Keneally's husband continues to work as a stagehand on Broadway shows. But after eight years as a counselor in a methadone clinic, Keneally, 63, wanted a new challenge. In forays around Bushwick — from funky cafes to yoga classes to dog walks — Keneally found some of her new, younger acquaintances seeking her out for advice. In many of them, she saw a 20-something version of herself as a New York transplant, trying to make it in the Big Apple without the support of nearby family.
A business idea was hatched. Why not offer motherly advice to these young adults for a fee?
Last October, she launched Need a Mom with the slogan, "For when you need a mom … just not YOUR mom." With the business, she saw an opportunity to use her talents as both a mother (her two sons are now 27 and 31) and a counselor, becoming a personal mentor with a lifetime of hard-earned experience and charging $40 an hour.
What can she offer that a young adult's own mother can't? "Even the best parent-child relationship comes with baggage. With me they leave the baggage at the door," she says. "I also don't offer unsolicited advice, and give them 100 percent attention, as well. It's all about what they want to talk about, not what's going on in my life, as often happens in a conversation with a parent."
Keneally passes no judgment on lifestyles or personal choices, telling her clients that "good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment." Her goal is to help them learn from those bad experiences. She has counseled people ranging in age from their early 20s to mid-30s, turning down requests from older people because "that's a very different situation."
While she won't cook a meal, Keneally will show millennials how to shop for groceries and give cooking instructions. "The amount of money they spend on takeout and eating out stuns me," she says. "They are so used to taking shortcuts that they have no idea how to grocery shop for three or four days' [worth of food at a time]."
Other tasks have ranged from résumé writing to simply chatting. "There are a lot of things people want to talk about, but not with their mother," she says. In particular, this generation suffers anxiety about hitting certain markers in their personal lives and careers. "One young woman was worried because she had broken up with her boyfriend, and now six months later she was not yet in another serious relationship." They do the same thing with jobs, setting deadlines. She also offers a perspective that parents who live elsewhere in the country can't. "One mom came to visit, and she couldn't get past talking about the scary neighborhood," she says.
Some naysayers may criticize that Need a Mom plays into the inability of many millennials to become functioning adults. Keneally argues that this generation is growing up with an unprecedented amount of student debt in a highly competitive marketplace. Another generational difference: a cellphone, cable TV, manicures and pedicures, and eating out in trendy restaurants are considered basic necessities for millennial living. "When I was in my 20s, going out for a special occasion to Brew Burger was considered a big deal," she says with a laugh.
Keneally has picked up a few life lessons from her hip neighbors as well as from her own sons — one is an artist and the other a photographer. "If this doesn't work out, I'll just say it was performance art!"
Mary W. Quigley, a journalist and author, has written two books about motherhood and work. An NYU journalism professor, she is the mother of three adult children and blogs at Mothering21.