Catherine Castrence is not a morning person. So between getting her daughters dressed and fed breakfast, letting the dog out and giving an insulin shot to the family's diabetic cat, the Reston, Va., working mother of two barely had time to pack her kids' lunches before getting them to day camp by 8:00. But this summer she and her husband are outsourcing that particular ritual. Health e-Lunch Kids charges them $4.99 apiece for the homemade, nutritious meals it delivers each day to the local YMCA where Maddy, 9, and Elena, 6, are spending eight weeks. "I'm the kind of person who pays a little bit extra for the convenience," says Castrence.
Many parents today do the same. Health e-Lunch Kids, based in Falls Church, Va., is one of a growing number of niche companies swooping in to take care of the mundane tasks of parenting, all in the name of helping moms and dads attain a better work-life balance. Other lunchmakers include Brown Bag Naturals in Los Angeles and Kid Chow in San Francisco. Shuttle services like Mother Hen's Helpers in suburban New York and Kids in Motion in Pennsylvania will ferry your child to soccer practice or a doctor's appointment. And there are companies that will even come to your house and comb the lice out of your children's hair.
Farming out such child-rearing responsibilities may make traditionalists uncomfortable, with critics equating it to "paying people to do these tasks instead of doing them out of love," says Lara Descartes, a family-studies professor at the University of Connecticut. But rather than being a sign of laziness, this trend signals "an escalation of expectations of what it takes to be perfect parents," says John P. Robinson, a co-author of Changing Rhythms of American Family Life. Married mothers, for example, spend an average of 18 more hours a week at work than they did in 1965, mostly at the expense of the 12 fewer hours they spend on unpaid household chores. But Robinson points out that these women, like parents in general, actually spend more time being with their kids than parents did four decades ago. It's just that their priorities have evolved. "Parents see it as more of their role to take their children to the park and contribute to their development," says Descartes. "Lice picking just doesn't cut it."
Steven and Sarah Deutser of Houston know the value of extra help. They spent several months washing their kids' hair with Nix and olive oil and even hired an exterminator in a futile effort to rid their home of lice. Finally Steven mentioned what he considered an embarrassing problem to his sister, who assured him, "Everyone gets lice," and told him to call Penny Warner, owner of the Texas Lice Squad. For two days and about $1,000, Warner (who has a minivan-based operation in their hometown and charges $55 an hour) manually combed the nits out of the hair of both Deutser children and did the same for their housekeeper and her daughter. "We were so blown away with the experience and the emotional drain the lice had put on us," Steven says, "that I was amazed there weren't more Pennys out there." She does have a smattering of competitors in other states, but Houston will soon be getting more Pennys: the Deutsers are investing in the first Texas Lice Squad storefront, to open this fall.