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The Rise Of The Concierge Moms

Kids arrive at college these days with an allergy to failure. But what if the best way to love them is to let them mess up?

by Amanda Parrish Morgan

When friends ask me what it’s like to teach college freshmen, I often give a sort of half-answer that doesn’t quite make sense. “They’re so put together,” I say, “but they’re not used to thinking.”

I try again. I like my students and I don’t want to sound derisive. They have great SAT scores, organized date planners, a healthy respect for the importance of regular exercise and proper hydration (so many very large water bottles!). For the most part, they aren’t big procrastinators. Many have tutors or diligently avail themselves of the academic support services provided through the university. They are well-dressed, even if in athletic wear. Their sneakers are very white.

But I often feel that there’s been a widespread misunderstanding, some long ago conflation of checking off items on a planner’s To-Do list with serious intellectual engagement, or of punctuality with commitment to learning. My students have always lived in an age of constant, public documentation — their first day of school pictures on their parents’ Facebook accounts, elementary test scores on an electronic portal, high school grades online, securing a prom date requiring public and choreographed promposals — and as a result, everything about their school experience has been shaped by an emphasis on style over substance.

I see demand for a college experience that appears completely free from messiness or mistakes: parents paying, often quite steeply, for a stranger to mother their adult children.

When I say all this about my students, I try to make fun of myself, and to make clear that although I loved learning and loved college, I was not always a model student. The paper-thin pages of my copy of The Leviathan are filled not with notes about Hobbes’ arguments, but with grocery lists and hypothetical mile times for an upcoming track meet. When I sat, stunned by my own ignorance, in calculus class, I was not thinking about how I might improve my math skills or if I ought to drop to a lower level class, but rather if asking the boy I was pining over to help me with derivations might be a smooth move. Had I not been a competitive runner for my college teams, I doubt I’d have known where my college gym was. I hydrated only on the eve of important races and lived on dining hall moose tracks ice cream covered in crushed Oreos and an occasional undressed side salad, which I considered to be an exemplar of balance. If I wore athletic clothes to class, they were the school-issued gray sweats I received at the start of cross-country season each fall. I was a mess.

It’s possible my messiness was enabled by a specific time and place. I started college in the fall of 2000 at the University of Chicago, a school known then, even more than it is now, for having students oblivious to style or even basic grooming. On the heels of the grunge era, college students shared a universal understanding that bright white shoes were embarrassing, their pristine appearance somehow a sign of inauthenticity. Now, although ’90s nostalgia abounds, it’s ’90s nostalgia transmuted through social media, which has made every aesthetic decision public and archivable. In 2024 on TikTok, the Nirvana posters on college dorm walls are framed. Ours, as I remember, were adhered with tape to the dorm’s white-painted cinderblock walls. Today, they hang over neatly made beds whose colors coordinate with the other bedding in the room. There are coordinating throw pillows, accent headboards, and apparently some families hire interior decorators.

The decision to hire a dorm decor consultant is obviously limited in its accessibility, but that impulse aligns with other recent trends like parents calling college professors with complaints about grades, something that The New York Times reported more than 8% of parents admit to doing. I’d heard of this trend and yet knowing it was hypothetically happening did not lessen the shock I felt when I experienced it firsthand last spring. Increasingly, I’m seeing demand for a college experience that appears — or even really is — completely free from messiness or mistakes: parents paying, often quite steeply, for a stranger to mother their adult children.

There is apparently a Boston-based firm that charges $10,000 a year for “concierge moms” who might shop for dorm room accessories and supplies, assist with registration and connect students with tutors. “Each student has access to as many as five women, collectively referred to as their second mom,” Tara Weiss wrote in the The Wall Street Journal last September. Certainly, there are vanishingly few families who have $10,000 to spend on second moms, but even if the service were more financially accessible, the notion that the real work of giving and taking care might be reduced to fee-per-action feels at once dismissive of what makes caretaking both hard and meaningful and also grotesquely capitalistic.

“A young client phoned [concierge mom Mindy] Horwitz on a recent night in a panic,” Weiss writes. “He needed a sport coat for early the next morning. Target was the only store open, but nothing there fit his 6-foot-3 frame. With Horwitz’s help, the student walked into his presentation wearing a coat borrowed from one of her sons.”

