What’s it like to be a Muslim today? It’s a question that Wajahat Ali — a New York Times contributing op-ed writer, Emmy-nominated producer and one of CNN’s 25 Most Influential Muslims — is always thinking about. In his work, he has mused on everything from how Ramadan has become mainstream to the first time he heard his Pakistani-American-immigrant father say “I love you” to the midlife crisis he’s been having as he approaches 40.
A father of two, Ali shares with us how he parents.
Name: Wajahat Ali
Location: DC/Virginia by way of Fremontistan, California.
Job: Exhausted father of two, occasional writer and raconteur, recovering attorney
Family: Wife Sarah, son Ibrahim (four) and daughter Nusayba (two).
Tell us a little bit about your family and your career. Did life happen mostly as planned or were there surprises?
In my 20s, I thought I’d be dead by 35. I had an “eventful” decade. But somehow I convinced a far more accomplished, good looking woman to somehow marry me, punching way above my weight.
We decided we should try having a family, give it a shot while my gametes could still swim. We planned for Ibrahim and had so much fun not sleeping, we decided to switch to man-on-man defence and aim for Number Two.
About five years ago, when I married Sarah and moved to Virginia from the Bay Area, I was a recovering attorney who had always dreamt of one day becoming a writer or storyteller. And I was completely broke. I had about $US600 ($850) left in my account and no job.
Sarah was working at a health care clinic in DC. We moved into an apartment and every day, I used to “gift” her with a new piece of IKEA furniture I assembled. She told me to apply to Kinko’s across the street just to get out of the house and earn some money.
A few days before I was about to submit my application, I get this call from Al Jazeera saying they were about to launch a new network, Al Jazeera America, and heard a rumour I had moved here. They asked if I was interested in auditioning to be a co-host of a daily talk show called The Stream. I told them I was really busy making IKEA furniture. They laughed. I let them assume I was kidding.
I went in for the audition, sweat profusely, did terribly, but somehow a few months later ended up behind the desk, going live at 7:30PM ET, helping launch a doomed network. Lesson of the story? Happy wife, happy life, follow your wife.
Take us through your morning routine. What are your best tricks for getting out the door?
Some people use alarm clocks to wake up. I have a two-year-old jump on the bed, slap my face, and use her fingers to pry open my closed eyelids. Both are effective. Or my son jumps on my neck, failing to realise I’m a fragile man and not a playground. Or they ignore me and I get to wake up with my mobile phone alarm.
When that happens, I employ my dad ninja skills to accomplish as many things as possible in my bedroom without attracting attention. This includes old man stretches, exercises, a quick shower, making the bed, responding to emails.
As soon as I exit, the kids think it’s playtime, so I have to chase them around the house as “tickle monster”. Somewhere I try to squeeze in a lunch.
When my son goes to school, I go pick him up at 12:00PM, and then come home and eat with the kids. They expect me to feed them even though we have a nanny. Usually, I make my escape at 1:00PM those days. There are no tricks. You just have to leave when they aren’t paying attention, distracted or watching TV. I usually try role playing. I tell my son I need his “Hulk Smash strength” to close the door for me. It works.
How much outside help do you get as a parent? Who or what can’t you live without?
My wife is a superhero, working as a full-time doctor and assistant professor. Our families live in Florida and California. Thankfully, we have a nanny who comes in the morning and leaves early evening. Without her, we wouldn’t be able to work.
Day care, whether it’s a nanny or a centre, is a massive monthly cost, even for people who are employed. My heartfelt respect to single parents and those who can’t afford this luxury.
We’re also lucky to have close friends who once in a while come by in the evenings to distract/play with our kids so I can stare at the wall.
What are the gadgets, apps, charts or tools you rely on? Have you come across any weird parenting product that turned out to be life-changing?
I wish there was some magical gadget or app or tool that could transform us into super parents, but so far I’ve seen that the most reliable tools are love, attention and time.
While I was doing the daily TV show, my son, Ibrahim, was born. In hindsight, I was not the best of dads during that first year of his life. I was present, sure, but I was so immersed in my work, the daily grind, the stress, that I would struggle to be present.
I loved him but our relationship wasn’t strong. He didn’t necessarily enjoy spending time with me and would gravitate to his mother, who gave him the extra love and attention he deserved.
After AJAM went off air, I started freelancing and had more time. Within three months, I noticed that my relationship with my son became more tight, loving, special. He actually enjoyed spending time with me. We developed our weird games and impressions. I took him to Barnes & Noble to play with the Thomas the Train set (which, of course, lead to me buying and building one for him in our home.)
When Nusayba was born, I had learned from those early mistakes and made a vow not to repeat them.
Has becoming a parent changed the way you work?
