Nice Work if You Kin Get It

Image taken from Primal Blueprint Explorer

There may be a job shortage of epic proportions going on, but as the holiday season slouches towards us, it’s clear that there’s no shortage of kin work. “Kin work” is the term anthropologists use to describe the “conception, maintenance, and ritual celebration of cross boundary kin ties”. I found that definition on the back of some online anthropology flash cards, but basically, what it refers to is all the minutiaie of maintaining family ties and friendships. So, hosting Thanksgiving: kin work. Designing, writing, and sending Christmas cards: kin work. Remembering your niece’s birthday: kin work (although Facebook can help if your relatives are old enough to be on it). I suppose pregnancy, giving birth, breastfeeding and raising children–the creation and maintenance of kin–would count, too, but it’s been years since I took an anthro class, so don’t quote me on that.

I learned the phrase “kin work” as a Folklore and Mythology major in college, taking my required anthropology classes. We were taught that, in most societies, women are responsible for the kin work. This seems true for contemporary America as well;  we expect women to extend the invitations, deck the halls, wrap the presents, and write the thank you notes.

When I learned the phrase, I remember being so pleased that scholars had taken time to name this subset of tasks, which always seemd vitally important to me. The fact that “work” was in the name seemed to give these activities instant value, recognizing that all the things we do to maintain relationships with each other, to identify ourselves as belonging to and caring for one another, these things keep society going. Unfortunately, I soon realized that, call it what you want, “kin work” isn’t given a whole lot of respect outside of ethnographies.

Part of this has to do with money. Kin work is usually unpaid. Sure, some people have found ways to monetize it, both historically (hello, wet nurses) and currently (wedding planners of the world, I salute you). But most of us host parties and playdates and write letters (or emails) without ever making a dime. So maybe it’s because the higher-paid a job is, the more respected the position is, in general, that unpaid kin work is seldom celebrated.

But I also think it’s a question of identity. If someone goes into an office every day, society knows how to define him or her–by  his or her title or job description. The fact that a person goes somewhere and does something that someone else pays them to do renders them, inherently, worthwhile. Those of us who work at home, juggling work that pays us along with kin work, are considered dilettantes.

This was brought into high relief for me during my wedding, by the writer who wrote up our New York Times’ wedding announcement at the last minute. (We backed out of a larger feature because the man’s manner was so unpleasant I wasn’t comfortable with him writing about us, so he wrote this quickie announcement instead, warning us that since there was no time to fact-check he couldn’t list our academic honors. And obviously while it’s OK for Jayson Blair to make up entire sources, it would cast a pall on the integrity of the paper of record to believe I graduated magna cum laude.)

The reporter asked where my mother, a writer, had been published in the past year. I said Vogue and Budget Travel. 

“If that’s it, that’s exactly what the Times is trying to avoid–part-time work,” said the man, a freelancer himself.

This angered me for any number of reasons: First, who gets to decide how many publications per year make one a full-time freelancer versus a part-timer? What if your sole publication is a groundbreaking article or book? (I mean, if my mother had been Harper Lee, would he have said, “And what has she published in the last 51 years since To Kill A Mockingbird?”)

And second, what’s wrong with part-time work anyway? In an economy such as ours, and a world in which technology enables us to work from home, more and more people in any number of fields are going freelance. Does the fact that they don’t go into an office every day mean that they don’t really work?

But what angered me most was the misogyny of it all. My mom had gone into an office before she started raising kids. As did I. And the fact that she re-shaped her career to make room for kin work, as well as paid work, had rendered her so unimportant in the eyes of a paper she had contributed to well over a dozen times, that she was omitted from the graph describing the jobs of the parents of the bride and groom in the wedding announcement of one of the children she’d made time to raised. So yes, as Mary Elizabeth Williams pointed out in Salon today, the New York Times does have female trouble.

This attitude towards women–and work–this idea that any work done at home is irrelevant, is something I struggle with now that I am doing more kin work than ever. How can I raise my daughter not to think that her father’s work is more valuable than mine because papi gets dressed and drives off to the office, and mama stays home and writes in between loads of laundry, being spit up on and impromptu singing of “Will you live with me, will you be my love, among the pools of vomit?” to the tune of Sting’s “Fields of Gold”?

There is a Publix supermarket commercial on TV in Florida right now that shows an old woman cooking holiday dinner and saying, “I’ve never won any prizes for my pies” but that her family’s smiles make all the effort she puts into the celebration worthwhile. That’s nice. But a smile and two dollars will get you a copy of the New York Times, if not a mention in it. Maybe by the time Amalía does kin work of her own, we’ll have figured out a way to reward it, beyond just giving it a name.


  1. Kin work includes the “care giving” responsibilities for elderly loved ones, spouses and children. Sometimes women take care of all three groups at the same time. Either gender can shoulder the work. Thank you for giving recognition to unsung heroes.

  2. Thank you for this insightful post!
    – Lee

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