Outsourcing parenting: from night nurses to homework helpers

Busy lives, social pressures and middle-class angst fuel the demand for paid help

“Only in America . . . ” I used to scoff at news of some seemingly outrageous consumer trend on the other side of the Atlantic. Then, the older you get, the more you realise it’s only a matter of time before it will be happening here – or maybe it already is.

The latest snippet to come into this category was the revelation that there is now a demand in the US for coaches to come into the home to get children off their smartphones. We all know it’s a real issue for families, but do you really need to pay dearly for someone to advise you, as they do, to a) put down your own phone and b) find some entertaining non-screen related activity, such as arts and crafts, reading a book or walking a dog, to do instead?

However, two decades ago, the notion of hiring a “sleep trainer” to sort out a child’s bedtime routine would have been laughable in Ireland. Now sleep consultants who enjoy a good word-of-mouth reputation are revered gurus for exhausted and exasperated parents.

There is hardly any aspect of family life that you can’t pay someone else to do for you – from day-to-day childcare and house-cleaning to running your child’s birthday party.


For the wealthy that has always been the case. Domestic staff, from maids and cooks to nannies and, historically, wet nurses and governesses, kept the next generation at arm’s length. But in our supposedly more progressive and egalitarian society, paying others – through choice or necessity – to do some of our child-rearing is on the rise.

It's about having everything all at once. Obviously, that's not sustainable, so you have an army of helpers

We don't like to think we are “outsourcing” our parenting of babies and toddlers to childcare centres, nannies or childminders but those in full-time childcare are spending the vast majority of their waking hours during the week with another carer. Thankfully, society no longer chains a mother to the home but the downside is that it has probably tipped too far towards tying both her and her partner to the workplace, whether they like it or not.

You don’t need a degree in economics to see how the housing market once operated on mortgages and rents secured by one salary, but that now dual-earning households have upped the ante to such an extent that keeping a roof over your family increasingly depends on both parents being out at work full-time. And while much lip service is given to child-rearing being “the most important job we’ll ever do”, it means parents may have no choice but to find somebody, who they can pay less than they earn, to do some of it for them. It’s why State subsidies are vital for high-quality childcare.


A nanny working in the home is probably the closest we can get to replicating our style of parenting in absentia. Teresa Boardman of Nanny Options says the demand for this very costly kind of childcare has gone "sky high", with a shortage of suitable candidates to fill the places. That is to be expected at a time of near full employment but other requests her agency is trying to meet illustrate newer trends, such as maternity nurses, home tutors for primary school children and people to babyproof houses.

Outside the core of the childcare industry, there’s a booming fringe of services that can be bought to oil the wheels of dual-earning households. The factors driving it are complex, ranging from time pressures to competitive parenting.

"It's obviously a middle-class phenomenon," says Julie Rodgers, who is involved in Maynooth University's Motherhood Project, which is exploring the changing culture of motherhood. She sees it being fuelled by "having it all" aspirations and people no longer feeling you have to make a choice between your career and your family. "It's about having everything all at once. Obviously, that's not sustainable, so you have an army of helpers."

She also believes that with women coming to motherhood later, they already have an established career and significant income by the time they have their babies. The average age of women having their first baby in Ireland was 31.1 years in 2018, according to the latest CSO figures, with nearly 8 per cent of births being to women aged 40-plus.

“They are very used to a certain lifestyle and there is not the same willingness to just give everything up to stay home. It is also well-established that the ‘mummy break’ in your career can be highly detrimental in terms of promotion,” says Rodgers.

Then there’s the pressure of “intensive child-rearing”, where “everything has to be of educational benefit, everything has to be natural and ecological. They are not necessarily bad things but they become bad things when pushed to the extreme.”

Even where parents are working all week, “the weekend isn’t for casual hanging out any more”, she observes. “It’s for working on the children’s talents and creating these amazing ‘genius’ children.”

A parent knowing their child likes to draw, for instance, believes the child then needs art lessons to develop that interest. “It’s not good enough to hang out with your mum and do some drawings on the kitchen table, it’s all about perfecting talent.”

But it’s all very conflicting because on the one hand you need to be intensively parenting your children, while you are also told you must carve time out for yourself and be an individual, says Rodgers. You’ve worked all week and now you need time to go do your yoga or play golf.

“The two do not really go together,” she says, so even at weekends you may have to pay for people to do things with your kids. “You have an image and lifestyle you feel pressured to uphold as well – particularly among middle-class mothers.”

The ideology of intensive mothering has become the norm, agrees Valerie Heffernan, a researcher on contemporary motherhood and another member of MU's Motherhood Project. "We're not just expected to mother, we're expected to mother excellently."

At the same time a lot of women find themselves mothering in social contexts that are quite different from one or two generations ago, she points out. Not only do they have to satisfy the competing demands of family and employer but they don’t have the proverbial “village” it takes to raise a child around them anymore. Their own mothers are much less likely to be close at hand to help, whether due to geography, advancing years or otherwise occupied, and they are unlikely to be on anything more than nodding terms with their neighbours. “Without that village, they have got to pay for it,” she says.

Then there’s the guilt felt by working mothers.

