Who does the emotional labor of keeping relationships with extended family close?
We’ve been talking this month in our series about the work of emotional labor, and how that can contribute to women’s mental load–that feeling that we’re carrying all the details of the household in our heads, and if we don’t do it, it won’t get done. It can be exhausting.
We’ve talked a lot about housework, but that’s not the only detail that women carry. Much of the heaviest burden is actually about relationships.
On Fridays, I’ve started highlighting comments from the previous week’s posts, and this comment was so epic and made such an amazing point, we had to share it with you all. This series on emotional labor has been generating really wonderful discussions in the comments and I’ve really enjoyed interacting with you all there!
Before I do, though, just a quick “shoutout” to my Sheila’s Spotlight item, an affiliate product that helps keep this blog up and running now that we’ve gotten rid of ads! If you’re looking for something fun and quirky for a Father’s Day gift, take a look at Grillmaster’s Club! it’s a monthly subscription box, and every month you’re sent a unique barbecue rub, sauce, recipes, and more. It’s a lot of fun, and if you have a husband (or a dad!) who loves grilling, this may fit the bill. And it’s COVID friendly, too, because it’s all at home.
On Monday’s post on setting standards for housework, Lisa made this really important observation about the important work of relationship upkeep and why it matters so much:
Like eating healthy and exercising, there are things that may not matter a lot when not done short term but over the long term have consequences.
“Kinkeeping” is one of those.
- Making sure the grandparents or extended family get pictures, updates, or thanks for gifts.
- Making plans for remembering birthdays and holidays of friends and family. (Christmas cards with a current picture are often part of this goal.)
- Making arrangements for social connections for the couple and kids (a big part of extracurricular is social connection).
This stuff is the glue of relationships. If you don’t continue to do **reasonable** efforts to maintain and grow relationships you avoid the problem of over-scheduling but create a new problem of less connection with strong relationships which is, studies confirm, is the MOST important thing for happiness.
(And not doing some of this can cause hurt among family, particularly older family members who may not be as technologically savvy).
It’s important to not see this invisible work, so often exclusively done by women, as unimportant or women just having too high standards because of Instagram. Of course HOW it is done is the appropriate discussion.
Who remembers, plans and buys the cards and presents for the in-laws? Plans and organizes Christmas, Easter. Thanksgiving, 25th Anniversary, Mother’s/Fathers Day, Baby/Wedding celebrations etc. That’s the kind of thing that needs to be rebalanced. It’s so often the women who have to either do this stuff or continually remind/manage for EVERYONE not just her side of the family.
The work of kinkeeping is like eating your vegetables. Sure it’s easier and more fun to eat take out pizza every night but over time you will be unhealthy.
And to the goal of men seeing what’s in it for them to change, many men say they don’t have any friends outside their wife. This is part of why suicide rates for men are much higher than for women.
Rebalancing models the importance and work of “kinkeeping” for boys and men so they have the skill and habit of maintaining strong connections through an accumulation of these small things that connect people.
Connection is so important for good physical and mental health.
There is a decades long study of college men that showed that relationships really are the key.
This is not only about helping women live better lives, but men too. It matters.
When studies look into what allows people to have long lives, a major finding is consistently that people need both “strong bonds” and “weak bonds.”
We need the strong bonds of relationships with family and friends and that’s why it’s important to do the work of staying connected with those closest to us. And then we also need to so-called weak bonds of small social interactions – saying “thank you” to the bus driver, small talk at the water cooler at work, and so on. The data is in and it’s clear: loneliness kills.
As I added in the comments on Monday’s post,
So true! I think this is why men often die so soon after their wives do. What keeps us alive and healthy is connection to others, studies have repeatedly shown. And yet that connection work is largely done by women. So when she dies, suddenly he doesn’t have those natural times to connect with kids, grandkids, nieces, nephews, friends, because she used to take care of that. And so he is suddenly alone.
Often people say if women feel overwhelmed they just need to say “no”. But this stuff matters. My relationship with my cousins was the most important of my life when I was a kid, but they lived a few hours away. Nevertheless, we made the effort. Family reunions matter. Anniversaries matter. We just need to find new ways to redistribute this work.
I once heard a study (I’ll have to look for it later again) that said that, to be cared for very well in your old age, you need a combination of 3 daughters or daughters-in-law. It wasn’t sons that mattered; it was simply that you had daughters or daughters-in-law. That really does have to change.
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COVID 19 has been many things, most of them horrific. But one of the more poignant realities of life in a global pandemic is that it highlights the profound importance of other people in our lives. The staff who work with me are having a bit of a baby boom – two babies have been born in the last two weeks and another is expected in early August. I know how stressful it is for the women who work with me trying to juggle their desire to see friends and family while navigating the pandemic recommendations and requirements, especially as they try to keep their babies safe. It’s a lot.
But COVID has also provided lots of us with a slower pace and an opportunity to examine what’s working and what’s not working in our lives. Joanna, who works with me, and her husband, Josiah, have found this to be true. Here’s Joanna, who is co-authoring the upcoming The Great Sex Rescue with me (and running all the stats!)
My husband lost his job just before Easter due to the pandemic and so we found ourselves in a hugely stressful situation: job hunting in the era of a global pandemic and the economic downturn that came along with it. My husband found out recently that he got an amazing position as a public service lawyer doing policy work with the government of Nunavut, so the stress has had a happy ending. We’re now enjoying a slower pace but keeping busy selling our house, preparing for a new baby, and I’m still busy behind the scenes on the book project.
We lived for the first 4 years of our marriage in Saskatoon, where my husband’s family is. I found it relatively easy to keep up with my family in Pittsburgh from afar and we visited quite frequently. In September 2017, we moved out to Ontario and have lived in Kingston and Belleville ever since. We’re a 7 hour drive from my family and a 3 hour flight from my husband’s, so we don’t get to see family nearly as much. While Josiah was very good at connecting with his family when we were in Saskatoon, it wasn’t his forte when it all had to be digital. But this “new normal” we’re enjoying for the next few months has really changed that. Josiah talks with his parents a lot more, as he FaceTimes with them so they can talk to our toddler. They’ve been able to read books, sing songs, and generally enjoy each other across the miles. Our two-year-old is rather rude on the phone (we’re working on manners…) but it’s been so sweet for them to be able to connect across the miles. While the busy times will return in September when we move and my husband begins in his new position, I’m confident that Josiah will be better about connecting with his family. Sometimes, life just hands you a reset button and the emotional energy to make some changes that will make your quality of life better.
I do think it’s important that men take on some of the work of nurturing relationships. It doesn’t bode well for them in the long run if they don’t. Men need friends, but they also need their families. It’s not just that the weight of this falls too much on women (although that is a factor); it’s also that it’s not healthy for men not to engage in this.
What about you? Have you found that the pandemic changed your family dynamics? How do you keep up with relationships in your family? Let me know in the comments!
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of Bare Marriage
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