Work at Home Muslimah: The Great WAHM Myths, Realities and Possibilities

If the Ideal Muslimah is content to manage her affairs within her home, than one who can earn a wage whilst doing so is a phenomenal treasure indeed. You probably know several such sisters and even more who have attempted or are striving to be successful work-at-home-Muslimahs (WAHM) in all of the meanings of “success.” For her book Beyond the Kitchen: Muslim Women on Balancing  Life, Family and Work Huda Khattab interviewed nearly four dozen working Muslimahs and found that about half of them worked directly from their homes or were self-employed in some other capacity. That’s considerably higher percentages than Western countries  report on self-employment, but maybe not too surprising for the Muslims who not only put a high emphasis on the role of the mother, but also find self-employment to mean less compromising of their beliefs.

The Professional WAHM

The US Department of Labor estimates that half of all work-at-home peoples have college degrees and work in professional fields, and just as in the external workforce, professional WAHMs generally have the highest dollar earnings. Khattab found that like their non-Muslim counterparts professional working Muslimahs came into their successes at different ages and stages. Some started their careers before their families and then found ways to parlay their experience into self-employment after they married and/or had kids. Others put family first and later embarked on the path to self-employment.

I have known professional therapist, accountant, and paralegal WAHMs who received their training by varied routes and wound up with home offices. The would-be paralegal worked part-time jobs while her daughters were young. By the time the girls were tweens, she was burnt out on having to accommodate her employers. She began taking classes at a “pecking pace” but soon enough became a certified paralegal. Nowadays you can earn a paralegal certification entirely through online schools.

The Telecommuting WAHM

Telecommuting is a popular fantasy, but often a dream deferred for would-be-WAHMs. Nearly always, telecommuting evolves from an onsite position that the employer willing allows the employee to continue at home. There are a few training programs, such as medical transcription certification, which people are very commonly led to believe will lead to work-at-home telecommuting-like jobs. I have known three Muslimahs who paid (or went into debt) for training, but have yet to be employed as medical transcribers at home or elsewhere. Be wary of all work-from-home offers—even certified training.

During the overly-enthusiastic dotcom inception, it was wrongfully assumed that telecommuting was going to flourish. Although studies have proven that telecommuters are more efficient employees (telecommuters overcompensate because they guiltily believe they just can’t be working hard enough in their PJs!) the majority of employers are distrustful, preferring to keep a watchful eye on their staff onsite.

I know two hard-working former telecommuting WAHMs. Both were ideal, super-productive, well-trained and hard-to-replace employees. Upon switching to telecommuting, they became merely contracted employees (losing benefits) and were ultimately replaced by in-person workers when their contracts expired. One has rejoined the outside workforce since her family could not live on her husband’s income. The other is still searching for a WAHM gig that will suit her family. She has become a very frugal SAHM and wants to pursue freelance work, but has found that first her skills need improving. Let this be a warning to those would-be telecommuters who want to stay home—you have to moonlight at diversifying your abilities, most likely the job will come to an end and you’ll be glad if you can transition yourself to something else—like freelancing.

Freelance WAHMing

People don’t generally go to school with the dream “to be a freelancer!” Like the professionals, freelance WAHMs either had experience-based skills before they started WAHMing or developed some in order to manage their skills into a business. One of the most commonly known fields for freelancing is creating media content. Most of this work is based or for online, such as graphic and website design where there truly is an immeasurable market, but also immeasurable competition. Building up a freelancer’s portfolio often means interning or “volunteering” to prove one’s worth before you can actually be paid for your work. Sounds a lot like school work, right? Freelancers must please their customers to be able to earn frequent return business and good recommendations to new customers; otherwise they will always be on the look-out for new clients. A freelancer cannot “fake it ‘til you make it;” think of training and certification as investing in your business and therefor your family. Freelancing will likely involve investing in some kind of equipment, such as software which can run quite pricey. If you have never considered freelancing, but it sounds appealing, visit sites such as ifreelance.com or wahm.com and see what sort of skills potential clients need and if you can attain them.

The Artisan WAHM

Because I am an artist, the majority of WAHMs I know are artisan WAHMs, self-described along the lines of “artist with kids” or “crafty mama.” The first group trained or studied in some capacity to be artists WAHMs and found a way to do it at home, the “crafty” WAHMs are usually creative, as in “industrious,” women who were not trained in the arts but found a crafty way to earn some income.

My glass bead-making friend worked in several mediums with varying degrees of success before finding her passion in glassmaking. She calls her success bead-making business a fluke, but friends and family know she worked very hard to build her business. She does loads of marketing and networking, and sells at craft fairs, bead stores, online and several bead conventions. She tried making jewelry with her own beads, but found that too time consuming and not nearly as profitable. A little bit of research could have informed her that making jewelry with her beads would actually decrease her income. Remember, remember, remember-haste really does makes waste. Always do a little more leg work than you want to, it can save you and your family undue hardship.

Although the mere mention of “work-at-home-mom” triggers images of a mom wielding a hot glue gun, artisan WAHMing is not easy or quick to find a successful niche in, partially because of the illusion of success created by hobbyists. The IRS classifies a hobbyist as someone who makes less than $400 annually. As opposed to a bonafide entrepreneur, a hobbyist is someone who does not actually earn an income from their work. Craft fairs, online markets and similar venues are over-saturated with hobbyists, which drives down selling prices for bonafide entrepreneurs, and also may lead wanna-be-WAHMs to believe that there is a lot of demand and need for more supply. Not so! Many of those bath-bomb and candle makers really are just having a good time.

A failed business attempt can be especially difficult for a WAHM’s family to bounce back from if they were anticipating the added income. Do not buy 50 kilos of beeswax based on what you think you could sell at a local fair. Do your research. I have been fortunate enough to learn from the mistakes of several would-be-WAHMs’ failures.

Direct Sales WAHMing

Likely the most dangerous of all WAHM endeavors is direct sales, which is selling someone else’s products directly to customers who you seek out. Tupperware, Pampered Chef, AVON, and Amway are direct sales products you are probably familiar with. There is an abundance of WAHM look-a-likes in direct sales, but just like those craft hobbyists, direct sales is full of busy women not actually earning incomes. A gourmet aficionado friend who sells high-end kitchen wares readily admits that she does it for the discount–not the income. Her mother sells Tupperware for the same reason. I have witnessed many friends trying and failing at direct selling things such as specialty toys, jewelry, candles and tea. All fell into the common trap of direct sales deaths–leaning on their social circles for a market base. This is a horrible lesson learned for families who have invested in direct sell stuff. Dead-end start-up costs, be they from training, supplies or inventory, are hazardous to the would-be home business. Do extensive research before you buy into anything.

Going back to school or seeking out any other training may sound daunting if you already have kids, and especially when feeling desperate to start something up, but it can’t be emphasized enough how finding a good match for you and your family will take some time and investment to do. Be realistic and find some encouragement in knowing that about 70% of home-based businesses succeed in their first three years, as opposed to 29% of non-home-based businesses. The important thing to always keep in mind is that everything you have—your children, your wealth, your talent and your health—are on loan from Allah. Do not be hasty and wasteful with His resources.

~~~

This article originally appeared in the March 2010 issue of SISTERS Magazine.

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