Um, yes. My insane babies are hepped up on natural baby cocaine and don’t sleep until midnight. We’ve tried everything except drugs to knock them out. They are just energetic, curious kids. We give them naps. We deprive them of sleep. We try soothing music. We give them calming baths. Nada. Nothing. They’re just wired.
So that means we’re on from the time we get home to the time they sleep. This means I keep a graveyard shift. I divide my work day into two halves. The first half is late morning to early morning. Then for my after-hours work, it’s from midnight to 3:00AM. Because I’m a freelancer, we can pull it off right now. If I get a traditional 9 to 6 job, then I will probably be dead by 2019.
How do you decompress?
Well, I’m a teetotaler but I hear alcohol and weed are great. I’d love to smoke weed. Oh, I’d light up everyday. I’d also love to drink I’m sure but I fear I’d transform into an alcoholic. And not one of those charming, erudite ones, but one of those nasty, paranoid ones who thinks “they’re coming to get me!”
So in the absence of libations, my wife and I indulge with bi-weekly massages. We buy a gift card which gives us a discount and then go for 30 minutes, or sometimes an hour, and lie like brown Play Doh, willingly giving our flesh to the masseuse to knead into some coherent flesh after enduring the wear, tear, bruises and scarring of carrying babies who use our bodies as jungle gyms.
I also run, and I’ve started stretching. Just taking some time out during the day to relax and breathe helps.
Mostly, we actually enjoy our kids very much. They don’t necessarily stress us out. We make silly faces and noises with them. Play our absurd games. Read them stories. Take them to the shopping centre or to the park. I honestly miss them most of the time. But, it’d be nice if the little bastards slept on time.
What’s been your proudest moment as a parent?
My children are still alive. This astounds me. Somehow I have helped raise two living, breathing, healthy, happy, smiling kids. I am fortunate and grateful to the universe.
Recently, my wife told me my son came up to her and said, “I missed you, Mama,” and hugged her. He then said, “I wish Baba was here, too.” My daughter was adamant that I would be the only one to play “tickle monster” with her, and both of the babies only want me to give them baths.
As you grow older, you discover the extraordinary in the mundane; the small routine acts of life that are not Instragrammable become perfect crystallisations of joy and happiness. There is nothing special about what I just described, but it makes me proud because it reveals that my kids actually enjoy my company, they benefit from my presence, and hopefully I am a source of goodness for them.
What do you want your kids to learn from your example?
Honestly, I’m just happy they look exactly like their mum. I won the genetic dysfunctional lottery. My family has an awesome history of heart problems, anxiety, IBS, high blood pressure, you name it. Meanwhile, my wife is like a genetic freak who has abs even though she has the unhealthy diet of a nine-year-old child.
But she is also the kindest person I’ve met. It’s disgusting being married to a nice human being who actually likes helping people. Very, very annoying. You have to give everyone “the benefit of the doubt” and consider “their feelings” and trying “forgiving” people. Madness, I tell you. I hope they take her kindness.
What’s your favourite family ritual?
I have no idea how this ritual developed, but each time we get in the lift we start dancing like maniacs while the lift moves. And right before the doors open, we all decide to act “normal” again for the unsuspecting people who are about to enter. No one is the wiser. My job is to be the human DJ and lay down rhythmic beats and thankfully both my kids have some stellar dance moves.
Has anyone ever given you a piece of parenting advice that has really stuck with you?
Be present. Try to be as present as possible for each stage. It all goes by so fast. Each stage has its own rewards and challenges. Just embrace it. You’ll love and miss all of it — the soiled nappies, the first words, the sleepless nights, the paralysed neck and shoulder pain, the first day of school. All of it.
Also, you are responsible for your kids. You brought them in this world, so don’t whine or complain about them messing up your life. Try integrating them into your life and passions and hobbies and routines as much as possible. We are a social and active family and I try my best to bring my kids everywhere — from dinners to formal speeches.
What’s the hardest part about being a parent?
The constant worry. Will I be able to protect them from all the uncertainty, the danger, the demons? Will I be able to provide? How will I mess them up? How much therapy will they need because of me? Will they grow up to hate me?
I think parents are hardwired to always worry about our kids. It makes sense. We are responsible for their safety and well being. It’s 24-7 vigilance. Thankfully, we are not helicopter, neurotic parents, and we try to give our kids as much freedom and independence as possible so they develop confidence and autonomy.
I just hope I don’t mess them up and they turn out healthy, safe, sound and score scholarships to excellent universities and then well playing jobs that can subsidise my writing career.
The one thing I would tell other parents who are juggling a career:
Enjoy the chaos. Embrace it. Don’t resent it. Otherwise, your life might be filled with bitterness and disappointment, and you might end up resenting your family for it. The work will come, it’s always there, it never ends. The career will move along, perhaps at a slower pace, on a different timeline than anticipated, but love and joy of creating a family is worth it.