It was 2015 when a Bushwick-based entrepreneurial mom of two adult sons decided to start a business. She would offer “mom services” to the residents of Bushwick and beyond, dubbing her business “Need a Mom.” An enormous media frenzy as well as many (mostly misguided) opportunities followed, and a lot has changed in Nina Keneally’s life during those two years.
Nina first contacted Bushwick Daily in October 2015, because like she said, “if it didn’t work in Bushwick, then it wouldn’t work anywhere” as Bushwick was her target demographic. After we published the article, all hell broke loose, and hundreds of media outlets from around world were racing to tell Nina Keneally’s story.
Two years later, you can still catch a video about “Need a Mom” on Vice’s Snapchat or read about her in foreign press. We sat down with Nina at Trans AM, a homey coffee shop off of the Halsey L, and chatted about her clients, parenting, and vapid reality show producers.
A mom from Connecticut moves to Bushwick
Nina Keneally used to live in New York City as a young woman. Later she moved to Connecticut to raise her family where she spent the next 30 years. In 2013, she was bored in suburbia and with her husband decided to follow their sons (who are now both in their early thirties) to Bushwick, the neighborhood everyone had been talking about.
The idea to start “Need a Mom” came about organically. Nina has met a lot of young people in Bushwick, and didn’t hesitate to help them when they lost a job or broke up with someone. Nina realized that through offering “mom services” she can make use of not only her experience as a mom, but also of her background in counseling, years working at a methadone clinic, and in theater production.
Hey mom, your phone’s ringing off the hook
Nina had never suspected that her business would generate the amount of buzz it did. In fact, when the first reporter from a big newspaper called and asked her if her phone was already ringing off the hook, Nina was truly surprised. The reporter apparently told her, “Just you wait,” and was absolutely right. “Need a Mom” was suddenly everywhere — on TV and in publications all over the world.
“I originally didn’t even know if my business idea was viable. I thought that if it didn’t work out, I could just laugh and tell everybody it was a conceptual art project,” Nina says. “I thought that the wave of press would go away in two weeks, but it didn’t. It went on for months.”
Hey mom, help me!
Nina’s client base has grown, even though not as significantly as you might think. Her clients range from teenagers to people in their early forties.
“I have a couple of clients I see regularly but most people are one-offs who just want to talk once or twice when they have an immediate problem or issue. That’s made it a little bit difficult to sustain as an ongoing business due to its unpredictability,” she explains.
However, Nina says that being “a mom” to her clients has been really rewarding and she feels like she’s making a positive impact on the world.
Several of her clients are either estranged from their mothers or can’t tell their mothers what’s going on in their lives. Nina says that she’s had a couple of older gay women as clients who were really happy to talk to someone who acts like their mother because their own mothers condemn their lifestyle.
She’s had some heart breaking stories as well, helping people whom she says she didn’t even charge because she simply couldn’t. “A teen girl — I don’t even know where she was from — believed that her mother hated her and was about to kick her out of their home,” Nina says. She was also contacted by a young man from Afghanistan who just felt deeply lonely and hurting. “If anybody like that reaches out, I just keep up the conversation going as long as they want to keep it up,” Nina clarified.
Nina says that people often want to talk to someone with a maternal presence who isn’t their parent. “It’s a maternal situation without all the baggage, without all the history,” she says. Her business, as she says, is really about personal mentoring which however doesn’t sound as good as “Need a Mom.”
Hey mom, let’s make money
In connection with all the press, Nina received many offers — some more interesting than others.
One of the ideas was to franchise her business and to have “moms” working under her brand all over the world. She had to think long and hard about it but ultimately decided not to pursue this opportunity, mainly because it would have taken her away from the work she actually wanted to be doing, and instead she’d have to get investors, train, and vet other “moms.”
Hey mom, scream like Gordon Ramsay
Nina says that she’s had at least 12 different reality shows production companies contacting her. One of the companies, Nina explains, wanted her to be a “Gordon Ramsay of moms” with all the drama and screaming that comes with it. “But that’s really not what I do, especially not just to satisfy [a production company] and their viewership,” Nina says. “Also if I were to do something like that, I’d have to make sure it wouldn’t be an embarrassment to my family.”
Nina also pointed out that everyone she’s dealt with treated her as disposable “IP” or an intellectual property. “Once they decide not to go with you, they don’t even have the courtesy to tell you. They just ghost you. It’s awful,” she says.
Hey mom, wanna write a book?
A literary agent reached out to Nina to write a book. “She didn’t want me to write the book I wanted to write,” Nina explains. “She wanted me to write a book with tips for parents of young adults.” Furthermore, the agent wanted the book full of anecdotes from her clients, but Nina was just starting out the “Need a Mom” business, and “Honestly, I didn’t have that many anecdotes from my clients to support all that,” she says.
Also many of her clients had very similar issues, so there wasn’t the diversity of problems the agent was hoping for. “It was either problems with roommates, work, love, or parents,” Nina sums up.
Nina’s book idea was based more around the challenges young adults face right now. “I’m not interested in telling their parents what to do with them,” she says. Humorously, Nina adds that if she were to write a book for parents of young adults, it would contain only one piece of advice: “If you’re asking yourself, ‘Should I butt in or should I butt out?’ the answer is always ‘butt out.’”
Nina says she has come across parents who are beyond “helicopter parenting.” She calls them “cockpit parents,” who are involved in their offspring’s life beyond what’s healthy. “I’ve seen a parent call an HR department of a company where their kid just sent a resume, telling them how good the kid is. Pepsi started a ‘Bring Your Parent to Work Day’” which is just too much,” she says. “My philosophy is to never give my sons unsolicited advice,” Nina goes on. “And they should own their decisions. Do you want to work in arts? Okay. Do you want to live in NYC? Okay. But you have to own your decisions and make it work.”
Nina also feels very strongly against parents subsidizing their child’s rent, even if in special circumstances she can imagine it. “If it’s a tough month, or they just got to New York,” she says, “but if you do that for a long period of time, you’re infantilizing your children, and underneath that there’s a resentment because the offsprings feel as if you’re still controlling them.”
Hey mom, let’s make your life into a sitcom
Last year Nina got an email from a production company in Santa Monica, CA, who wanted to option her life story for a TV show. “I thought it was completely hysterically funny,” Nina says.
The producers just wanted to take the concept of “Need a Mom” and build a show around it. According to Nina, they worked on a pitch and submitted it to FOX, CBS, TV Land, and NBC. They even flew her to LA, but ultimately the show didn’t sell.
Nina has her own theories as to why. “First of all,” she says, “they were calling the TV show ‘Adulting,’ which made me want to throw up. They positioned it like a traditional 30-minute-long sitcom, sort of like ‘Friends’ — a divorced mom moves to the same building that one of her kids lives in — but I think it should have been more like ‘Gilmore Girls’ — a comedy and drama.” Another big mistake Nina thinks the producers made was that they didn’t anchor the show in Bushwick. It was just New York. “I think it should have been anchored very firmly in Bushwick, and Bushwick should have been almost a character. That’s what makes it a little different and interesting for people who don’t know how it’s like to live here — with all the problems the neighborhood is facing.”
What the future holds for Nina and “Need a Mom” is in the stars. One of the possible outcomes Nina cites is having to move out of Bushwick as her husband retires. The local rents might be too high even for a celebrity mom.
Cover photo: Nina Keneally by Katarina Hybenova for Bushwick Daily