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Give Yourself a Gold Star for Kin Work

Allison M. Alford, PhD

You pull your attention away from your professional work once again to attend to some family matter that has just come up.  It’s a call from your mom to talk about her prescription refills.  Or it’s an email about how your cousin is now out of work and can’t pay his mortgage. Or it’s your brother sending you anxiety texts about the stock market. Sometimes family issues come up while we’re working (Ball, 2017).

Now that you’re working from home and glued to your laptop and phone all day, the lines of digital communication are all open, allowing for more distractions to stream in from personal avenues. You can’t escape these devices, but you can’t seem to stay focused on your professional work because kin work keeps pulling you in different directions. Kin work refers to “the conception, maintenance, and ritual celebration of cross-household kin ties” (Di Leonardo, 1987); simply put, kin work is the time and effort you put in to keep your family going. 

Typical kin work may involve things like spending time on the phone with a family member to offer support, planning a holiday event, writing a note of thanks, or buying presents for special occasions.  During a global health crisis, this type of care work is likely more intensified; your loved ones may need more frequent support or the emotional toll is deeper. This is especially true in regards to elderly parents or relatives with no immediate family members. You may find yourself convincing them that this we are experiencing a real health crisis (not a hoax!) and encouraging them to stay home (Please?! That means you, Aunt Mary!).  In other cases, you might spend time listening to financial worries and later brainstorming with your partner how to help. Or perhaps, like me, you have a loved one feeling isolated by the rules of a senior living facility and you are finding creative ways to bolster their spirits.

Kin work requires emotional labor and time; it can be draining to prop up others around you. It is, largely, invisible.  This means you will not get paid for the work you put in and nobody will say to you, “Great job daughtering today!” As you can imagine, kin work is largely gendered with the heavier burden on women (Meyer, 2000), though every family is unique and the demographics of those who perform kin keeping duties vary widely.  

Tending to family needs may take up more time than usual, preventing you from completing your professional work. Balancing career and family is becoming increasingly complex (Gerstel & Clawson, 2018). This global crisis has not only shifted the types of needs your family have, but likely the manner in which you are working professionally.  For those of us working from home, the lines between career and personal life are increasingly blurry. Your loved ones, especially those who are out-of-touch with current work life, are picturing you lounging around your home rather than intensely working in a professional setting.  Perhaps you also find it difficult to separate the personal and professional while working remotely; maybe there are kids running around asking for food and help with their iPads all day.  The result is a challenging workday that feels like you are shoveling snow while it’s still snowing.  The following two sections offers tips for how to get started.

5 Tips for Smart Kin Workers

1. Notice the hard work you are doing for your family and give yourself credit for it.  Really, count up the minutes (hours?!) you spent that day soothing, managing, and educating your loved ones. Recognize that you cannot be in two places at once, so all time spent on kin work is time away from your professional life or other pursuits.  Kin work is a valuable commodity that deserves recognition, even if it is just a personal pat on the back.  

2. Manage your time with family members the way you would a meeting or professional project.  Now that you see kin work as a type of labor you are performing, it only makes sense to schedule it like you would any other event.  What does that look like?  Maybe you hold all personal emails, calls, and Facebook messages until lunch time or the evening.  You can make this decision quietly or you can announce it to your relatives and set a boundary for your time.

3. Share the obligations with others. Do you have an especially busy day, but your mother-in-law keeps calling? Hand the task over to your teenager and train him (!) to be a family kin keeper, too. Or call your sister and ask her to handle buying supplies on Amazon for your elderly aunt. Delegating kin work tasks to others can lighten the load you feel and helps you avoid feeling lonely in this work.

4. Talk about everything you are doing. Once you notice your hard work, tell your partner and kids about it.  Discussing kin work transforms it from invisible to visible labor. Naming and classifying your caring behaviors as work helps illuminate for your partner and children that the making of family takes time and mindful attention. It also allows them to understand where your time is allocated so they understand that time spent on kin work is not leisure time, but a responsibility akin to household chores.

