The sight of a 4-year-old expertly dicing a carrot is touching but, laughs television chef and champion boxer Laila Ali, “To be honest with you, when they cook with me it slows me down.” Just in case you thought that after a busy day she has time to host a private cooking show for her two tweens. “We bake,” she tells Romper, “We do that. But I'm a real cook… So they're not in the kitchen with me every night.”
Being there for her kids is very important to Ali, who recalls growing up with nannies, a dedicated mother, and a loving father who was often off traveling the world. “I grew up with my father being Muhammad Ali, who was amazing. But I had to sacrifice. He wasn't there.”
As a child, she understood his work: “He can't be Muhammad Ali and giving back to the world and be home for dinner every night,” she says.
Winning world championship titles and trying to change the world might be a good excuse for time away from your family, but for those of us who aren’t larger than life, there is a sense of anxiety over wasting your efforts on the wrong thing. The worst kind of regret would be realizing “You just weren't home,” says Ali. “You know what I mean? You just weren't there. You just didn't tell your kids that you love them. Or you just made them feel like they weren't good enough.”
Kids are always watching us. They watch the good that we do, the bad that we do.
For that reason, even if she can’t physically be home every second of the day, Ali takes pride in finding ways to make time for her family. In fact, Ali tells me she’s just a few days away from a family vacation in the Bahamas. A calming, relaxing getaway perhaps? “Heck no.” Ali says with finality. “I’m going to come back tired.”
Although they can be draining at times, having kids may have pushed Ali to figure out what really mattered to her in terms of her career. What kind of work she wanted to do, what kind of example she wanted to set for her kids, and what kinds of lessons she wanted to teach them. She says that with her new partnership with Undeniably Dairy and Feeding America, two organizations that fight to provide for food-insecure households, she aims to foster awareness and model a type of compassion for her children.
Feeding America works to reduce waste in the pre-consumer stage of food production, get nourishing produce and meals to families through food banks across the nation, educate the public about nutrition and cooking, and raise awareness of food insecurity. Undeniably Dairy also works to provide families with the nourishment they need, but focuses on getting dairy products, which Ali says are among the most highly requested items at food banks, to families. With one in six children facing food insecurity at any given time in the United States, Ali knows it’s time for change, which is why she’s been working to reduce hunger for more than a decade.
For people looking for a place to start helping, Ali stresses the importance of becoming learning about the issue and finding ways to get involved. She admits that it took a trip to the food banks for her to truly understand what the issue of food insecurity actually looked like. “You have the stereotype of what you think someone that needs help is, or you think of homeless people that you see on the street. And these are people coming with suits on. I remember seeing people in line that are going to work and still need help and just maybe fell upon hard times… Single moms and things like that,” she says.
Like many kids, she was often told not to waste food because of all the starving children around the world. “What does that have to do with me?” she thought as a child. “I can't give them this food. Are you going to give them the food I don't eat?”
Now she understands.
When you make your kids feel like they can do and be anything, they believe they can.
Laila Ali looks exactly like the superhero I had envisioned… minus the cape. She’s strong, confident, and glamorous, bursting into laughter when she starts talking about her two kids, Curtis Jr. and Sydney. “My son is 10 and he's a sweetie pie. He is such a sweetie pie,” she says.
“Now, my daughter is sweet, too, but she's feisty. She's super feisty. So I'm not just saying that because he's my son. He is exceptionally sweet,” she says. “Sometimes he says, ‘Come here, Mommy.’ And he just touches my face. ‘Can you just come lay with me?’”
Their close relationship into the tricky tween years is proof that she is a devoted parent — winning at parenthood, as much as you can win at such a thing.
Before becoming a mom, Laila Ali was best known as an unbeatable athlete, following in the footsteps of her father, Muhammad Ali, and holding five boxing world champion titles between 2002 and 2005. She also came third in Dancing With The Stars season four, was on an episode of Celebrity Wife Swap, and turned her passion for cooking into a full-blown career after retiring from boxing. She calls herself an entrepreneur at heart and doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon, but she does admit that adding motherhood to her resumé created a new kind of pressure.
“My father taught me through example,” she says. “And that was the most important thing because kids are always watching us. They watch the good that we do, the bad that we do. They learn from us, their outlook on life, the confidence they have in themselves,” she says.
“When you make your kids feel like they can do and be anything, they believe they can. You tell your kids, ‘You can't do that. Don't do that,’ then they grow up scared and afraid to try things.”
Ali’s wholehearted belief in her children is touching, but of course there is no world-championship belt for devoted parents — you do the work, and hope your children flourish, whether or not they realize just how incredible you are.
Despite her unwavering support for her kids, Ali laughs at how distressed the two became when she told them she wanted to post a video of her dancing on her Instagram account. “They're like, ‘The only way you'll get likes is if you take our phones and our pads and like it yourself,’” Ali says with mock indignation.
“They just don't know,” Ali says, laughing at her children’s indifference. “Whatever. Your mom is amazing.”