Welcome to Mothership: Parenting stories you actually want to read, whether you're thinking about kids or not, from egg-freezing to taking home baby and beyond. Because motherhood is a big if — not when — and it's time we talked about it that way.
Laila Ali is barefoot and otherwise impeccable when she enters the Times Square hotel suite where I’ll interview her. She’s flashing a French manicure, palest pink pedicure, and a bright-red bodycon dress that can barely contain the face-bashing biceps for which she is most known. Nothing about her right now says “mom,” and that’s entirely the point. Listing the ways she self-identifies, she gets to mom fourth, in the middle of just some of her careers. (“I’m a professional boxer, athlete, entrepreneur, mom; now cooking enthusiast coming out with a cookbook.”) Later she adds that she also has a podcast.
The 39-year-old mother of two is in New York with T.J. Maxx (a Refinery29 sponsor) promoting her role in the brand’s Maxx You initiative, which is aimed at helping women shrug off the stereotypes that hold us back. Like gender-norms, for example, though in Laila’s household, as in so many others, it seems these have been harder to shake loose.
She mentions more than once a husband, retired NFL wide receiver Curtis Conway, who “just doesn’t get” how much she does. When talking about the importance of encouraging her children to chase their dreams, she adds "my boy and my girl," maybe parenthetically. And whenever she’s out there being a wellness expert, author, lifestyle brand CEO, and undefeated boxing champion, she makes sure to be home to short-order cook a healthy dinner for each member of her family. Because she likes cooking — and she wants to savor these family experiences she felt robbed of while her own father was out on the road so much — but also because she’s the mom. The wife. Though she leaves that part unsaid.
With a well-placed “you know how it is,” Ali fills the room with the sisterhood of motherhood. Her sweetness comes through. Though, there’s nothing meek about the 5-foot-10 force who, even sans shoes, is almost-threateningly glamourous. She confesses she loves “a real scrap,” (punching, basically) and has to work out almost daily to release her aggression (a trait she’s proud her daughter shares). Challenging stereotypes, indeed.
Ali will be hosting the Maxx You workshop later this summer alongside Shark Tank’s Barbara Corcoran; 80 selected online applicants will receive a cash prize and personal mentorship from the two.
In our conversation below, her no-punches-pulled attitude makes a great primer for doing it all — even if you don’t have to take fists to the face in your day job.
I can’t help but think that your father’s legacy led people to have some preconceived notions, or stereotypes, about you. Did you ever feel you were expected to follow his path to boxing?
“Well I had the double or triple whammy that my father, being the greatest boxer of all time, coming behind him there would be a lot of comparisons to him. Then the fact that I’m a woman, when people weren’t even aware that women boxed. The third one was just, ‘You don’t look like someone who should be a boxer; you’re too pretty to box. Why don’t you just model?’ Forget the fact that the same blood is running through me; they couldn’t fathom the fact that I was a woman, a pretty woman, who wanted to fight. I think because of the spotlight, because of my last name, many women judged me or assumed that I was going to be easier to fight.”
They assumed that you couldn’t back up your last name in the ring?
“Not so much the last name, it was more that people assume that if you’re an attractive girl, you’re not going to fight as hard. Because at some point, the idea is, you’re not going to mess your face up. You’re not going to get into a real scrap, a real fight. But surprise, surprise! I actually like to mix it up; that’s how I love to fight.”
On the topic of being many things at once: Your father was a great humanitarian. I think labeling him only as the greatest boxer does a disservice to who he truly was. Can you tell me where you got the confidence to say, sure, I’ll be a boxer, but it’s just one of many dreams that I have?
“It’s true that he is one of the greatest boxers, but he’s done just as many great things outside of the ring. We’re not all Muhammad Ali, you know, but it’s a perfect example of how you can’t label someone.
