The Single Mom Who's Giving Me a Flutter of Hope About Childcare

This parent-to-parent platform could be a gamechanger in bolstering our broken childcare system, and it was created by a mom with an astonishing life story.

The Single Mom Who's Giving Me a Flutter of Hope About Childcare
Helen Mayer, founder of Otter

Reason to ⭐️ and read later: This parent-to-parent platform could be a gamechanger in bolstering our broken childcare system, and it was created by a mom with an astonishing life story.

Cool news! Double Shift members can listen to this newsletter in audio form, read by moi, with a bonus of an extended convo with today’s subject, Helen Mayer in your favorite player! If you are a Double Shift member and don’t have your feed set up, Sign in here. Want to become a member to support this work and get audio newsletters and other great community perks like member hangouts virtually and IRL? Sign up here. It starts at $5/mo.) Now, on to the main event.

Childcare is infrastructure, and should be funded robustly by the government. Because I believe this so deeply, I’m not usually wowed by splashy company launches or VC-backed solutions in “childcare innovation,” because frankly I usually don’t think they are going to work when the investment money runs out. So it’s unusual that I am bullish about Otter, a new childcare company that matches employed parents with stay-at-home parents hyperlocally in their neighborhoods for childcare arrangements. It’s different from and other similar services in that it’s not a marketplace to find care professionals. It’s a parent-to-parent platform where caregivers take on caring for additional kids along with their own. Rather than pitching itself as a replacement for regular full-time daycare centers (although it's possible to use it in that way,) Otter is opening up a new market that excels in working around the margins of traditional childcare. Flexibility is what so many working parents need, and yet is so rarely systematically addressed. Just think about how hard it is to find part-time care for babies and toddlers, before and after-school options, weekend care, late and overnight care for shift workers, and those endless teacher workdays and early release days.

Otter’s creative approach is the brainchild of Helen Mayer, who DOES NOT have the typical background of well-financed, venture-backed CEOs. In 2018, Helen was a first generation recent college grad who was getting her career off the ground, when she started to notice she was gaining weight. A friend attributed it to her eating too much pizza, but on a hunch she took a pregnancy test. It turned to positive immediately. Helen described what happened next. “I walked into a doctor's office and about four hours later, a team of 10 doctors and nurses walked into the room. I had spent time on medical teams or shadowing circuits, and I knew when 10 people come into a room, it means that you're the ‘teaching moment.’ And so I had this moment of like, ‘oh no, this is going to be a doozy’. The resident told me that she had two pieces of news. First she said that I was 29 weeks pregnant. I started crying. And then she said, and it's a twin pregnancy. And then I just lost it. It was really, really stunning.”

Helen was 22. She had long been told by doctors that she would not be able to conceive and carry a child to term, so had not previously given a single moment of thought to becoming a mom, and she had to scramble and upend her life to welcome two babies. Her twins were born premature, six weeks later at the end of 2018.

(Y’all, because you know I can’t resist a good story like this, I made Helen tell me all about this after I finished asking her about Otter. If you want to hear this incredible part of her journey in her own words, become a member of the double shift for the audio newsletter. I’ve included a portion of our Q and A.)

When the pandemic hit, Helen was working on her startup that focused on support for first gen college students, but it went under in the face of pandemic upheavals. She was out of a job and the primary caregiver for her twin toddlers. During naps and her “free” time, she started working on setting up childcare swaps in her NYC neighborhood for essential workers. She quickly found that employed parents often didn’t have the bandwidth and schedules to reciprocate the trades, but were more than willing to pay the families they connected with for childcare. So Helen worked on a solution. “I turned around and called the stay-at-home parents and said, ‘Hey, you know, the person you were matched with would pay for the childcare that you're doing, and you could do it for more hours and make money.’

“A lot of them had questions about how this would impact your relationship with their kids. A lot of them responded with, ‘I didn't become stay-at-home parent to make money.’ That was one school of thought. And then another school was like, ‘Is the care that I'm providing worth paying for? But their work is valuable, even if it didn't have a [monetary] value attached to it.”

In fall 2020, Helen opened up the platform in New York and Chicago and personally matched 3500 families for childcare (!!!), resulting in $20 million worth of transactions. “Because I’m now a single mom myself, I think a lot of the stories that stuck with me [about the impact of Otter] were single moms who have found themselves really struggling. One mom in particular was part of our first cohort of caregivers who stands out to me. She started providing care on Otter in the week of October 26th [2020]. And she called me the week of Thanksgiving and she told me that she didn't think when she first started working as a caregiver that she was going to be able to make ends meet by Thanksgiving. She had been worried that she wasn't gonna be able to feed her kids. She called me from her kitchen where she was baking pies for her neighbors. And I think those are the moments that really stick with me – the idea that when you give a parent enough money, not just to feed their family, but also often they’ll turn around and feed their community and nurture their community.”

