Kin-Keeping and Worry-Work

Kin-Keeping and Worry-Work September 11, 2016

I’ve seen more blogging and discussion of emotional labor, which I think is necessary. Talking about kin-keeping and worry-work is the next step.

Theodor Kittelsen, The Princess picking Lice from the Troll - Google Art Project
Theodor Kittelsen, The Princess picking Lice from the Troll – Google Art Project

If you’re new to the party, go read my post on emotional labor and gender. Briefly, emotional labor is the set of expectations surrounding certain people (often women) that they should be the ones to be compassionate and empathetic more of the time, because they’re just better at it (or they like it, or it’s “natural” for women to do so, etc.). This means putting their own feelings on hold to tend to the emotional needs of others.

Recently I’ve become aware of two types of emotional labor that resonate deeply with me. They’re kin-keeping and worry-work, and though they’ve been written about primarily in the context of motherhood (which I am not), they still apply to many of my life experiences.

Kelly J. Baker writes about kin-keeping as a set of tasks in a family unit that “build and foster relationships as well as encourage solidarity not only in your immediate family, but also in your extended family.” The point of drawing attention to these tasks as such is that they pile up, eating time and energy while also being mostly invisible. And, of course, thoroughly gendered.

What does kin-keeping look like? Katie McLaughlin gives examples of kin-keeping activities, which include:

  • Remembering family birthdays and sending birthday cards.
  • Planning and organizing family celebrations.
  • Sending holiday cards.
  • Selecting holiday presents.
  • Sending thank you cards.
  • Planning family vacations.
  • Keeping in touch with out-of-town relatives.
  • Remembering to dress the baby in the “right” outfit when her grandma visits.

Again, none of this is earth-shatteringly difficult or utterly time-consuming… but it adds up. And when it’s not discussed, but rather implicitly dumped into women’s laps as part of what they’re just expected to do, it becomes a problem.

It is generally the women stuck with this work? Yes, yes it is. Judith Shulevitz discusses worry-work as a form of gendered emotional labor, where the term refers to staying on top of all the family duties that must be constantly managed. She notes:

Sociological studies of heterosexual couples from all strata of society confirm that, by and large, mothers draft the to-do lists while fathers pick and choose among the items. And whether a woman loves or hates worry work, it can scatter her focus on what she does for pay and knock her partway or clean off a career path. This distracting grind of apprehension and organization may be one of the least movable obstacles to women’s equality in the workplace.

It’s tough to know how to fix this stuff. Some studies have shown that gay couples tend to have more egalitarian divisions of household labor, so perhaps scrapping gender roles and starting from scratch when it comes to everything that makes a family unit go is one place to start.

Just having a name for it is a start, as well. I know I get stuck with most of the kin-keeping and worry-work in my houshold, and I’m struggling with it, even as I accept that it makes sense for me to do more of the day-to-day household tasks since I’m presently working from home and freelancing rather than working a 9-5. And yet.

See also: Workaholic Missives: Sometimes I’m a Shitty Friend


My feelings on how this plays out in my personal life may get their own blog post, or not. I know that when I can avoid emotional labor, I do, and some of that refusal ability comes down to my relative amount of privilege (white, middle-class, hetero-passing, etc.).

But for everyone stuck with kin-keeping and worry-work because that’s just how it turned out, because you’re “better at it,” or because it’s assumed you have the time/energy/inclination for it… you’re not alone. This is a conversation we need to have, culture-wide. Because the one-sidedness and devaluation of it is exhausting and, it turns out, completely preventable through better communciation as well as acknowledging that women’s work is work. Period.

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