“From a very young age, I had to learn my own heart. Because everyone has an opinion, and everyone has their own experience in life that they’re going to put on you. So I’ve learned to trust myself. If I have to make a decision, I’m going to enlist a few people who I trust, but at the end of the day, ultimately, the decision is mine. That self-talk — I can or I can’t, the fear, lack, limitation — is natural. But courage comes from a place of being afraid and still doing it anyway. That’s all it is. A lot of people get afraid and they stop. Me, I’m like, Oh, fear? ‘F’ fear, and I just kind of jump over the edge. You have to push yourself or you’ll never reach your goals. You’ve got to get out of your comfort zone sometimes, and be a little uncomfortable, before you can get comfortable again.”
Despite the stereotype of motherhood as an all-consuming identity, I know many people who’ve achieved new levels of career success after having children. I’m wondering if you relate to that experience at all.
“I think in general people assume that when you have children, that’s all you are — a mom, and that’s actually not true. You can be a mother and still pursue your dreams. When you become a mom you realize you don’t have time to fool around anymore. Your time is more valuable, and you’re more selective about how you spend it, and you really get focused because you’re not doing it just for yourself, you’re doing it for your children.
"You might restructure the way that you want to do business. Or you might come up with a new business idea so you have more time, more freedom, and more flexibility. But being a mom doesn’t have to be your everything. You can do all of those things just like a man can. And still be there for your children.”
Has motherhood impacted your changing goals or changing career?
“Definitely. I think motherhood impacts everything. You know how it is. When you have a child, everything changes. Your whole thought process in the morning when you wake up changes, and it’s okay. It’s a part of being a woman, and it’s a different experience for moms than it is for dads. That’s why I think it’s so important to speak to women about, even though you have a child, never let your dreams or aspirations die. You might put ‘em on hold, but you can get back to it.”
Are there any lessons from all of this that you are trying to impart to your children?
“Forget what your parents say, it’s really what they do. So they’ve seen me working on a cookbook, but when they get older, they’ll be like, ‘well mom used to be a boxer,’ and they see me do the hard work that it takes. I never put a limit on them of what they can’t do, and I think that’s the most important thing right now: To let their imaginations flourish and support it, and give them unconditional love. The world is your oyster, go for it. As long as I can keep them thinking like that, and keep people away from them that are going to shut that down, that’s my job as a parent, and I’ll be happy.”
Do you have family dinner with your kids?
“We do. We do family dinner at the table every night. We do it with the TV on, but it’s whatever I can do to keep them at the table. Now we’re trying to wean off having the TV on, but we sit at the table, and I’m happy with that. But I’m like a short-order cook: This one wants plain pasta, this one wants sauce on the pasta; my husband’s like, ‘You didn’t do it like my grandma used to do it back in the day…’ And I’m like, well we’re in 2017. I’m just happy to have them eating fresh, home-cooked meals.”
I imagine growing up with eight siblings there were some crazy moments in your household. Is there anything that stands out, or anything that changes the way you relate to your parents now that you’re a mom yourself?
“I had a whole different lifestyle than I have provided for my kids. I had nannies; my dad was traveling all the time. You can’t be fighting for the world and be home for dinner with your kids. So I didn’t want that same lifestyle for my children. It was really important for me to be there; I overcompensate probably in that way, but I want to raise my children. It’s a big responsibility to me, and I want them to grow up a certain way, and have certain values and morals, and I don’t want anybody else – I want to be there for those moments.”
That quote, that you can’t be out fighting for the whole world and be home for dinner — doesn’t it feel a little bit like that’s what it is to be a woman and a mother in 2017?
“Doing it all. Yep. Come home and take your cape off. My husband, all he has to worry about is what he has to do for him. I have to worry about what to do for him, my daughter, and me, and my business. It doesn’t stop. So. You already know how it is. And they don’t get it, they really don’t.”
Do you have any specific way that you take care of yourself?
“For me, it really is being consistent and writing things down. Because if you don’t write your short-term goals, your long-term goals, life will just pass you by. And you can kind of check in with it. For me, I make sure every two weeks I get a mani and pedi; that’s one thing I’m going to stay on top of. I don’t think there’s any woman who’s successful that won’t tell you we still need to find more time for ourselves.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.