“The question that came up, more often than it should have [from men] was 'Is childcare really that much of a problem?' I got asked that a lot by people who clearly had never had to think about childcare. I think that question it's really hard to overcome, right? If somebody is not bought into the idea that childcare is broken.”

Helen modestly explains that she got venture investment to grow Otter. I point out that there are very few 20-something moms who are first gen-college students who get eight figures of Series A funding for their brilliant idea. She credits being part of the Interact Founder Focus program that introduced her to investors and also that she was able to pitch female venture investors. “A lot of the investors who ended up getting excited about Otter were women [and moms!]. In order to increase the funding that goes to women founders, we need to have more women on the other side of the table.”

Because I’m generally extremely critical of the Old Boys Club venture world, I asked her what was the dumbest question an investor ever asked her. She paused, diplomatically. “The question that came up, more often than it should have [from men] was “Is childcare really that much of a problem?” I got asked that a lot actually by people who just clearly had never had to think about childcare. I think that question it's really hard to overcome, right? If somebody is not bought into the idea that childcare is broken.”

After raising capital, Helen decided to take the company offline. She hired people from the trust and safety team at Airbnb to build out their background check process and go over safety checklists and rigorous matching questions for families seeking and offering care. “I wanted to build something that I could stand behind as a mom and also something that met my standards for my own kids. So we have spent a lot of time thinking about how to be very responsive, but also how to be proactive.” While Helen claims their standards are more rigorous than some state licensing requirements, I do want to point out that Otter caregivers aren’t licensed daycare that are visited by state inspectors, so I do think it’s important for parents to do their own due diligence as they would with any care provider if they use this service. Otter just relaunched in the Santa Clarita neighborhood in LA and in San Francisco. Caregivers can set their own rates, and both the seeker and giver pay small percentage fees to the platform. The company says the average caregiver earns $600 a week on the platform.

Helen and her twins!

The reason I think Otter is special is:
1. It better connects us with other parents in our communities, which builds up invaluable networks of support.
2. It’s flexible, helping parents with non-traditional schedules in a way that has been largely ignored by traditional daycare.
3. It legitimizes the carework parents do as being valuable and worth paying for.
4. It keeps a fair wage for care in the community and goes directly to support other families.
5. I can totally imagine using this.

Helen is now 26 and the single mom of twin preschoolers. No, Otter is not going to single-handedly fix all that’s broken about our childcare system (only significant government money will do that.) But talking to her gives me a flutter of hope about what’s possible when we listen to mothers and give mothers the resources they need to tackle some of this country’s biggest problems. She may have found a lucrative market to make those VC investors happy, but I think her background and perspective makes HER the type of unicorn the world needs more of.

What I’m Listening to: This episode of The Daily featuring reporting from Natalie Kitroeff is an incredibly thought provoking look at Mexico’s abortion landscape, and what the US should learn from it. I was especially interested in how they’ve built extra-legal abortion support services with Misoprostol when surgical abortions were extremely hard to get for many women in Mexico. We discussed this episode and more during our life-affirming member hangout last week where we discussed concrete action for organizing around abortion. BECOME A MEMBER of The Double Shift and you’ll get the details on future hangouts in your inbox.

A treat from the Archive: Today's newsletter made me think about my long standing passion to highlight non-traditional daycare needs. If you are newer to Double Shift-land, check out our second episode ever from 2019 that is still HIGHLY relevant about a 24 hour childcare center in Las Vegas. It's called The Night Shift in Sin City. People still bring this episode up to me, years later.

A Rare Insta Rec: Not spending ton of time on the ‘gram, but I want to shout out BabiesAfter35, a great account run by a MFM specialist, Dr. Shannon Clark. It’s no-nonsense, science-based and is doing the Lords’ work by tackling misinformation aimed at pregnant people. She also is a twin mom with an unconventional personal story as the first in her family to go to college.

Forward to a friend: If you love this newsletter, would you do me a favor and tell two friends about it who are interested in challenging the status quo of motherhood and encourage them to subscribe? We are 76 signups away from reaching 2,000 subscribers. I'd love it if you'd help me spread the word to hit this milestone. THANK YOU.


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