Samina What would happen if we let our kids do whatever they want, whenever they want? Hana Baba, host of Crosscurrents, interviews author Samina Ali to learn about her complicated relationship with her son.


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Welcome back to SNAP JUDGMENT from PRX and NPR, the "You Don't Know Me" episode. My name is Glynn Washington, and today on the show we're exploring situations where things are not quite as they seem. You know, a lot of us, we think that we have this parenting thing down. We have the mothers, the grandmothers, the books, the education, the videos. And we think we can give advice to other people on how to do their thing. Well, our next guest, she describes how she was forced into an unorthodox parenting style not of her own choosing. Producers Hana Baba and SNAP JUDGMENT's Stephanie Foo have the story.


HANA BABA, BYLINE: Samina Ali's doctors reassured her all through her pregnancy that everything was just fine. But she had headaches throughout the pregnancy and suspected something was off.

SAMINA ALI: My son was delivered. And 20 minutes after he was delivered, I had a seizure and then I went into a coma. They wheeled me into the - to get an MRI of my head. And they found that I had two brain hemorrhages. The next few days, my liver stopped functioning, my kidneys stopped functioning. I had pulmonary edema. I mean, I had multiple organ failure, and the doctors told my family and my husband at the time, if you're lucky, she'll just die.

My son's father was told to be prepared because he was not bringing home the woman that he brought to the hospital. I had severe aphasia, which means that if I'm thinking one word, a different word would come out. So I was having difficulty speaking. I was having difficulty walking.

BABA: Incredibly, she couldn't even remember her husband.

ALI: I remember I kept looking at him and thinking, OK, you're my husband. OK, I'm told that we got married. OK, I'm told that my son is your son. And I just remember being - looking at him constantly and thinking, I guess this means I should feel something for you and I guess this means I'm in love with you. But he was a stranger to me. I came back almost - you know, I came back like my son.

BABA: Samina's son was named Ishmael, and when he was a toddler she found herself bonding with him, not as a son, but as a peer.

ALI: I would say, OK, today my goal is to get up from bed, walk to the bedroom door. (Laughter). I mean, there are definitely times when I would fall on the ground, right smack next to him, and we would be on the ground together. And, you know, there are times when I was on the floor crawling because I just didn't have it in me to take another step. I was watching him do the same thing, learning to walk, learning to crawl. Sometimes more - (laughter) he had more functions than I did at times.

We were out, and every time he would pick up a leaf or stop and admire bark on a tree, I remember being stopped in my tracks. He would have his fingers on the grooves of the bark, and I would have my fingers on the grooves right next to him. I was seeing nature, and I was seeing this bark for the first time just like he was. And he would say, mama, this is so beautiful, and I would say, yeah, it is really beautiful, isn't it? I was his buddy, and I was growing with him.

BABA: Just a few months into Samina's recovery, her husband also suffered from a debilitating brain lesion. This meant that both of Ishmael's parents were sort of out of commission as parents. They were both so focused on their own recovery that they didn't really discipline him at a young age.

ALI: I allowed him to make his own decisions even when he was 2 years old or 3 years old - oh, you don't want to go to bed yet? That's fine, we don't need to go to bed yet. You can stay up. Or, you don't want to eat that? That's fine, I understand. You know, whatever. If he didn't want to go to school that day, oh, OK, that's your decision. That's fine.

BABA: Wow.

ALI: Yeah. I was his friend.

BABA: But being a friend can be harder than being a son because we depend on our friends. Friends have responsibilities, especially when things go badly, like when Samina and her husband began to fight.

ALI: There was just a lot of tension in the house. There was a lot of sickness in the house. His father and I were fighting so much that he would physically push his dad out the door and say, go to work, daddy, go to work, enough, enough, enough. And then when I moved out, I just - I kind of moved out overnight, and so over the next week or so I would have to return to the house to pick up more and more things, and he would say, I'm just going to sit in the car while you go in, and he was only 3.

BABA: After Samina and her husband both recovered from their brain injuries, they divorced. Ishmael split his time between his mother and his father's houses, and Ishmael's father began to finally lay down the law.

ALI: His dad is definitely the one who puts limits and boundaries, you know, not being able to watch TV, not having video games, did you practice your saxophone today?

BABA: But Samina, she found she still couldn't do that.

ALI: My God, his dad and I have fought about this. I mean, this is where we get into constant arguments. His dad isn't respecting Isham (ph) in the way that I feel like he should because I don't believe that Isham needs the kind of strict limits that his dad places on him. So I allow him to govern his life because I respect the decisions he makes.

BABA: Ishmael was always his mother's confidant. When he was 8, Samina made sure she had his permission before she married her new husband. She got his permission before choosing a house, a custody arrangement. Ishmael's 13 now, and he knows his relationship with his mother is special, that he had a lot more power growing up than his friends did. And perhaps, because he always had such an impact on his mother's life, in some ways Ishmael began to feel responsible for her.

ALI: He has a very strong and unusual sense of protection. You know, like, we were visiting my mother over the summer, and, you know, as mothers and daughters will do, we would have arguments. And Isham, he just became so upset, and he just immediately started telling his grandma, you know, this is my mother, and no one talks to my mother this way, and she's doing the best she can. And maybe he is overly protective of me.

BABA: Like, he's protecting you from your own mom. That's huge.

ALI: Yeah.

BABA: Like, you know, Grandma's grandma.

ALI: Yes.

BABA: Samina's family and friends always worried that Ishmael would turn out to be this wild child because of the freedom she gave him - still gives him. But Ishmael's constantly on the honor roll now. He's mature, polite, sweet.

And does he ever talk back?

ALI: No.

BABA: Never?

ALI: No.

BABA: Never yelled?

ALI: No, my God, no he would never yell.

BABA: Never raised his voice in any way? I want this, or I don't want that, or what's going on, nothing, none of that teenager stuff?

ALI: No, no, I mean, I think that, you know, his dad has talked about, oh, my gosh, you know, Isham is showing me all this attitude recently, he's definitely a teenager. And...

BABA: And you don't see any of that?

ALI: And I don't see it. You know, my husband says it all the time - he says, you know, Isham is a different child when he's with you, and he's a different child when he's with his dad, and you have to just accept that.

BABA: But this doesn't mean that Samina thinks everyone should parent their children this way to avoid teenage meltdowns, on the contrary actually, because four years ago Samina had a child with her new husband and...

ALI: Oh, my God, I'm screaming. I'm yelling (laughter). I'm putting my foot down and, you know, I'm telling her it's time for bed, it's this, it's that. I mean, I'm just - I'm constantly setting limits. I'm constantly - I'm constantly curbing her and, you know, helping her and guiding her.

BABA: Over doing it maybe to compensate?

ALI: Maybe. When I'm disciplining her or when I lose my temper with her, he is taken aback, you know, because he hasn't seen that side of me.

BABA: But Ishmael, he still sleeps when he wants to, studies when he wants to at his mother's house. Samina believes that relationship will never change.

ALI: I look at him and that sense of kinship is still so strong, and I still see it. It's so impossible for me to separate him out from me, and he has become what I think I've asked of him.


WASHINGTON: Much love to Samina Ali and her entire family. That piece was produced by Hana Baba and Stephanie Foo.


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