If you’re older than 20, few horrors surpass the realization that you need your mom. Unfortunately, mine was busy balling out on her retirement funds in Europe and I needed parenting stat. Thankfully, a new Brooklyn-based service offered the next best thing: The option to rent a mom.
It was not a decision I made lightly. People in their 20s know better than to jump into situations directly involving parents, whether real or rented, without weighing the consequences. For many of us, the thrill of leaving home is still fresh — as are the feelings of guilt, judgement, and ineptitude that we attempted to escape in the first place. Ultimately my millennial pride gave way to inner melodrama, and before long, I was on a train, en route to a coffee date with a strange woman who, for $30 an hour, would let me call her mom.
What was I supposed to say to this stranger? I began this mental exercise on a empty subway car, imagining what I wanted to say to my actual mother: “‘Sup, mom, you were right! I totally am too weird to have functional relationships and the stress of writing in this city is giving me actual tremors! Can you tell me what the fuck to do?” I imagined having this conversation with my real mom and cringed. Then I imagined having it with my soon-to-be fake mother and didn’t.
Therein lies the answer to the question everyone asks when they hear about rental moms. Why get a fake one when the one at home — or, in my case, the one sending me selfies with Jesus from the Notre Dame — is perfectly useful? It’s because real moms find it hard to separate cries for help from incompetence and rental moms will sympathize but don’t know you well enough to accuse you of floundering, even if it’s true. As a psychologically downtrodden pseudo-adult in need of help, not criticism, I cottoned to the latter.
What I really wanted was for my mom to tell me how to make things OK without charging me an emotional fee. This is, of course, impossible. So I looked for one who would do the same for cash.
Rental Mom met me at a chic Brooklyn cafe attached to a yoga studio, which was blatantly unlike anything my real mom, for whom Tim Hortons trumps all, would choose. She had an expensive haircut and nice jewelry and was attentive as I griped, first nervously and then emphatically, about modern romance and the pressures of journalism. Her questions — How often does he text? Do you still love your job? — all exuded genuine concern. She understood what it meant to be weary in New York. The personal stories she shared illustrated how fucked-up life could be, without the familial burden of heritability. She did not point out what I was doing wrong, but she offered advice on where I could improve — if I wanted to.
In the end, I thanked her for what was a genuinely reassuring conversation. As I awkwardly slipped her a few bills, I told her I was surprised at how painless the experience was. She smiled knowingly, as moms do. “We all have baggage,” she said. “But sometimes you need to check it at the door.”
This is the bearable lightness of being a mom-renter. There’s no way that conversation with my real mom would have ended without an attempt to ship me back home to Toronto. With Rental Mom, I got off light.
Still, I walked out of the cafe feeling like I’d been let off the hook. For any serious problems, Rental Mom’s gentle suggestions don’t carry the clout that real change requires — not that it was any fault of hers. Deep down, I’d always known that it wouldn’t. How could it, if she could walk away from our meeting knowing it didn’t matter whether I ever took her advice or not?
Baggage is heavy but it serves as an anchor, or at least ballast. There’s a deep irony in recalling how hard I fought to shake off the parental burdens left over from adolescence, only to discover how unmoored I feel without them. Rental moms are useful because they understand that freedom can be scary but you know they can’t take it away from you. Real moms are useful because you know they can.