We need family rituals — along with crazy uncles and reactive cousins
Maintaining family relationships does not happen automatically. It takes the work of “kinkeeping,” the small tasks and large events that reassert we are family.
My 2-year-old grandchild has already learned the concept of family. We were sitting around the table after supper, and she pointed out “Mama,” “Papa” and “Grandma.”
“And together we’re a family!” said her parent. “Family!” she shouted. She looked at each of us and held her arms as if in a big embrace.
Kinkeepers have traditionally been women, but that is changing as the family changes. Kinkeepers were the ones who sent cards for birthdays and holidays, kept the address book updated, organized family events, started the telephone chain when death and funeral arrangements needed to be communicated.
When my mother died, my brother asked nobody in particular, “Who will keep the family together?” I knew it was my role, as the oldest. After that, I cooked the Thanksgiving turkey and hosted the Christmas celebration when we opened the presents. I also complained.
We all should have lessons in family maintenance.
Members of our birth family had deferred everything to my mother. Now everything was deferred to me. I got frustrated, instead of just asking for help. We learn our patterns of communication, and I did passive-aggressive pretty well. I also didn’t have the descriptive term for what we needed.
When I look at cousins, the oldest child in the cousin-relationships is often the kinkeeper. We talk to each other. When families were larger, and there were gaps of 15 years between oldest child and youngest child, it made sense that the oldest assumed this role. I remember people and events my siblings don’t. I had more time with our parents, and maybe heard more stories or asked more questions. Now that I am in my 60s, I have many questions that nobody can answer.
An aunt was great at genealogy, and I have family trees for both sides of the family. What limits me is the lack of family stories –who were the rascals? Who were the heroes?
A college student was researching his family’s origins and immigration story. It seems we shared a great-grandfather. According to my family history, my great grandfather died in Scandinavia, leaving a young wife and child. According to the other family’s history, he immigrated to America and had a big family in the Midwest.
I was tickled. A rascal. My aunt was decidedly less enthusiastic and said we could never tell Grandma.
Many emigrants’ stories were not simply about seeking a better life. More than one person was escaping a scandal or seeking to wipe out history and start fresh. Kinkeeping isn’t a stranglehold and can’t be imposed.
We lost, collectively, a lot of our connection and family rituals during Covid.
Funerals have been replaced by memorial services many months after the death. Weddings have been by Zoom or are very small. We may have skipped baby showers, bridal showers, retirement parties, graduations.
It’s not even that we all would attend an event, like a graduation, but we would acknowledge it and call or send a gift or offer congratulations and learn about the day. My cousin, who lives within driving distance of her adult children, was on the other side of the U.S.-Canadian border. She could not visit her new grandchild for a year.
My generation had a generation gap with parents. I couldn’t wait to put distance between myself and small-town life.
I’ve laughed with friends over “What would the neighbors think?” It was the question that governed our lives. My mother had her weekly coffee klatch with the neighbors, and they beat the drums to communicate the events: weddings, babies, deaths. No wonder I wanted nothing to do with any of it.
I fought with my parents over confirmation. I had doubts and didn’t want to be a hypocrite. My mother told me I had to be confirmed and not to worry about being a hypocrite. What would the neighbors think?
I know that families of alcoholics may trace the alcoholic members through their lineage like somebody else traces hair color. Divorce, distance, detachment all take their toll. Every family has crazy uncles, politically reactive cousins, dysfunction.
In the last 30 years, we’ve learned about codependence and toxicity, and abusive systems. People need to create and maintain boundaries. But we also need to keep kin, even if within parameters of defined behavior and time.
Carolyn Rosenthal first labeled “kinkeeping” in The Journal of Marriage and Family (“Kinkeeping in the Familial Division of Labor,” November 1985). I love the personal stories Dr. Henry Louis Gates tells in “Finding Your Roots” on PBS. The show combines DNA analysis with genealogical study and search of historical records. He inevitably surprises his celebrity guests with secrets and stories from their family’s past.
I don’t send Christmas cards anymore. I am terrible at tracking birthdays. I do keep emails going and do “touch base” conversations with family.
I understand kinkeeping is important as I age — the maintenance of family ties over time — family by birth, adoption, marriage, or choice, whatever that family may look like.
I talk to friends in their 60s who worry about being adult orphans. Adult orphans have no kin to provide support and caregiving as they move into older age.
Estrangement has always been a feature of family composition. More families are small — perhaps one is an only child or has one sibling far distant. Those who ignored kinkeeping, or found no reciprocal relationship, can be isolated unless they make a concerted effort to create a family of choice. Retirement has granted us the time to focus on relationships.
Family is about caring for each other. Caring is a deliberate act, reinforced by many small gestures. Kinkeeping.