionary.com’s “Word of the Day.”

In many cases, being a kinkeeper is rewarding. “When it’s done from a place of generosity and agency, it can be really empowering,” said Dr. Pooja Lakshmin, a psychiatrist in Austin and the author of “Real Self-Care.” Many kinkeepers genuinely appreciate being the person relatives turn to for emotional support and guidance, or the person responsible for carrying the torch from elder generations.

Kinkeeping fosters a family’s sense of connectedness, identity and well-being, Dr. Rosenthal said. Research also suggests that feeling close and connected to family members supports mental health.

Kinkeepers can also play a crucial role in promoting overall family health, said Caitlin Allen, a social and behavioral scientist at the Medical University of South Carolina who has studied the phenomenon. Kinkeepers even have the potential to save lives by sharing family medical histories and encouraging loved ones to seek out preventative care, she said.

But kinkeeping can be time-consuming — and emotionally heavy.

“When it’s done from a place of resentment or obligation, that’s when you get into trouble,” Dr. Lakshmin said. “Like, is it a real choice?” When kinkeeping feels more like a chore, your mental health — and relationships with family — can start to suffer.

Dr. Braithwaite added that kinkeepers often find themselves “stuck in the middle” of complicated family dynamics or playing the role of “gatekeepers” of important family information — which can come with power, but also stress.

If you are your family’s kinkeeper, a few strategies can help to prevent emotional burnout, the experts said.

A common point of tension is when one family member thinks another is taking on unnecessary work, Ms. Rodsky said. Do the cupcakes really need to be homemade?

Often, however, cupcakes aren’t really about cupcakes — they represent a custom from your childhood that you want to pass on, or they stand for something you didn’t have growing up and want to give your own children. Even seemingly banal tasks can be rich with emotional significance, Ms. Rodsky said.

If you’re not getting the support you need, start by explaining to family members why you do things the way you do. “If we can just step back and spend five minutes on our why,” she said, “it literally changes everything.”

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