The XX Factor

Why “Need A Mom” Is the Next Chapter of the Outsourced Self

Need A Mom’s clients pay $40 per hour for the quality time that these stock-photo models are presumably enjoying free of cost.

Need a Mom is a service through which busy and/or emotionally needy customers can purchase, for $40 an hour, “a short-term, temporary” mother, as Nina Keneally’s website puts it: “When you need a mom … not just YOUR mom.” Keneally, a Brooklynite, will sit with you at a coffee house listening to your love-life woes. She will teach you how to sew a button back on a shirt. She’ll accompany you to Whole Foods and help you cook a meal with the groceries you buy.

One thing Keneally won’t do: actually be your friend, as in for real. Forty dollars an hour can’t buy you love.

In the few weeks since she’s been in business, Keneally’s attracted a bevy of press coverage that belies the size of her actual business—just six paying clients so far, with some more who have expressed interest. An agent from William Morris Endeavor has also gotten in touch about television possibilities, as Keneally told me when I caught up with her earlier this week.

Need a Mom started as an informal freebie, or what a less commercial age would call “talking to acquaintances.” Keneally and her husband, a stagehand on the Book of Mormon, moved to Bushwick two years ago after raising two sons in suburban Connecticut. Over time the twentysomethings surrounding her at yoga classes or volunteer projects began confiding in her, no doubt seeing her as a stand-in for Mom—she was, after all, the oldest person in the room.

After talking several of them through job losses and bad breakups, it occurred to Keneally—who worked for a number of years as a substance abuse counselor—that maybe there was a business model lurking in these new relationships. “There are people who have a mentor in their professional lives; now I am doing that in their personal lives,” she told me. Her clients need help with, for example, “writing an intelligent letter to a landlord to get a rent deposit back.”

But Keneally’s parenting skills have another application. “I am happy to talk to young parents, whose own parents are far away,” she says. “If you are a young parent without any parent nearby to talk to, that can be one of the loneliest things in the world.” Just one thing: Don’t call her a “substitute grandparent.” She’s not your child’s grandma any more than she’s your mom.

Is Need a Mom, as tiny and nascent as it is, a sign of the times? People of means can buy emotional labor and all the fawning attention they want. Haute nannies who have college degrees and speak Mandarin can watch their kids while they attend sessions with “wealth therapists.” They can even buy friend equivalents, as Richard Kirshenbaum pointed out in the New York Observer a few years back—everyone from the art consultant to the fashion stylist might also be getting paid just to hang around.

In The Outsourced Self: Intimate Life in Market Times, Arlie Hochschild writes about how overworked Americans, used to living in a society where almost any human contact can be reduced to a financial transaction and outsourced, have turned to the service sector to meet needs that were formerly provided by family, neighbors, and friends. Hiring help for everything from organizing a closet to planning a child’s birthday party has been normalized. Toddlers who once played in parks now go to outfits like My Gym.

Paid companionship is drifting down the food chain. While kiddie-play classes and rent-a-relative services are not for the poor, the amount of money they actually cost is, for some, an affordable luxury. It’s sort of the equivalent of buying a Gucci-branded keychain—you need to have some means to make the purchase, but you don’t need to spend a few thousand dollars on a handbag.

If you can’t afford Need a Mom’s rates, by the way, Keneally says she’s happy to barter. She has a Shar-Pei, for instance, and can always use a dog walker.