The Curse of the Kinkeeper

Several weeks ago I came across this article about the maternal grandparent advantage and while it resonated with me, it also inspired me to return to another conversation that I’ve had many times throughout the years with my husband, close friends, and family: that of the kinkeeper.

Kinkeepers are those family members who provide tangible support for other members, nurture family history and tradition, and keep other family members connected. Often, this role falls to the female head of household or to the oldest daughter, although anyone can perform the function. – Carolyn J. Rosenthal

Adam and I began dating in our early to mid twenties, when I was 22 and he was 26. Given our ages, one could assume we were both well-established in the role we identified within our respective families of origin. It took me time to discover the nature of Adam’s kinship to his family, but mine was clear to me – I am unequivocally loyal to my parents and five siblings. We all grew up in the same home for decades, in which we bonded closely and often. We’ve always been independent in our pursuits, but we have always been together in our support. Some of us have stronger bonds than others, but at the end of the day, we would all do anything for each other. We have a deeply embedded connection and devotion to one another, with a no-strings attached approach to our day-to-day relationships. Even though we make admirable efforts to see each other often, I don’t feel pressure to uphold undue responsibilities to my family, because I know that they know I do my best, and I feel the same way toward them.

As time went on, I came to learn about Adam and his place within his family, which is blended and similarly large. I noticed that he, too, cared for his family very much. If something reminds him of one of his siblings, he affectionately recognizes that, and he speaks of his time growing up with his family with loving sentiment. That said, trying to get the guy to pick up the phone and call his Grandma is like telling Shore to take a bath. It’s absolutely useless.

Adam was my first partner after I became an adult. With my commitment to him, I unwittingly stumbled into very new territory, that of the matriarch. The primary responsibilities that fostered this new position were born within the privacy of our home, such as arranging doctors appointments, maintaining a cleaning schedule, doing the grocery shopping, cooking, fine-tuning the childcare schedule, coordinating vacations, planning our wedding, paying bills, managing our finances, and the list goes on. These physical responsibilities that our domestic life relies on instilled my matriarchal mindset, which naturally stimulated my concern for the emotional responsibilities of carrying a household.

These days, my pride swells as the matriarch of the Jones family as I tend to it’s complex inner-workings that my husband will hardly ever know of. However, the role of kinkeeper, well… that snuck up on me with great stealth and a punch to the gut. It’s not until I started to feel the repercussions of being one that I identified myself as one. Which posed the question – why do I feel this obligation? My personal upbringing was all I knew, and what I knew of it was the togetherness felt so good. As adults in my family, we cherish even more the time we spend together because of the effort and sacrifice it takes; like every year when we’re together on Christmas Eve at my mom’s house. We can be found sipping her famous Bailey’s and coffee, crammed into the dim living room shoulder-to-shoulder playing Cards Against Humanity, listening to Christmas music in the background and catching the shadows from the flickering candles out of the corners of our eyes. I feel compelled to arrange this time in the present, anticipating the memories and their destiny to entice our nostalgia some years down the road. Knowing how good it makes me feel to nurture these bonds with my family, I naturally want this for my husband as well.

Over the years, more times than not, I’ve been the angel to the devil on his shoulder saying, “it will be fun! We should just go! Your family will love to see you.” He argues that lounging on the couch after 24-hours running on calls at the fire station would be ideal, but sometimes, seemingly against his better judgement, he agrees to show up. And 100% of the time, we leave his relatives beaming about how nice it was to see them, and we wish we could have stayed longer. In between the times we showed up, there were lots of times we didn’t show up, or things he didn’t uphold his responsibility for, like sending simple birthday wishes. There were also times when I felt like I was being held accountable by his family for his shortcomings, despite Adam being notorious for these behaviors long before I was in the picture. I feel like this isn’t an uncommon guilt for women to carry within their marriages, and personally, it stems from wanting my husband to experience the emotional fulfillment from his personal relationships the way I do. In time, I’ve realized that these very acts of asking or telling him to commit to his family when he does not want to on his own, reinforces my role as kinkeeper, therefore thrusting the weight of unsought responsibilities onto my shoulders.

I think the lines between a matriarch and a kinkeeper can become blurred. While I carry out many of the decisions we make as a family, I don’t make our decisions alone. Following the observations of my tendency to feel “blamed” for unfavorable decisions we make as a couple, this seems to be a highly misunderstood concept in modern female/male relationships.  It took several years for me to grasp that Adam approaches his personal relationships, as well as his general responsibilities in life, in a different way than I do, and I’ve accepted that I can’t mingle with that unless I want to carry guilt for his drawbacks. I feel the importance of supporting my husband in anything he wants to do, but that I cannot become emotionally involved with his pursuits when it comes to building and sustaining his personal relationships. I think, speaking from one kinkeeper to another, we can allow ourselves to step back and take a look at the raw picture – this goes for your spouse’s relationships, or your blood relationships – is the person that I care about suffering from a perceived lack of connection to their relative? Additionally, does the person that I care about even feel a lack of connection to their relative at all? – Perhaps we can accept the people in our lives for what they do contribute to their relationships, and learn to relinquish the farfetched responsibility of cultivating relationships on behalf of our loved ones and focus on the relationships that are important to ourselves.