Like many Bushwick transplants, Nina Keneally moved to the neighborhood two years ago. She visited it a few time and said she fell in love with the energy and community, enough so that she eventually packed up her things and moved to a home off the Halsey stop.
Unlike many of her neighbors, the 63-year-old Keneally had already established herself as a professional on Broadway and spent years as a substance abuse counselor while raising two sons now in their 20s.
Keneally’s latest venture grabbed national headlines last week. NeedAMom lets younger New Yorkers hire the mom they might have left behind in their hometowns. Her own sons don’t live too far away, but Keneally told Metro New York she’s happy stand in for clients at a base hourly rate of $40 an hour — although she’s willing to barter.
Q: So what’s the response been like since you officially launched on Tuesday?
A: It’s overwhelming. I did a soft launch of this for a month or two, and that was okay. But I’m astounded. It’s unbelievable — it’s crazy. I’ve even been reached out to by reality television agents. It’s just totally unexpected.
Q: Why do you think so many people have strong opinions about NeedAMom?
I think it strikes a nerve. There’s something about having a mother without the baggage that people are responding to, and that’s fascinating to me. The media attention also shows just how desperate everyone is for content.
Q: Your story has seen a lot of positive response on social media, less positive in many comments online.
A: Yeah. After I read the first couple of them I declined to read them. There’s no upside. As my son says, “Haters gonna hate.” Every day I’ve been getting a handful of inquires about working with people. It’s a lot to handle, especially with all the media attention. But I trust the press interest to evaporate very quickly, as those things do.
A: I’ve also had interest from people all over the place asking if I can hire them to be mothers, or franchise it in different places. It’d be great, but at this point that’s not my concentration.
A: But you’ve already got clients.
Q: I probably have about four ongoing, where I’ve seen them more than once. But I’m also setting up appointments with about eight other people. I want to be sure that I’m giving people the attention they need, and the right attention.
A: So what kind of things are you doing for your clients next week?
A: I’m taking someone for a colonoscopy who doesn’t want to go alone. There are people who just want somebody to talk to, someone who isn’t just their buddy.
Q: What’s the oddest request you’ve gotten?
A: Somebody contacted me telling me their mother died when they were young, and that they hear their friends hating on their mothers. They wrote, “I need to have a hate sessions, but nothing S&M about it.” And I thought, “What does that mean?” Unless I know exactly the way to handle it, it’s not happening.
Q: It doesn’t sound like you’re fazed by much, though.
A: Between my clinical background and being in the theater and raising two sons, it’s pretty hard to shock me. And I live in Bushwick.
Q: Why do you think your clients and potential clients have reached out to you?
A: There are people who just want somebody to talk to, someone they feel isn’t necessarily solely therapeutic or clinical who isn’t their buddy. For some of the young adults…
Q: So are these mainly millennials?
A: I don’t know what to call them because I hate all those words. They’re just human beings who are younger than I am. They’re very ambitious, they’re very talented, they’re very hard-working. They’re smart. But every once in a while, it’s hard to be young and striving in New York City. It’s tough financial, it’s hard emotionally. Sometimes they want to bounce things off of someone who has a different perspective with hard-earned wisdom. It’s tougher now for young people than it often was for people when I was young here.
Q: Well, millennials also have reputation of being very coddled.
A: Yes, indeed.
Q: Do you think you’re encouraging that?
A: I’m not going to coddle anybody. I’m not tough love but I’m straight up. One of the things many of us who parented millennials did that was a mistake was always saying, “Oh, you’re so special — everything you do is so great.” Encouragement and support is important, but it was overdone a lot.
Q: What do you say to folks who aren’t sold on your background for this kind of work?
A: I’m not telling anybody I have all the answers. I just have a Chinese menu. Try one from column A, one from column B and see what works for you. I am what I am, and I say that I’m not talking to them as a professional — I’m a mom. I’m a person who cares and is interested in you. But if you need professional help, I can help you find that. That’s also a hard thing to negotiate these days.
Q: Do you think you’re blurring any lines, though, offering motherly work as a service?
A: I’m very clear that I’m speaking to them as a person that melds all my personal talents. I can pull from them, but it’s not as a professional. There’s no such thing as a professional mother, unless you count Carol Brady.
I don’t want to clean your bathrooms or do your laundry, but I’ll sew a button on your shirt. I’ll even darn a sock — it’s actually sad kids throw out their socks if there’s little hole. I’ll go to Whole Foods with you and plan a dinner and shop for the right stuff. I’ll even hang out and let you cook dinner. But I won’t stay and do your dishes.
I’m happy to make a pot of soup, if you’re sick. I make a pretty good chicken soup.
Q: But not inviting anyone over for Thanksgiving dinner.
A: No, no, no. No, no. That’s friends and family.
This interview has been edited and condensed for space.