When Elizabeth Siegel’s toddler was ready to be potty-trained last year, she didn’t reach for a how-to book, check out advice on mommy blogs or ask her own mother for help.
The partner at a visual marketing company hired a toilet-training pro to do her crap work.
“I love working with an expert, and I didn’t have the time. My husband and I both work,” she said. “I’m an expert in basically what I’m paid to do, which is my profession. Why wouldn’t I go to someone who understands?”
The training took place over eight hours on two consecutive days in Siegel’s Manhattan home in her now-3.5-year-old daughter’s ensuite black marble bathroom. Siegel was there for day one and took notes on a pad, while the nanny supervised the second day.
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The service was provided by Samantha Allen, owner of NYC Potty Training, who charges anywhere from $2,000 to $3,300. Since founding her company in June 2014, she has built a client base that stretches from Virginia and California to London and Dubai and is considering franchising.
The rise of consultants for everything from childproofing home inspectors to baby personal shoppers, has turned this basic biological milestone into Mom & Dad, Inc. What was once the domain of the domicile now can be outsourced.
To those who utilize gender-reveal party planners and professional toilet-trainers, it’s a chance to turn to people far more knowledgeable.But critics contend that this commodification of parenthood, a life phase as old as time itself, is a shirking of one’s most fundamental duties as a human being and further stratifies society along class lines.
“What feels too far? What feels like you’ve taken a core task of parenting and paid someone to do it?” said University of Virginia sociology professor Allison Pugh, who wrote the book Longing and Belonging: Parents, Children, and Consumer Culture. “This is about time and people wanting to maintain some standards of parenting, what they think is adequate care and at the same time, not able to do it themselves (and) farm it out… People beholden to work schedules are unable to do the kind of parenting they wish they could.”
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She pointed to the colonization of work into the rest of our lives – due to the longer hours most people spend on their jobs and the large-scale entry of women in the workforce – as well as the demise of folk wisdom, such as tips from one’s own parents or grandparents, as some of the key factors fueling this monetization of parental responsibilities.
“Everybody chooses where to spend their money differently I felt it’s important enough to spend this kind of money for this type of service,” said 41-year-old Siegel, who was toilet-trained by her mother. “I cut my own hair, I don’t get manicures, massages, facials. That’s not my bag. I say, ‘Do you.’”
Many of these services remain rarified, available only to the wealthy. But as the niche industries expand, they may go downmarket. Exhibit A: Homework helpers. While tutors were once just for the upper crust, today they’ve trickled down to the middle-class and parts of the working-class. Pugh predicts new markets for services mothers and fathers haven’t even thought of yet.
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“You’re teaching a skill they’re going to use multiple times a day for the rest of their life. When a kid masters it, they master it,” Allen, the potty-training pro, said. Later she added, “It’s an investment in their confidence, self-esteem, which is a huge part of future success in all areas.”
From extreme to accepted
One parenting service that is fast becoming the norm, even in Middle America, is professional childproofing. Consultants do everything from assessing potential dangerous spots throughout the home to offering tips, like lower the temperature of your home’s water heater.
Peter Kerin of Foresight Childproofing in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, for example, charges $119 for a three-hour initial survey and then the cost of the safety products and $89 an hour for installation. Safety devices range from electrical outlet covers – $3 for a box of 12 – to $4,000 for a long 4-foot-tall pool fence.
“If your child gets hurt, that’s a lot more expensive than (that); one doctor’s visit can cost thousands of dollars,” he said. “It’s also peace of mind.”
Naysayers will argue that anyone can go online and order, say, a baby gate for the top of a staircase, but Kerin questioned how a parent chooses from the hundreds of gates available.
“The wrong gate or the right gate installed incorrectly is worse than no gate,” he said. ” If something goes wrong, you’re relying on this safety device. It’ll give you a false sense of security.”
But while some parenting services are now the norm – like lactation coaches, covered by many insurance companies today, and certified car seat installers, often staffers at local hospitals or fire or police departments – others fall clearly in the miscellaneous category. You can easily have a healthy, happy, safe baby without one.
Sara Jones, a Los Angeles-based event planner with the firm the Planning Society, has gender-reveal parties on her resume. She described an all-out fiesta that included an on-site taco chef, a signature Paloma drink, a candle-“wintry bouquet” tablescape, a professional photographer and pink and blue boas for the 35 guests to wear. The wow moment came when the expectant parents – who didn’t know the baby’s gender and instead, in advance, handed a sealed envelope from the sonographer to Jones – opened a large trunk to see pink balloons fly out.
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“Usually, the woman takes the lead in planning a party, but she was pregnant and wasn’t feeling well and had a full-time job,” Jones said about the party whose tab ran into the thousands of dollars. “Yes, the money definitely could be donated to charity or a more righteous cause, but that could be said of any party or any wedding or event.”
Convenience is key
The intensification of parenting is responsible, according to Pugh, the sociologist. What impact of all this has on children or the parents, both stripped of the primal bonding that accompanies these activities, remains to be seen.
“We’re not all dipping candles. We all use the market for convenience and better quality,” she said. “The market emphasized the outcome of parenting rather than the process of parenting and that, to me, sometimes feels like a loss.”
For Ashley Selis, who uses a subscription clothing service to get new hand-picked outfits for her 18-month-old son and 3-year-old daughter, it’s a matter of saving time, energy and gas. She signed up with the Columbus, Georgia-based Wee Blessing about two years ago and estimated she spends about $130 per month for both kids.
“I don’t have time to go friggin’ shopping as much as I love,” said the 36-year-old San Diego home designer, whose kiddie-clothes preferences include no long sleeves or pants, no “ultra white” and no itchy fabrics. “I’ve got more life demands. I don’t have time and I want my kids to look good. It takes the work out of it for me.”
Follow USA TODAY reporter Zlati Meyer on Twitter: @ZlatiMeyer