It seems odd that the son of a woman he barely knows, rather than, say, the likely hundreds of young men living on and around his college campus, would be this student’s best option for borrowing a jacket. When one of my friends needed a dress for a date, a party, an awards dinner, a job interview, or even for a funeral, our group offered up whatever motley assortment of things we’d all brought to school. When, for some reason, my freshman year roommate and I were attending a Red Dog beer-themed party, I borrowed some red pleather pants and she a red camisole. No need for a concierge mom, or even our own moms. The hunt for ill-fitting synthetic red clothes was more thrilling than the event itself.

Services like this seem to grow from the same desire to equate a social-media-ready living space with genuine belonging. The concrete acts these concierge services promise (coordinating dorm decor, finding the right clothes, avoiding hard classes, hiring tutors) are not what motherhood or caretaking is really about. These services are about maximizing a student’s market potential (embarrassment-free social-media platforms, A-filled report cards) and charging parents a fee for that maximization.

To be clear, there are all sorts of times when I pay someone to provide care to me, my children, or someone else I love. For years, I only worked when my children were in someone else’s care, and I count myself lucky to be able to pay house cleaners to come twice a month. When my friend who lives across the country told me about a bad week at work, I paid a stranger to deliver pastries to her door. It was a pale substitute for the time I wished I could have spent with her in person.

My children have not yet gone to college, but I can understand that when they are newly out of the house, I will feel sad or even panicked about not being able to provide them the care, both logistical and intangible, that they need. In that way, to some extent. I understand the impulse, if money is no object, behind paying for a service that delivers concrete approximations of care’s inherently abstract nature.

The notion that the real work of giving and taking care might be reduced to fee-per-action feels dismissive of what makes caretaking both hard and meaningful.

Even in adulthood, there are still many times when what I want is just to be taken care of, and I’m lucky that it was often my mom who dropped off Gatorade and soup when the preschool-acquired norovirus ripped through the house. But the substance of my relationship with my mother, or mine with my kids, isn’t about deliverable goods. It’s about being loved and accepted. And at the core of that is being allowed to have a hideous dorm room and eat a radically unbalanced diet and get a D in calculus — in other words, to fail. This refusal to let children fail, to become self-reliant, paradoxically positions mothers as indispensable and as replicable commodities.

As a child, I was confused by the word invaluable meaning not “without value” but rather valuable beyond measure. In Having and Being Had, the poet Eula Biss considers what her writing is worth, drawing a parallel between her aversion to assigning a monetary value to her poetry with early criticism of the Wages for Housework movement: “If I were paid wages for making art, then everything I do would be monetized, everything I do would be subject to the logic if this economy,” Biss writes. “I would have nothing unaccountable left in my life. Nothing worthless,” she continues, evoking a denotation that is something like invaluable — something beyond worth — “except my child.”

Aren’t some things — Biss’ child, the relationships we have with those for whom we care most deeply, all-consuming romantic infatuation, borrowed red pleather pants, even the occasional missed assignment or bad grade — too wonderful, too human, to exist in the logic of the economy and therefore invaluable?

This is what I mean when I tell what I hope are compassionate anecdotes about my hydrated and punctual students: They seem to have grown up in a world radically different from my own. I know this is in part the requisite stance of curmudgeon professor, but I don’t just mean that my students have used fewer card catalogs or walked up fewer snowy hills to get to school. I mean that my students seem like products — and I use that word literally and deliberately — of a culture in which the end goal of any pursuit is the accumulation of some kind of capital. With this framework, there is no room for any problem — a need, a mess, an illness, a mistake — that cannot be solved with a service.

I want my students to know that it’s OK to get a bad grade on a paper for no better reason than because they were daydreaming about the boy helping them with their calculus homework, that it is OK to have a messy dorm room and unflattering clothing, and more of all, that is it OK to mess up doing for themselves all the things they are just learning to do.

Amanda Parrish Morgan is the author of Stroller (Bloomsbury) and has written essays for The Atlantic, Wired, LitHub, Guernica, The American Scholar, The Washington Post, and elsewhere. She lives in Connecticut with her husband and two kids where she teaches at Fairfield University, The University of Chicago’s Graham School, and the Westport Writers’ Workshop. You can learn more here.