What I’ve Learned: Hussain Ali on fatherhood, parental leave, and having the ‘right’ regrets


The pandemic and parenthood collided for Exxon Mobil's Hussain Ali. Here, he opens up about fatherhood, parental leave, and having the 'right' regrets.

Tell us a little bit about yourself, your baby, and the work you do.

I’m a first-time dad to baby Sebastian, husband to Roesia, enjoy food, travel and spending time with my family that are spread across the world. Sebastian gave us all fright by entering the world in a bit of a hurry via emergency caesarean in October 2020. Sebastian is almost a year old now and I’ve had the privilege to take full-time parental leave while Roesia returns to work as doctor in aged care. Sebastian’s personality is certainly starting to shine through – curious, energetic, cheeky and above all, delightfully happy.

I am an engineering and commerce graduate from Monash University, and have worked in the energy industry with ExxonMobil for 11 years. I’ve had a diverse and rewarding career spanning technical, commercial and leadership roles and have had the privilege to work overseas, most recently in Papua New Guinea (PNG). I am currently the Asset Manager responsible for our non-operated production in PNG, working closely with our joint venture partners, government and community stakeholders and the in-country ExxonMobil management team. In this role, I am responsible for ensuring the operator maintains safe and reliable production, meets their commitments to stakeholders and maximises the value of our assets. 

After the birth of your child, you decided to take parental leave. When did you take it and how long did you take it for?

I initially took four weeks of carers leave and parental leave when Sebastian was born. This time gave me the opportunity to support my wife’s recovery from the caesarean, get our little family settled at home and of course begin our parenting journey. When Sebastian was eight months old, I commenced a period of four months of primary carers leave and annual leave. At this age Sebastian was eating solids, (somewhat) sleeping, and more mobile – making it the perfect time for me to take over full-time parent duties. 

What was the greatest challenge and the greatest reward you experienced during parental leave?

My greatest challenge has been realising that the skills I developed in my ‘other’ full time job – independence, goal setting, prioritisation and determination – are not necessarily the skills that are the most effective with an almost one-year old. No amount of determination has helped me feed Sebastian his lunch when he is just not interested! My greatest reward has been developing a new set of skills that I have no doubt will help me in this next stage of life, both personally and professionally – patience, calmness, empathy and adaptability. And of course, the greatest reward is a cuddle or a giggle any time of the day or night. 

We know men can sometimes face discrimination and bias when they take parental leave. Did you face any strange reactions from people when you went on leave?

Prior to commencing leave, I had nothing but support and encouragement from my colleagues. Contrary to any discrimination or bias, I had more than a few men say, ‘I wish I was able to do that’ and ‘You won’t regret it’. The ease of which I’ve been able to make the transition from full-time work to full-time parent has been a privilege. Whilst being on leave, COVID-19 has meant that unfortunately Sebastian and I haven’t left the house much. Our to-do list – which included lots of outdoor activities, spending time with family and friends, and becoming frequent visitors at the zoo, library and swimming pool – hasn’t seen much progress. Our wonderful neighbours have probably had some strange reactions whilst watching me trying to entertain Sebastian!

How has this time changed you as a father and a partner? 

Having now had this time to watch Sebastian grow and develop in ways that I couldn’t when I was working full-time, I would consider myself to be more aware of his personality, certainly more receptive to his needs and I feel a deeper sense of connection with him than before. As a partner, I remember being in awe of my wife in those hours and days after giving birth to Sebastian. And now having walked in her shoes (so to speak) and becoming a full-time parent, I have that same feeling of respect and admiration. 

What are the most challenging things you’ve discovered, about juggling work and looking after a baby?

Everyone’s journey navigating work and the first few months of their baby’s life is different. Mine was marked by a very challenging business environment, commencing a new and demanding role, COVID-19 lockdowns and of course, becoming a dad for the first time. Coming into full-time parental leave, I distinctly remember the feeling of not managing any of these challenges particularly well. With the benefit of this time to focus on just looking after baby, it puts a lot of those challenges into perspective. In my experience, trying to maintain a healthy perspective is the most challenging thing about juggling work and family life. 

What are the best things about combining work and family?

For both Roesia and I, our ‘pre-baby’ life was primarily focused on our careers. Having now had this period of full-time parental leave and being disconnected from work, I’ve been able to experience the full range of emotions that comes with starting a family. Doing something intellectually stimulating, meaningful and rewarding at work as well as watching our family grow has enriched my life in a way that I hadn’t appreciated before. There are certainly times when I wish I was just doing one or the other, but the reward of doing both provides that sense of enrichment. 

What would be your advice to any expectant or new working father?

Having time to focus on being a father has been the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done. I thought long and hard about the alternative – continuing my professional career – and the trade-offs that each choice involves. I can say that I have no regrets with my choice of taking parental leave. My advice would be just that – whatever choices you have, be mindful of making the decision you are least likely to regret. 

What would be your advice to any manager or leader out there in terms of enabling their staff to balance both career and care?

A leader can make a huge difference in the way they handle the transitions (parental leave in my case, but equally for any career/care scenario). My manager did a few things that made the experience seamless for me. Firstly, they asked for and ultimately selected from my list of backfills to takeover whilst I was away. Knowing that your role is in good hands while you’re away is priceless. Secondly, allowing plenty of time for handover (a month in my case) enabled me to provide enough context for my backfill to make the role their own. Finally, keeping in touch before the return-to-work date makes the transition easier. 

What shows/podcasts/books have been getting you through lockdown this year?

In my experience, there isn’t much time for shows/podcasts/books whilst looking after a baby! Having said that, taking time to do the things I enjoy has helped me manage the harder days. A little bit of tinkering around the house, a little too-much online shopping and daily walks (whatever the weather) has helped me through the lockdowns. 

What I’ve Learned is a series featuring the parents (and wisdom) within the Grace Papers community.