Chat with ... Terrah Mulligan, Fairfield mom working to empower her daughter, other Fairfield girls
WESTPORT — In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, Terrah Mulligan and a few other mothers with daughters who dance at the Connecticut Dance School in Fairfield bonded over their shared despair over the election results.
“We wanted to channel our anger and frustration into something that would be more hopeful, so we started getting our girls together,” Mulligan, a Fairfield resident and mother of 11-year-old daughter Emma, said.
The mothers hoped to expose their daughters to strong female role models, activism and empowerment at a time when the world in which the women thought they lived — a world in which their daughters could become anything they wanted — may not be reality. .
Since the election, the approximately six mothers and 12 daughters, between the ages of 7 and 11, have connected with a family of Syrian refugees through the Connecticut Institute for Refugees and Immigrants, met with Fairfield’s state Rep. Cristin McCarthy Vahey in the Capitol, and written letters to state legislators in support of paid family leave.
The group also met with Vicki Volpano, president and CEO of the Goodwill of Western and Northern Connecticut in Bridgeport, and will soon see the new documentary on Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Mulligan, 38, said she doesn’t have a background in political activism outside being raised by a die-hard hippie mom. Raised in the small Southern California town of Ojai, Mulligan attended Syracuse University on a track scholarship, but left after two years.
“I was done with the East Coast. Never going to come back, just didn’t have the best experience. Winters were brutal and I thought, I am definitely a California girl and that is where I’m meant to be,” Mulligan said.
After earning a teaching degree, Mulligan worked in retail management for companies such as Delia’s and Abercrombie & Fitch, and owned a children’s clothing store in Santa Barbara. Six years after returning to California, however, Mulligan flew to Montauk, N.Y., for a week to reconnect with a man she dated briefly at Syracuse. They had met at the university, where he attended on a lacrosse scholarship, and the pair had kept in touch after Mulligan left.
“We basically fell in love,” she said.
Within a year of her trip to Montauk, Mulligan quit her job and moved to the East Coast and married him; within another year, the couple was expecting their first child. The Mulligan clan, now a party of five, moved from Milford to Fairfield eight years ago. While Mulligan misses California, she said she enjoys raising her three kids kids in Fairfield near the beach, though she struggles with the bubble of privilege that seems to surround the town.
While Mulligan seeks to empower her young daughter, she said she struggles to find her own place as a woman in society. The quintessential 1950s housewife, Mulligan’s grandmother came from a privileged background in which work was not an option, Mulligan said. Meanwhile, for Mulligan’s mother, a product of 1970s-era feminism and hippie culture, there was no choice but to work for women with a college education.
A mix of two competing legacies of women in America, Mulligan said she got a college education but chose not to work and instead be fully submerged in motherhood. However, now that her daughter and two sons — ages 11, 10 and 7, respectively — are a bit older, she wants to return to part-time work, but sees the transition as a difficult one because the lack of precedent for stay-at-home moms returning to work.
“It seems very either, or. You’re either completely a stay-at-home mom or you’re this ambitious career woman. There’s not a lot of in-between, so it’s hard to figure out how you navigate re-entry into one of those worlds without giving up your identity in the other,” Mulligan said.
Part of Mulligan’s motivation in participating in empowerment activities with her daughter and other Fairfield moms and daughters is to have the tough conversations about balancing work and life that her mother never had with her.
“She felt like I was going to understand these complex issues just by seeing her be an ambitious, hard-working woman. There wasn’t a sense that she needed to teach me it,” Mulligan said of her mother.
Despite the challenges, Mulligan said she is hopeful if she and other moms come together to provide their young daughters with the awareness, voice, and foundation for political engagement, then they will plant the seeds for a generation of empowered women.
“I definitely think that with my daughter’s generation there’s going to be significant changes, but I also think that is only going to happen if we stay on our A game,” Mulligan said.