Let’s ease the mental load of the people who keep our families together.
Article Contributed by: Anika Chabra, Root & Seed Co-Founder
Four years ago I took my parents out for my mom’s 72nd birthday.
It was a routine celebratory lunch for a mom who always asked for little by way of pomp and circumstance, particularly when the focus was on her. Her birthday is at the end of November and the restaurant was already holiday-festive, making for a beautiful backdrop to celebrate a beautiful, important woman in my life. As a daughter of immigrant parents, I can’t say that our relationship was always positive - the first twenty years were fraught with conflict, most of which I chalk up to them finding their own way in a new country, differing values between their South Asian and my Canadian ways, and me not yet feeling comfortable in my own medium brown skin. A turning point for our relationship was when I went to University, had a big fat Indian wedding, and started to have shared experiences including choosing a profession, buying a home, and having children.
Our conversation over lunch was standard, centered mostly around what she and my dad were looking forward to when they snowbird in their winter home in Phoenix. I updated them on my teenagers, including the challenges and joys - a phase that they knew all too well with my brother and me. They delighted in my discoveries and smiled a knowing “we’ve been there” smile when I talked about the challenges. Suddenly the differences I experienced with them as a child disappeared.
For the first time in a while, I had some news to share. A little giddy, I announced that I was starting to take Indian dance lessons, Kathak, after a 30-year hiatus. The mood went from calm and uneventful to celebratory and special. My mother’s face lit up at this proclamation. It was like I told her that they were expecting a third child (no chance), or that I decided to do a masters (education would always be important to my parents).
My mom reached over and grabbed my hand and said “I knew you would be the one to carry on our South Asian traditions and rituals when Dad and my generation are gone”. I felt like a 13-year-old again, excited by her approval and privileged to be knighted to play such an important role when in fact they were not here anymore.
The significance of that moment would not be fully felt until months later. Three weeks before the end of their winter stay, my mom passed away suddenly from a heart attack.
The pain of her loss quivered through my whole family and our whole community. Grief was overwhelming and regret of the events of that weekend were all-consuming.
Outside of not having her here physically, secondary losses started to present themselves. Watching my now-widowed father put one foot in front of the other, trying to make sense of “the why” was excruciating. In our culture, we are safe-guarded against this - isn’t this the very reason why women marry older men? For them, the textbook 5-year gap didn’t serve them as planned.
For me, her absence not only left a massive hole in my heart, I felt it logistically in life. Most significant was the feeling of “cultural bereavement” - often experienced by immigrants - the idea that the most intimate connection to my culture was now gone.
I wondered, who would I call to ask about what spice to add to that dish or to ensure that I am wearing what I’m supposed to wear for auspicious occasions? And who would make parathas for my kids the only way Nanis could? I certainly could not.
In an instant, the stories that defined us and made us unique disappeared. The Punjabi kadhi family recipe from my Dadima who taught it to her daughter-in-law, my mom. Our prayer sequence recited during 44 Diwalis together - it felt like I blinked and missed it. Not to mention the loss of family stories more enveloped by trauma, including my mom’s journey during Partition and how it affected her and generations to follow.
If I’m not careful, I can feel like a farce. I failed to get all the information I needed to successfully take her place and honour our family traditions. The feeling of approval and delight from that now significant lunch turned to deep sorrow and regret.
I wonder how many other grieving adult children in my circumstance feel this way. Parents die. Why don’t we take the time to write down what we need? The amount of intellectual family knowledge that disappeared with that powerhouse of a woman and family member astonishes and saddens me. We take the time to document the technical legacy stuff, but what about the softer stuff?
On good days, I choose gratitude. I take the stance of self-compassion and recite the words “I am grateful for the stories and recipes I did get, and forgive myself for the ones I didn’t”. Like generations before me, I trust that I have the information I do need to honour my family and carry forward the values and rituals that make us, us - despite not having all the technical details.
In death my mom and I are now bonded further by a role in our family that we both play - a bond that happened only because of her passing. We are the family members who feel compelled to host the events, initiate the connecting, and practice the practicing. We are the ones who hold the reunions, remember the dates, send the cards, and make the family recipes. We are “kinkeepers,” a term first coined in 1985 by University of Toronto sociologist Carolyn Rosenthal.
Holding this leadership position in families can be fulfilling. On the downside, it can lead to increased mental load that if not recognized can drain the kinkeeper. All the pre-planning, anticipating needs, and ensuring that there is peace in the family can be mentally and physically exhausting. And we know that with the varied textures and personalities in families, there are even more nuances that can exacerbate the load even further. This burden is often not spoken about. Not to mention this is often done on top of juggling work, home, and the dual role of taking care of parents and taking care of children.
So when we think about mental health and mental load, can we consider the kinkeeper?
Having lived this role now intimately, I share my tips to my fellow kinkeepers out there. Remember, your feelings are valid. You can enjoy your role and feel like it's exhausting. No need for binary thinking here. Remind yourself of your intention. Instead of “We’ve always done it this way”, ask “Does the tradition still fit in with my present-day values?.” Why not book your own celebration at the end of a family celebration? You have power to end #toxictraits that may be associated with cultural, gender, and societal paradigms. And if you feel compelled to document, keep it lighthearted, especially during celebrating.
For me, it’s important to relish in the joy and privilege of kinkeeping, forgoing the need for perfection. I invite the idea that I can add my own special twist on events, traditions, and gatherings while at the same time honour the kinkeepers that preceded me, including my mom.
So all hail the kinkeepers….we see you, we salute you, we appreciate you. And FTLOG, get them a cocktail!
What are the roles kinkeepers play in your family? Share in the comments below!
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