At one of Bushwick’s ubiquitous coffee shops, among the colorful laundromats and junky dollar stores, Nina Keneally is going over her schedule for the week.
Tomorrow she’s checking in on a female student at Pratt who is recovering from neck surgery. On Thursday, she’s meeting a woman in her late 20s who recently lost her job and wants some motherly reassurance.
She’s still making arrangements with another client who’s asked that Keneally sit on her bed while she cleans out her closet, offering counsel on what to keep and what to throw away.
The young woman’s mother has volunteered to make a trip to New York City to help her daughter do just that. But this comes with an unwelcome quid pro quo: the flurry of questions about her love life. She’d rather pay Keneally $40 as a stand in.
That’s the hourly rate Keneally charges for her Need a Mom service (“For when you need a mom…just not YOUR mom”).
On offer are various motherly clichés, from ironing and cooking to a shoulder to cry on.
Aimed at millennials in and around Bushwick, where Keneally moved two years ago from suburban Connecticut, Need a Mom promises paying customers “mom help and mom advice” without the judgment or headache that frequently comes with both. And 63-year-old Keneally has plenty of maternal experience: she raised two sons, now 31 and 27, both working artists.
When we meet in a relatively ungentrified area of Bushwick, I am both relieved and disappointed that Keneally is so exceedingly normal. She is warm and loquacious and fluid with mom jokes.
“I told my husband that Benedict Cumberbatch came to me in a dream carrying a gold chest with a crystal ball inside that read, ‘millennial mom,’” she tells me when asked what inspired Need a Mom, then breaks into uproarious laughter. “But that isn’t what happened!”
Need a Mom began with Keneally dispensing free advice to twentysomethings who frequented her yoga class and Bushwick’s art scene (Keneally is an active community volunteer).
They confided in her about their twentysomething angst. They begged her to look over their resumés, and edit letters to landlords who threatened to evict them.
“I was doing these things out of the goodness of my heart, but I wondered if there was something else there,” says Keneally, who worked for eight years as a substance abuse counselor in a methadone clinic. She also spent her twenties in New York City, moving to Manhattan in 1974 after graduating from theater school in London.
“I think in many ways it was easier then,” she tells me. “You still had to find a job and pay the rent, but New York didn’t feel as madly competitive as it does now.”
Keneally struggled during those early years but ultimately had a successful career producing shows both on and off Broadway, including the Tony-winning Driving Miss Daisy. She met her husband in theater (he’s now a stagehand for The Book of Mormon).
“I have an understanding of what the world is like for younger people living here that parents in Dubuque, Iowa might not have,” she tells me. “My default for Need a Mom was, OK, I’ll try this out, and if it doesn’t work out I’ll just tell everyone it was an art project.”
Indeed, a failed business venture could be a hugely successful art project in Bushwick, where weaning yourself off a psychotropic pharmaceutical regimen passes as performance art.
Keneally officially launched Need a Mom two weeks ago with a sponsored editorial in Bushwick Daily.
She currently has six clients—five women and one man from Maryland seeking a pen pal. “His own mother passed away and he wants to have a letter-writing correspondence with a mother figure,” Keneally explains.
She’s politely turned down requests from people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s, stressing that her services are aimed at a younger demographic. She says these requests remind her of the chorus about “all the lonely people” in “Eleanor Rigby,” the Beatles song.
Keneally’s phone has been ringing off the hook since Need a Mom launched, but the people on the other end of the line are media professionals, not millennials desperate for her service.
She claims at least ten different talent and production agencies have contacted her about developing concepts for reality TV series and other projects, including big names like WME and Anonymous Content.
Anonymous represents Ryan Gosling, Keneally says excitedly, but she’s not rushing into anything. “I’m certainly not going to be the Real Mom of King’s County,” she says.
She’s also been inundated with emails from mothers around the world—Sardinia, Switzerland, Australia, and a handful of other states in the U.S.—who want to turn her nascent business into a franchise. “I’m not sure that’s my end game at this point,” she says, adding that she has no immediate plans to expand Need a Mom outside of New York.
The deluge of press and business expansion requests indicate that she’s clearly “hit a nerve,” as Keneally puts it.
The idea of a mom service for millennials is marketing genius. As the stereotype goes, millennials are a generation of self-obsessed naval gazers (think Hannah Horvath and the other characters on Girls, Lena Dunham’s popular HBO show). They are indefatigable social media users with no grasp on the real world.
And Bushwick is a mecca for the hipster-millennial cliché: the twentysomething who lives in a loft with five other people who identify as artists and writers and DJs, because no one would take them seriously if they said they were bartenders or babysitters. Nevermind that this is in fact how many of them make a living.
That may seem like a particularly critical—and cynical—generalization of the young scene in Bushwick. But the stereotype possesses a kernel of truth.
Millennials are certainly self-absorbed, though arguably no more so than the generations that preceded them.
Baby boomers were once considered the most self-involved generation.
Tom Wolfe wrote about them in his 1976 New York magazine cover feature, “The ‘Me’ Decade,” which he traced back to postwar prosperity. Boomers were devoted to “remaking, remodeling, elevating, and polishing one’s very self...and observing, studying, and doting on it. (Me!)”
Millennials seem like particularly egregious “me, me, me” offenders because most of them are currently navigating early adulthood, a time in life when people tend to be narcissistic.
The social media age they live in has amplified that narcissism, and the media has amplified manifestations of their narcissism into trends, making a relentless vicious circle.
Yet Need a Mom also touchingly reflects the way we live now: at a time when human interactions are increasingly outsourced, Keneally is an emotional TaskRabbit.
She is proof that we need to talk and to connect and to feel cared for; and she is proof that as long as we have the cash, there’s quite literally nothing we won’t pay someone to do for us. Rich men who like wining and dining young women but can’t get regular dates pay for Sugar Babies instead. Likewise the young woman who is desperate for a Daddy Warbucks in her life.
And if you’re a struggling artist in Bushwick, Nina Keneally will reassure you that everything’s going to be alright. She'll even negotiate a barter or a sliding rate.