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Commentary: Having it all

Among vivid memories retained from two trips my wife and I took to southern Africa are encounters with elephant herds. Few experiences compare with being within yards of those lumbering creatures, watching them munch saplings like a teenager eating potato chips.

Elephant herds are matriarchal, led by the oldest female. Males are excluded from the herd, forced to fend on their own or in groups of other bachelor elephants as they reach maturity.

The lack of bulls in no way detracts from a herd’s formidability. From a football field away or closer, we watched an agitated group of elephants rush into a waterhole in Namibia’s Etoshi National Park. They immediately circled up, with young elephants in the center and some of the larger adults turned to the outside. The message was clear: Don’t mess with us.

I was reminded of that experience while reading of a debate currently raging about whether women professionals can “have it all.” It was sparked by an article in Atlantic magazine by Anne-Marie Slaughter, former director of policy planning for the State Department, who resigned her post last year after deciding public service took second place to her job as mom.

What motivated the article was her growing sense that other women professionals felt that, by admitting she “couldn’t have it all,” Slaughter had betrayed their gender. Having reached the pinnacle of influence, she was a role model for the next generation, proof that a woman could have a successful career while balancing the roles of wife and mother.

The author admits that her life is atypical of American working women. Slaughter enjoys tenure at Princeton University, where she is a professor of politics and international affairs. She also is blessed with a spouse, himself an academic, willing to serve as house husband in her absence.

Nevertheless, she argues, prevailing attitudes and custom make it difficult for women to advance in a career while raising a family. In her case, a son in adolescent crisis was the trigger that made Slaughter realize she was sacrificing an important part of her life to satisfy others’ concept of a greater good.

Someone could take her place at Foggy Bottom, she concluded; at home she was irreplaceable.

Slaughter rebuts those who say that having a professional career and being a mother boils down to a matter of balance. Failure to excel in the boardroom while simultaneously nurturing a family, they imply, is simply a matter of not trying hard enough.

That attitude causes many women to forgo having children or delaying pregnancy until college or grad school have been completed and they have climbed several rungs up the corporate ladder. Then, by the time they have reached their mid-30s – assuming they can still conceive – they face two unappealing choices: Either turn the rearing of their child over to strangers or shelve their ambitions during the make-or-break time for careers.

Among specific reforms Slaughter advocates are more generous parental leave, flex time and more widespread use of telecommuting from home.

She writes: “armed with e-mail, instant messaging, phones and videoconferencing technology, we should be able to move to a culture where the office is a base of operations more than a required locus of work.”

Freed from the office, many mothers still might not “have it all,” but they might be able to obtain most of it.

Such reforms nibble around the edges of the problem, however. As long as one’s career accomplishments count most during the period when children remain in the home, women will feel pressure to put family second.

The playing field needs to be extended as well as leveled. Since the life expectancy of women in their 20s today is pushing 80, many women should be able to step off the career ladder, raise a family and return after the kids leave the nest, confident that they had time enough to accomplish their goals.

Slaughter maintains such changes won’t occur until more women ascend to leadership positions in government and in the private sector.

In the meantime, they may find inspiration in a photo of mama elephants circling the waterhole.