Kinkeeping: Find out what it means and why this term is dangerous...

Kinkeeping is a cop out term for the mental load... language matters.

Kinkeeping what is it illustrated by cat sims leaning against a wall with chaos around her
(Image credit: Cat Sims)

Kinkeeping... heard of it? No, me neither. Now, 2023 has brought many new things with it.  A certain royal memoir, a failed rocket launch, and artificial pancreases. But this caught my eye, a 'new' concept shared by a gender studies student on TikTok: kinkeeping.

You might be wondering, what is a kinkeeper, what does a kinkeeper do, am I a kinkeeper? It’s not a new concept by any means. You and I just know it better as ‘all the s**t women do to keep everyone’s life running smoothly, without which the world would quite literally end, but that no one else cares about’. In other words, kinkeeping is the mental load, the cognitive labour, the unequal distribution of responsibility. So why are the internet and the press suddenly so interested in it? Why, for the first time in the history of women laying themselves at the foot of their never-ending ‘to-do’ lists only to be stepped over by our ‘kin’, does the world seem finally happy to accept that yes, when it comes to all things ‘kin’, women have quite a lot on their plates. 

Well, I’ll tell you why and spoiler alert: it’s because language matters a lot.

Kinkeeping - what is it?

Kinkeeping is basically everything that, primarily, women do to look after their kin, their family. From earning a salary, remembering birthdays, buying a planner to put the birthdays on, cleaning, shopping lists, menu planning, sorting, appointment booking, and pants buying, to name a few of the inane jobs. 

However, the term ‘kinkeeping’ is not a new one. It was coined in 1985 by Carolyn J. Rosenthal in her research article (opens in new tab) 'Kinkeeping in the Familial Division of Labour'. She describes kinkeeping as a, ‘primarily female activity’ and says that, ‘the position of kinkeeper persists over time, and occupancy is frequently passed from mother to daughter. Having a family kinkeeper is related to greater extended family interaction and greater emphasis on family ritual at both extended family and lineage levels.’ In a nutshell, Rosenthal is saying for many generations, women have been the managerial force that holds the extended family and, by extension, society together and that this burden is unquestioningly passed down amongst the females in the family.

Language matters

But doesn’t the word ‘kinkeeping’ do a wonderful job of making it sound like a cosy little secret women are privileged to enjoy? A worthy and honourable ritual that gives us exclusive access to a secret society, perhaps one for which we should invent a secret handshake and giggle over while we braid each other’s hair and swap recipes?

‘Kinkeeping’ also sounds homely and womanly and maternal and not remotely threatening or intellectual. It doesn’t sound like anything a man should bother with while he’s busy bringing home the bacon. The irony is of course, that men rarely in fact bring home the bacon. They may bring home a paycheck, like most women, with which said bacon can be bought but, unlike most women who recognise that a trip to the supermarket needs to be squeezed in to ensure the bacon is, in fact, brought home, men tend to expect the bacon to appear in the fridge and be cooked for them in the morning.

The reality of the mental load has been ignored, dismissed and diminished for decades and who knew it was simply down to bad branding. Terms that women have been employing for years, such as ‘mental load’ or ‘cognitive labour’, to try and describe our three full-time jobs - the one for which they are paid (less than men), the physical labour of running a family and a home and the emotional labour of keeping everyone happy – don’t sound like ‘women problems’.

kinkeeping what is it illustrated with pile of laundry

(Image credit: Getty )

The phrase  ‘cognitive labour’ sounds like the sort of vital skill and cerebral talent a man should excel at. They are the kind of words that belong in corporate scrummages and PowerPoint presentations to prove that men are, in fact, the boss. Acknowledging these terms would mean accepting that women are the real managerial and logistical geniuses. Society would have to admit that, deep beneath the banality of every woman’s mental to-do list, is the holy social grail - a cup kept full, bright and shiny by the hands of women who never require, but wholly deserve, recognition for it. 

Accepting these terms would require an acceptance that women do in fact, run the world. Sure, we’re less likely to be found posturing in boardrooms, smashing glass ceilings or squaring off on TV but you can be sure we booked those boardrooms, swept up the broken glass, and paid the TV license.

And, if you think this is a ‘man problem’, you’d be wrong. I don’t want to make individual men, who do understand the mental load and the pressure it puts on the women in their life, feel like they need to defend their own position as enlightened partners who accept there is an exhaustive and never-ending ‘to do’ list. These men exist – I’m married to one and most of the men I know are one – but as a whole, at some existential level, we are all, as a society, too willing to accept these nods to equality only when they are couched in language that is as safe as it is patronising.

I am, of course, girding my childbearing, kinkeeping loins for accusations of being an ‘angry feminist’ and a ‘man hater’ but while workers throughout the country are striking for the pay they deserve, I can’t help but think what would happen if women of the world downed tools and stopped doing all those things on our lists, not because we want money for doing them, but because a little bit of recognition and gratitude would go a long way, kind of like what the women of Iceland did (opens in new tab) forty years ago. Who's in?

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Cat Sims
Author, mum-of-two and content creator

Cat Sims is a writer, content creator, podcaster (You're never the only one (opens in new tab)) and author of 'The First Time You Smiled (opens in new tab)' who is still trying to figure out the whole 'adulting' thing. She's made a living out of documenting her failures and successes as a 40-year-old woman, mother, and wife across various social media platforms.