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It’s been five years since I moved to New York from Southern California, after growing up outside of arid Los Angeles and living on the beach during college in San Diego. My sister, still-married parents and pretty much every blood relative I have on the planet lives within a 30-mile radius of each other in L.A. County. And I’m here in New York City, working on the 42nd floor of a building overlooking Times Square and living with two girls in Brooklyn, mostly happy but still sometimes profoundly lonely.
And nothing can be lonelier than holidays far from your childhood home. That’s why, with Christmas approaching, Nina Keneally’s Need a Mom service (needamomnyc.com) caught my eye. I’m very close to my mom and usually see her at least four times a year, but that makes me yearn for her comforting presence even more. Maybe Nina could be a stand-in momma for the two things I crave most: a home-cooked meal (that I didn’t make) and a listening ear that actually cares about the minutiae of my life.
Keneally’s website explains that she’s not a professional therapist, but she can be that nonjudgmental temp mom you seek—for about $40 an hour. She’s there to share a glass of wine and hear about your relationship issues, take a look at your resume, iron your shirts or even make your favorite kind of pie, but she’ll never say those obnoxious mothering phrases like “Well, men don’t like it when you’re too aggressive” or, god forbid, “I told you so.”
I emailed Keneally and begged her to come to my house, cook for me and listen to my problems. She gave me a few recipes to choose from (we went with chicken marsala) and she showed up to my house on a Sunday afternoon, groceries in hand, looking every bit the chic, Bushwick-living mother of two adult men that she is. She’s short and trim, with a sleek brunette bob and striking glasses—she was such a mom, but better.
She sprawled out pre-chopped vegetables she hauled over in Tupperware, pulled out a large pan and got to work. We talked about her later-in-life career move as we washed and breaded chicken (“Pound the chicken down so it cooks faster,” and “I always put a little salt and pepper in my flour,” Keneally advised) and brought a pot of water to a boil for the noodles.
Keneally lived in New York City in her twenties, moved to Connecticut with her husband for 30 years and raised two sons, and now lives in Bushwick (the rare and ballsy back-to-the-city-post-suburbia move). She’s had several careers, from living in London as an actress to managing Broadway shows to becoming a drug and alcohol rehabilitation counselor in a methadone lab. “It reminded me a lot about the goodness and selflessness of people,” she says. “I thought of my skills and the idea to be a sort of personal mentor to young people,” and Need a Mom was born.
Keneally’s clients have ranged from people who want advice to those who have bad relationships with their mothers, or long for moms who have passed away. She talks them through roommate problems, struggling acting careers, landlord issues and, of course, heartbreak. My own heartbreak from an 8-months-old breakup has dulled, but remains. I confide in Keneally that the more time that passes, the angrier at myself I become for still feeling so strongly for someone no longer in my life; for being incapable of moving the hell on. “Don’t put deadlines on yourself,” she says. “They’re arbitrary.” Sure, I’ve told myself this dozens of times—but it never means as much as when your (interim) mom says it.
“You want to keep putting yourself out there, but work or a bar isn’t the best place to meet people,” she says. “If you’re interested in improv or photography, join a group. Or go to a museum alone and strike up a conversation. You just use the opening, ‘What do you think the artist is trying to say here’?” The idea of chatting up a stranger in front of a Picasso is scary, but the thought of continuing to meet the dregs of society in dive bars and online dating apps is much more terrifying.
This is where Need a Mom is different than a regular therapist—Keneally shares with me that while she dated her fair share of shitty guys, when she was ready to meet someone truly caring and respectful, he appeared in her life. She’s a liberal New Yorker who’ll never advise you to go to church or seek Jesus, or even judge you at all. Instead, she’ll cook you dinner when you need it most (and leave you leftovers to eat for the next week), and tell you to “Look for the guy who’ll send you a single red rose.”