5. Seek peer support. Reach out to your role peers who are adult daughters and sons; ask them what kin work looks like in their lives right now.  Discuss how to balance professional and personal work. It’s okay to vent a little. Let them know you need encouragement and praise from someone who is in the trenches with you. Send each other virtual gold stars of encouragement…or Venmo $5 for a real-life treat!

Be kind to yourself and notice all that you are juggling in this unprecedented time of change and newness. Let me be the first to say to you: “Great job Daughtering!  Great job Sonning!” You are doing the important work of maintaining family ties. Here’s a virtual gold star for you: 🌟

Beyond the personal attentiveness to kin work and family, support can come at the organizational level.  Having a supervisor and organization supportive of work-family balance is key to a more satisfying workplace (Clark et al., 2015). Both practitioners and instructors of professional communication would be wise to apply the following tips:  

3 Tips for Instructors and Practitioners

1. Train on work-life balance. Although everyone is managing both personal and professional (or student) activities, this topic may not receive dedicated instruction in the workplace or classroom. We tend to expect the balance to handle itself, but not everyone is equipped to do so (Wilding, 2019). Thus, it is key for instructors and practitioners to set aside time to train employees and students to use tools for creating balance. Ask participants to think about how they spend time each day on work and family activities. You might assign a journaling activity, do a Kanban together on a white board, or assign a reflective writing piece as a start. Allow people to share these or keep their thoughts private; the process is more important than the output.

2. Set the tone for family insights. In your leadership role, you can set the tone that family is important.  You might talk about your own family (struggles and triumphs), include articles on family in your monthly newsletter, or encourage people to share what family means to them. When leaders set the tone that families matter, it becomes easier for employees and students to successfully navigate family matters while maintaining productivity.   

3. Have an open mind. When it comes to family, each one is unique and therefore your employee’s or student’s interaction with their family will be, too. Once you’ve set the tone that family matters, keep an open mind when people talk about how they ‘do’ family.  As a leader, it may be best to listen and support rather than counsel or give advice. Try not to veer too far away from your role into a territory that you are not licensed or qualified to offer your input on. While support and encouragement make a great leader, it is essential that licensed and insured professionals do the heavy lifting.

During times of stress, we must adjust both professionally and personally.  If you are mindfully doing your best, then you have earned this virtual gold star: 🌟

Ball, P. (2017). 5 Ways to Successfully Deal With Family Issues at Work. Glassdoor. https://www.glassdoor.com/blog/family-issues-work/

Clark, M. A., Rudolph, C. W., Zhdanova, L., Michel, J. S., & Baltes, B. B. (2017). Organizational Support Factors and Work–Family Outcomes: Exploring Gender Differences. Journal of Family Issues, 38(11), 1520-1545.

Di Leonardo, M. (1987). The Female World of Cards and Holidays: Women, Families, and the Work of Kinship. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 12(3), 440-453.

Gerstel, N. & Clawson, D. (2018). Control over Time: Employers, Workers, and Families Shaping Work Schedules. Annual Review of Sociology, 44(1), 77-97.

Meyer, M. H. (Ed.) (2000) Carework: Gender, Class, and the Welfare State. Routledge, New York.

Wilding, M. (2019). Setting boundaries at work can be the difference between professional fulfillment and burnout — here’s how to create them. Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/strategies-for-setting-healthy-boundaries-in-the-workplace-2019-12

Author Biography

Allison M. Alford (Ph.D.) is a clinical assistant professor teaching Business Communication at Baylor University.  In her cross-disciplinary work, she researches family roles related to business and professional communication. Current projects include messages from parents to adult children about future careers and communication within family businesses.

Recommended Citation: Allison M. Alford. (2020). Give Yourself a Gold Star for Kin Work. the Western ABC Bulletin, 2.1.

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