Outsourcing parent helpers



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Need help packing your kids for camp? Teaching them to ride a bike? Move over nannies, a new crop of parent helpers just landed.

When my first child was born in 2001, I was among the first Canadian mothers to take advantage of year-long maternity leave. Coming from the fast-paced world of TV news, I was looking forward to an extended period of nesting and getting to know my baby. I was going to do it all – night feedings, make baby food from scratch, get back in shape quickly – and then some. It didn’t take long before I became completely overwhelmed and decided, on the advice of a friend, to hire a babysitter one day a week. It was a big adjustment for my husband and me, having someone in our house, caring for our baby. It felt awkward at first.

Fast forward 15 years and my 2001 self would be shocked to know of the variety of child-related services we have used for our now three sons. We have had sports coaches, tutors and our fair share of babysitters. Not to mention the litany of newer services we could never have dreamed of – potty training boot camp, birthday party planners and camp-luggage packers, to name a few.

In her book The Outsourced Self: What Happens When We Pay Others to Live Our Lives For Us, University of California at Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild examines the practice of outsourcing – hiring experts to perform the personal tasks we used to do ourselves. She describes many instances in which we use the “market” to provide services in areas that used to be decidedly “non market” – doing it yourself or friends and family pitching in. “The more anxious and isolated we are and the less help we receive from non market sources, the more we feel tempted to fill the void with market offerings,” she writes.

Arlie looks at services that relate to all aspects of our personal lives: love coaches, wedding planners and surrogates. With regards to the evolution of parenting over the last 100 years, she writes “Most parents trusted formulas on the supermarket shelf and no one was using a wet nurse, but outsourcing child care had flourished into a massive, multifaceted industry.”

What’s Behind The Trend?

Arlie believes the increase in parenting services is linked to the growth of the service sector in general, which dates back to the 1980s and 1990s. But she would more specifi cally link it to economics.

“Since 1970, incomes have remained fl at for the bottom 90 percent of Americans, while they have soared for the top 10. This class anxiety among middle class parents has, I believe, driven a desire to outsource tasks. ‘I’m not sure I can do it, but maybe the experts can get my child to succeed,’” she says. She links its growth to three main sources of demand:

a) anxiety about the class placement of their children, (tutoring services, languages, violin)
b) the needs of two-career families, (childcare, nannies)
c) an expression of class status itself (the most elaborate birthday party treasure hunt.)

Tracie Wagman sees an increase in services, too. For the past seven years she has been publisher of Help! We’ve Got Kids, Canada’s first online directory of activities and events for parents and caregivers. Parents can outsource teaching manners to Judy the Manners Lady, toilet train their child with Potty Partners, engage Pedalheads to teach their child to ride a bike, or hire one of several lice removal services, such as Lice Squad, to help them nitpick. As a mother of two kids, ages 13 and 10, Tracie understands why parents would tap into these services.

“I try NOT to have an opinion. I think we all judge ourselves so much…if you don’t know how to swim you outsource swim lessons,” she says. “I feel like everybody’s doing the best they can, so if you need help in areas, go for it.”

Most parents seem to dabble at outsourcing and hire an expert for one specific area of parenting. Few can afford to outsource every aspect, which can include chauffeuring, delousing and tutoring, among many other services.

Take Bonnie Feigenbaum. When her daughter Ashley was six, she and her husband tried for an entire summer to teach her how to ride a bike, but Ashley was having none of it. She was clashing with her dad and when Bonnie stepped in, she realized she lacked the sheer strength required to help her daughter get her balance and master the sport.

Bonnie decided to turn to Derek Alleyne for help. A gifted and versatile athlete, Derek was approached by a mother over a decade ago who asked if he would privately coach her son at sports. He started off with baseball and soccer and eventually moved onto skating and tennis. With his athletic skills and easygoing manner Derek says it went “viral” and estimates he’s taught 1,000 people in 11 years.

Derek was her younger daughter’s soccer coach at the local YMCA. He was taken aback when Bonnie asked if he would teach Ashley to ride a bike, but was willing to give it a try.

“We figured that we would see if maybe having an outsider would make a difference and it did! She was riding a bike within a week,” says Bonnie. But Bonnie is not a serial outsourcer, noting she and her husband were able to teach their other daughters to ride their bikes themselves. And while she is very involved with her daughters’ extracurricular activities, she says she would draw the line at using certain services, such as hiring someone to pack her kids’ camp luggage.

“My delight in using Derek was, I would say, as an auxiliary service to complement what my husband and I were providing to our daughters. This outsourcing phenomenon is quite foreign to me,” she says.

Support Services

Toronto-based Kat Armstrong, 35, is the mother of three children, ages four, two and three months. Her mother was very ill during Kat’s pregnancy and passed away soon after the birth of her first baby. She acutely felt her mother’s absence.

“We never had that kind of parental support from a grandmother who could say ‘when you were a baby we did this or that,’” she says.

Kat used to own a store called This Little Piggy, which offered a baby shower registry, with a little extra. “We wanted a safe space where parents could come in and ask for advice,” she says.

That morphed into a baby concierge company called Sweet Child of Mine. Kat describes it as an “accessible, affordable concierge service for newly pregnant families, parents and postpartum care and support.”

Her most popular service is Baby Wearing Support – although she’s quick to point out she’s not a certified baby-wearing instructor, because “that’s a thing now”. She finds what people want most is friendly support. She describes herself as “a big sister in the know.” That knowledge costs $200 (including travel) for a 90-minute to two hour session.

“I think the help that parents need is to feel supported and to know they’re making the right decisions and so that they can have the time to teach their kids to ride a bike or spend a weekend potty training,” she says. “But my service is not to take away the role of being a parent.”

Dr. Dina Kulik, pediatrician and mother of three in Toronto, sees no problem with busy, working parents tapping into the myriad services available in Canada’s bigger cities.

“I think it’s a balance. If cooking for the week takes you away from time at the park or reading with your child, I am all for hiring someone to cook! But try to do the activities WITH your child as often as you can,” she says.

She understands that parenting can be stressful and is happy when her patients ask for advice and resources.

“I am asked about these services all the time, particularly sleep doulas. There is nothing more stressful than sleep training!” She adds that all outsourced services seem normal to her now. So ultimately, is outsourcing robbing parents and children of important bonding opportunities and whittling away at parents’ confi dence, or can these wonderful services help relieve the pressure for busy parents?

“It’s double-edged, I think,” says Arlie. “Working parents need some help of course, but the question is how far one goes, and how it can alter the experience of parenting or being parented.”

Andrea Howick is a Montreal-based journalist and co-producer of award-winning baby care DVDs. She is currently a key contributor at ParentsCanada magazine, traveling the country sharing top baby products for new parents.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, April/May 2016.

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