She's the grandmother whose house we will travel to this holiday season for roast turkey and pumpkin pie.
She's also the young mom with a camera in hand and a toddler slung on her hip or the baby boomer sister with a flair for fun and a high-speed modem.
When it comes to crowning the family matriarch, only one quality is clearly necessary – an undeniable desire to preserve family relationships and keep the family connected.
It would be an injustice to men to say that they have no interest in gathering and communicating with their extended family. Nevertheless, there seems to be something to those stereotypically female multi-tasking, emotional qualities that prompt more women than men to be the family relationship caretakers and organizers. On average, studies have shown that women communicate more often with family. Women are also more likely than men to initiate gatherings, especially during the holidays.
"Generally, it is true that women are more interested in organizing family communications, reunions and gatherings," says Laurence Basirico, Ph.D., professor of sociology and interim dean of International Programs for Elon College in North Carolina. "Despite the growing rate of two-income households, women still feel the emotional responsibility of handling the family stuff. And most women enjoy it and are good at it."
According to a poll conducted by Harris Interactive for Modern Woodmen of America, a fraternal benefit society offering financial services, the majority of men and women attend holiday events (93 percent); however, women are more inclined than men to gather with extended family at other times during the year.
"While men and women both agree that relationships with extended family members are important, the survey shows that women have an edge over men when it comes to attending family functions and pursuing communication opportunities," says Sharon Snawerdt of Modern Woodmen, which promotes strong family relationships through member programs as well as its Web site, www.gatherings.info. "For instance, 55 percent of women in our survey attended family gatherings seven to 11 times a year, compared to 40 percent of men."
This difference in the sexes is not something new, according to Basirico.
"In contemporary society, we are socialized into thinking that women should fulfill the role of keeper and organizer of the family relationships," says Basirico, author of "The Family Reunion Survival Guide: How to Avoid Problems with Your Family without Avoiding Your Family," and the most recent planner of his own family reunion. "For many women, the connection between them and their children is different than the connection between the father and the children. This comes from, literally, having given birth to them. Even women who don't feel this connection may feel the pressure to take on this role, even if they are not the best at it."
Women who take the lead and love it
Who's the matriarch? According to Basirico, today's matriarchs appear to be oblivious to age and experience.
"I don't know if, anymore, there are any real characteristics that mark a person as the matriarch," he says. "These days it is more a matter of who is willing to do it. Who has the time, the interest and the resources?"
Mary Connelly Kegelman, of Wilmington, Del., is one of those women who excels at being the caretaker of the family connection and is definitely qualified as the matriarch of the family. Her husband Matthew agrees with her in the importance of hosting family gatherings, but when it comes down to managing the details, Mary takes the lead.
"We are both retired," says the 74-year-old Kegelman who was named the 2004 Mother of the Year by American Mothers Inc. "Together we keep the family get-togethers going, but I am the instigator. My husband is invaluable in supporting me."
She laughs, "He is the one that gets to move tables and chairs around."
Their brood of 10 children and 20 grandchildren gather at least once a month at the Kegelman's home to celebrate birthdays and holidays.
"These gatherings are really the mechanism for keeping our family close," says Kegelman. "They are very important to us."
While Amy Anderson of Boerne, Texas, is not the family matriarch, she can see herself assuming a more active role in planning family gatherings and communication activities as the years go by. The parents of 18-month-old Benjamin, Anderson and her husband Nathan delved head first into the family reunion business this past fall. With her husband's sister, they are in charge of the 30th annual reunion of her mother-in-law's family, which typically attracts about 40 family members and will take place in the summer of 2005.
Anderson relies on Web sites such as www.gatherings.info to generate ideas and organize the details.
Rallying the family around the matriarch(s)
Because families are so busy, today's matriarchs must be flexible and strategically utilize the talents found among other members of the family.
Rule 1: Have a plan and delegate, delegate, delegate
"I couldn't do it alone," says Kegelman. "I do a lot of the cooking, and we usually host the event at our home, but my husband, children and grandchildren all contribute."
It helps to keep the details simple and predictable. Some family matriarchs generate a schedule for rotating the responsibility of who hosts the Christmas dinner or reunion every year. Others create a standard plan for who provides what on the menu for every gathering. Still others designate family members as official photographer or game planner.
"Each person has one thing they do best, whether it is a special dish or game," stresses Kegelman. "We have a format that works well."
Rule 2: Make fun the priority
Kegelman feels being the matriarch doesn't mean she has to be controlling. "I try not to give orders or advice until asked," she says. "I got a lot of that as a young mother and I remember how I felt. My children and grandchildren make their own choices in life. I need to respect that. That is the key to being respected in return."
Anderson and Kegelman both acknowledge that while organization, timelines and delegation of responsibility is important, they strive to keep it all in the context of fun. For Anderson, planning the next family function is the opportunity to let the creative juices flow.
The Modern Woodmen survey indicated that women are the great communicators in the family. According to the results, women are more inclined to keep on top of family news and use the phone, letters and email more often than men. In fact, women are using technology to their benefit for this purpose. Eighty-one percent of women see email, the Internet, family bulletin boards or Web sites as ways to stay in touch with extended family members as compared to 67 percent of men. Internet providers' marketing strategies corroborate this finding. Women are their biggest target market group in promoting the communication value of the Internet. Even senior-aged women have mastered the technology to use it to stay in touch with their families.
A merry matriarchy
Whether you're the matriarch, a matriarch-in-training or simply a family member standing able and ready to assist the woman (or women) in charge, remember as you enter this holiday season to keep the ultimate goal in mind: Work together to keep the family together.
"The food and everything else is important," concludes Kegelman. "But the best part is just having the opportunity to talk and laugh together."
Courtesy of ARA Content