Most parents don’t intend to miss important milestones in their child’s development, but as they strive to achieve an image of perfection in parenting, some don’t have a choice.
With work pressure rising and selective sharing through social media gaining prevalence, modern parents have more options than ever to enlist the market for help with parental duties. Amber Epp, assistant professor of marketing at the Wisconsin School of Business at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, calls this practice “outsourced parenting.”
A recently published study from Epp suggests that families are becoming more willing to let outside services assist—or in some cases take over—traditional parenting responsibilities.
“Parents have to work with this idealized notion that they and other family members should experience every moment of their kid’s childhood—even though we know it’s unrealistic,” Epp said. “Given that families are so spread out and tend to not live close to extended family members anymore, the market can allow them to do things that they don’t feel comfortable asking neighbors or friends to do.”
Epp’s research focuses on how parents delegate, or outsource, certain aspects of parenting to provide care for their children. With the help of doctoral student Sunaina Velagaleti, she interviewed 23 families across the United States. Among the participants, the spectrum of services ranged from nannies and daycare providers to potty-training boot camps, birthday party planning, and meal delivery.
Epp first became interested in the topic after reading news coverage of a program in the New York City Nordstrom shoe department where parents could drop off their children while they shopped, and store employees would teach the children how to tie their shoes. The story elicited extreme negative responses from parents and non-parents alike, inspiring Epp to wonder how parents make sense of the everyday choices and pressures of outsourcing care.
“What I found in the study is that parents don’t think about it in such clear divisions where you have the market, the family, public resources, friends, and neighbors,” Epp said. “They ask themselves, ‘How do I care for my child and accomplish everything else I need to do in the world, and what gets me there in the best way possible?’”
The research team found outsourcing tends to cause tension for parents. Many study participants fear losing control over parenting decisions, like what their children are fed at daycare or what rules are enforced when a nanny is in charge. Others worry about losing the intimacy between parent and child or that another caregiver would replace the parent in the child’s mind. This fear is particularly salient with tasks like bathing and bedtime rituals. According to Epp, tension can come from a variety of places including other family members, fellow parents, and society at large.
As parenting becomes more transparent through the prevalence of social media—bragging Facebook status updates and Pinterest boards full of artfully decorated nurseries and professionally planned birthday parties—it only adds to the pressure.
Alisa Sleep, a 31-year-old mother of three, co-founder of the Madison Moms Blog, and entrepreneur, said she tries to use social media as a resource rather than a comparison tool, but that it can be tough for parents.
“I think that social media absolutely adds pressures to parenting,” Sleep said. “People are really putting themselves out there (on the web) and trying to paint an ideal image of what their life looks like, when really they aren't sharing the entire picture. Everyone has battles, everyone has moments where they struggle from time to time as a parent, but all we see are the 'perfect' moments shared through social media.”
While outsourcing sometimes causes guilt or fear, it can also be used to relieve problems, especially for the busiest of dual-earner parents. Epp said parents outsourced certain tasks in order to give them more quality time with their children.
“I found it really useful to understand their perspective, that the choice for them was really embedded in the broader range of care they’re providing,” Epp said. “Outsourcing those more iconic activities makes more sense when you think about the whole range of other things parents do for their kids.”
Ashley Brodd, a 29-year-old mother working full-time, thinks that parents need to do what works best for their own families. Brodd sends her daughter Michaela, who is 18 months old, to daycare.
“I want to teach her so much—how to ride a bike, bake, and cook,” Brodd said. “I know that there are things she will do at daycare first, and I am okay with that. She has been taught sign language and has a structured routine. I am glad they will be helping with the potty training process.”
Epp notes that whatever outsourcing decisions parents make, each choice is meant to relieve tension and pressure in a way that benefits their child.
“Yes, tensions arise when we enlist the marketplace, but they also arise when we ask anybody else to help with parenting, and they’re all just making do,” Epp said. “I hope my research shows that the marketplace can be incredibly helpful for families to relieve certain tensions and not feel guilty about it.”
Epp’s research, detailed in the paper “Outsourcing Parenting? How Families Manage Care Assemblages Using Paid Commercial Services,” will be published in the December 2014 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research and is available online to journal subscribers. Epp also discussed her research in a blog post from last year.