“They feel under pressure to reach very high standards in everything. If that involves bringing in professional help to make sure they reach those high standards, then that is the way it has to be.”

That’s where, for those who can afford it, the services of a nanny, cleaner, house “organiser”, gardener and suppliers of “hand-cooked” meals come into play.

Women see no point in spending hours cleaning their house when they can pay someone else to do it and use those hours to earn more per hour than that. And the same applies to childcare, which depends on very low-paid staff.

“Mothering work and emotional work are not valued in society,” says Heffernan. Some women don’t like to admit they work full-time in the home, nor do some men. Yet, those who combine career and family can be ashamed that they need professional help to manage it all. “We can sometimes be very hard on ourselves for that, or we can be judged for it as well – it’s not just an internal thing.”

Social media plays a big part, she adds, in the pressure to look as if we have – and do – it all. “We want to at least send an image to the world that we have everything in hand.”

“You have to look like the perfect mother,” agrees Rodgers. “A lot of it is about performance and in order for the performance to hold, you have to have the team of people in the background.

“In terms of motherhood,” she adds, “we have become a very two-tier society with the Alpha Mum versus the lower working-class mums who can’t buy into this culture of the perfect, intensive all-achieving mother because they quite simply don’t have the funds.”

Hiring in the help

Parents needing or choosing to pay somebody else to do things that their own parents or grandparents would have done themselves – or simply lived without – has sparked all sorts of niche businesses.

Here are just a few aspects of family life where you can pay as you go:

Buying for baby

So many decisions and so little time. Big baby shops offer free personal shopping services and some host parents-to-be events but you can also pay for independent advice. Teresa Boardman of Nanny Options reckons she can save parents more than the €150 it will cost them for her to guide them through a number of different shops on what is and isn't needed and the best products to meet their family requirements. That consultation also includes a preparatory package for the maternity hospital.

The Stork Box offers to post out "Milestone boxes" when the baby is three-, six-, nine- and 12-months old (€170 for the four) but that is seen as a gift purchase, whereas in the US online subscription boxes for a growing child is now a thriving business for parents too busy to shop.


Not only is there a huge range of gadgets to buy but a US trend of in-house consultations is coming this way. Babasafe Ireland is launching a stair-gate fitting service and can do a whole-house audit visit on request. "Parents want to be able to relax in their own home and not to be worried, with all angles covered," says Daniel Dowling, of Babasafe, which started here in 2016, and already offers an extensive online guide and phone consultations.

Maternity nurses

A good night’s sleep is priceless for new parents, so no wonder hiring night nurses is no longer seen as a “posh” option, or something to be resorted to in a crisis. The debate in monied circles now is should it be regarded as a luxury or a necessity? Boardman says her maternity nurses are so booked up, some returning clients call as soon as they become pregnant again. She recounts how one woman was on about her due date – even before she told her husband she was pregnant.

Sleep trainers

Sleep deprivation also drives the demand for professional help in managing a child's bed routine, with high-profile experts such as Lucy Wolfe of Sleep Matters offering a programme of consultation and ongoing support for €395 per child (aged six month to six years).

Child’s play

A cynic might ask why you would pay to go somewhere to sit down on the floor and play with your child when you could do that at home for free? "Because we give them inspiration," says Liza Crotty founder of ClapHandies that runs "PlayLabs" in 26 venues in the Dublin/Wicklow area. There's different developmental play every week and they get to see other children, which is regarded as "good prep for creche". And the parents are glad to have the excuse to shut out all other distractions for 55 minutes to focus attention on their child.

Another big attraction is that is an easy way of “finding your tribe” when the arrival of a baby grounds the parents in the community for the first time. ClapHandies has not been successful, says Crotty, in areas where there is a strong sense of community, because there are usually voluntary playgroups meeting that need.

Yet, she has also observed that some people are more comfortable joining a group as a paying customer. “There is nothing expected of them,” she says, whereas walking into a volunteer group, “you can worry what you might be signing up for”.

Homework helpers

Grinds for secondary-school students facing exams have long been a feature of middle-class education but it’s starting earlier and earlier, with one Dublin agency reporting a rise within the last year of requests for home tutors for fifth- and sixth-class pupils. Boardman of Nanny Options, who recruits primary-school teachers to do this work, reports parents saying there are so many children in a class, there is no time for the individual attention a child needs to keep up, or to build confidence, before going on to secondary school.

Birthday parties

Any parents who have experienced how the couple of hours it takes to host a child’s birthday party can seem like a lifetime will know the relief of being able to hand over the whole event to somebody else. And when peer pressure demands that every child in the class be invited, it’s hardly surprising that an outside venue is called for or, if your house is big enough, professional help drafted in. At this stage, it seems like every child-friendly business offers a party option and it’s now “retro” to have Mum and Dad passing the parcel.

Crotty came late to the, er, party when, 10 years after founding ClapHandies, she branched out into RealPartiesx two years ago. She reckons about 80 per cent of the parties they run are in venues, the other 20 per cent in homes.

It was a challenge, she admits, to devise an indoors party that would keep a large group of children with differing personalities entertained. “Once they get bored, they become crazy.” That’s exactly what parents pay to protect themselves against.