Displaced homemakers: translating unpaid skills into jobs
What happens when a woman, after 18 years of marriage, finds herself without an income, without work experience, and with a houseful of teen-age children to support?Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
That was the situation facing a Houston housewife five years ago after the breakup of her marriage. She stumbled into a succession of short-lived jobs before discovering that she did indeed have a salable skill - an artistic talent that had been simmering for years. Then came the arduous tasks: establishing a business along learn-as-you-go lines, redefining her role within the family from housewife to major provider, moving to her present home in San Francisco, and even taking a new name - Murai.
The outcome of Murai's story is no doubt extraordinary: Doing fashion and design business in Europe and the United States, she has built an initial investment of $20,000 (the equity from the sale of her Houston home) into sales totaling nearly half a million dollars. But its beginnings were far from extraordinary.
Each year thousands of women from widely varying economic and social backgrounds find themselves in circumstances similar to Murai's. Cut off from their accustomed source of income by divorce or the decease or disablement of their spouses, they join the ranks of ''displaced homemakers.''
For many of them, seeking a job outside the home is often a first-time experience. Most soon arrive at a formidable hurdle - the perception on the part of employers, and on their own parts, perhaps, that they lack any marketable skills. As Murai puts it, ''Not only did you think you had no skills, nobody else did, either - the best I could get was temporary typing at $3.50 an hour.''
And that was in spite of what she calls an ''incredible amount of volunteer experience'' with community clubs, travel groups, and her church - not to mention her many years as chief organizer and coordinator of a household of five that moved frequently as her husband's oil-industry job shifted from Libya to Rome to London and finally on to Houston.
There were glimmers of hope for Murai, though. At one point, an oil company executive recognized her latent managerial skill and quipped, ''If I had you as a receptionist, the first thing you'd do is get all the people off the elevator and organize them.'' Later, an employment agency head encouraged her to look around the office and see what was needed that she could design - an exercise that resulted in the sale of some decorative screens.
Murai's encouragement came largely from unforeseen sources. More and more, however, counseling services are in place to assist homemakers feeling their way into the world of profits and paychecks.
The Displaced Homemakers Network, based in Washington, dispenses information to some 300 to 400 local counseling agencies (YWCAs and community colleges, for instance) and uses government and foundation money to develop new training programs.
How successful are current efforts to meet the needs of job-seeking homemakers?
''I think there has been progress in the last 10 years since the displaced-homemakers movement started,'' says Jill Miller, head of the Displaced Homemakers Network. ''But still I get hundreds of letters each month from women, and there's often no program in their areas.'' She emphasizes two attitudinal barriers facing women who arrive at the abrupt end of a husband-centered life: