FARGO — Birthday parties. Anniversary cards. Doctor visits. Holiday gatherings. Happy hours. These important events and milestones revolve constantly on calendars, and someone has to be responsible for making sure each one happens and is properly recognized.
That someone is a kin keeper.
In sociological terms, kin keeping is a subcategory of carework, unpaid duties associated with caring for family members, according to the Work and Family Researchers Network.
If the term "kin keeping" seems unfamiliar, don't worry. Most people don't associate sending anniversary cards, lining up dentist appointments or organizing after-work gatherings with work. But it is. And the mental and emotional strain of managing all those milestones and events is often unequally distributed, with women overwhelmingly taking on the kin keeping duties in their families and at the office.
Women's studies instructor Katie McLaughlin encountered the term "kin keeping" in class and realized she'd been teaching her students about a gender phenomenon she actually embodied as a wife and mother. In January McLaughlin wrote about kin keeping and the invisible burden it places on women. Her article caught fire and burned through social media, earning more than 90,000 Facebook shares and nearly 800 pins on Pinterest.
"The response was immediate," McLaughlin says. "Most women can absolutely relate to what I was describing. Many appreciated having a name for all the responsibilities they shoulder."
Kristin Roers is a nursing professional practice coordinator for Sanford Health in Fargo and the unofficial "social secretary" at work. She'd never heard the term "kin keeping," before but she immediately realized the duties inherently involved with the role.After recognizing a retention need at work, Roers took it upon herself to organize a regularly scheduled lunch for other nursing managers to attend."
At first, people didn't have the time, but once they went, they decided to make more of an effort," Roers says. "It's a great chance to get out of the office and forge those friendships with co-workers."
Even when she's not at the office, Roers tends to be the kin keeper in her groups of friends. She's an organized, social person who likes being with her friends, so she often takes on the responsibilities of contacting people, determining a date and selecting a location.
But the burden can weigh heavy at times. "The time you spend organizing all of it has an emotional toll," she explains. "You can put all of that effort in but it isn't always appreciated."
That's what can make kin keeping so exhausting. As if the sheer logistical aspects of kin keeping weren't challenging enough, the duties aren't highly visible, which means they aren't always appreciated.
In their book, "Women's Voices, Feminist Visions," scholars Susan M. Shaw and Janet Lee explain that kin keeping tasks "are time-consuming and involve emotional work that is not easily quantified."
"Think about it," McLaughlin says. "How much time each month do you spend planning a birthday party or sending pictures to grandmothers who live across the country? Giving it a name allows you to conceptualize how much time is spent on those activities and lets women feel justified in asking for help."
And while the majority of kin keepers are women, many stay-at-home fathers have taken on that role. John Adams is a UK-based writer who stays at home with his two children. Shortly after McLaughlin's article published, Adams came across it and published his own perspective on the idea of kin keeping. He and his wife didn't have a formal discussion about kin keeping duties, but the responsibility naturally fell to him.
"I am the more sociable of the two of us, so I do put greater value on kin keeping and ensuring we have healthy relationships with friends and family," Adams says.
Allowing kin keeping duties to fall on the female can have serious consequences, Adams pointed out. "A common complaint among men is that their social connections are weak. Many men feel isolated and think they have no one to turn to if they find themselves in need," Adams says. "Men need to spend more time building worthwhile friendships and connections. That involves much more than simple kin keeping."
McLaughlin says that both men and women need to have honest discussions about kin keeping and be open to shifting responsibilities as needed. "It's more that just saying, 'Oh, you're good at this, so let's just go with that,' " McLaughlin said. "We need to talk about whether we are actually OK with doing certain tasks."
Additionally, the notion that kin keeping tasks always fall to the woman should be addressed. "Think about it: If kin keeping tasks don't get done - if there's no party or thank-you notes sent - no one is going to look at dad and say, 'I can't believe he didn't do that,' " McLaughlin says. "Those high expectations are set for the woman, and she'll take the blame if they don't get done."
But it doesn't have to be that way. As more people talk about kin keeping and who will be responsible for the tasks, roles can shift. "In my class, I have students look at the environment in which they were raised so they can come to those realizations on their own," McLaughlin says. "It's something that is so ingrained in us, that at least by drawing awareness to it, we can be conscious of it."
While the idea of kin keeping has been around for decades, having a proper title for those duties has given men and women the chance to recognize the work accomplished by such people.
To all the kin keepers out there, don't forget to delegate duties. To those blessed by having a kin keeper in their life, take a moment to thank the person.