A baby with her doll
Growing up, Elizabeth Lesser was devoted to her dolls. As a parent, however, she's learned that such excessive giving isn't always the best for her children.

There is a Persian myth of the first two parents who loved their children so much that they ate them up. God thought, "Well, this can't go on." So he reduced parental love by something like ninety-nine and nine-tenth percent, so parents wouldn't eat up their children. —Joseph Campbell

My children and I grew up together. I was 22 when my first son took up residence in my womb. I was just a kid—a big kid having a little kid. But it didn't feel to me that I was too young, because I had been planning on having a baby for a long time—since I was about four or five. I was one of those little girls whose greatest joy was to cradle a doll, sing to it, and tuck it into its crib. I would never go to school without arranging the babies and stuffed animals comfortably on my bed, making sure they were warm in the winter and cool in the summer, and grouped according to their current likes and dislikes of each other. I already was afflicted by the motherhood gene: I could feel what my dolls were feeling; I wanted them to be happy and safe; I worried about their wellbeing. My sisters found in my devotion to my dolls a reliable way to antagonize me. I once found a baby doll hanging in my room like a lynch mob victim, the pull-string of the window shade wrapped around her pudgy plastic neck.

For months after this incident, I paid extra attention to the doll, hoping its little psyche had not been traumatized. If such a thing existed I would have found a doll therapist and spent my allowance on the baby's recovery. Even after I stopped playing with them, I never banished my dolls to a box in a closet. I knew that would hurt their feelings. I still have them; they sit silently on a shelf in my grown-up bedroom. I rearrange their seating every now and then.

Can you really love your children less?

Elizabeth Lesser
The devotion I displayed toward my dolls should have tipped me off to the kind of mother I was going to be. From the moment I looked at my son, I was like the first parents in the Persian myth Joseph Campbell reports, "loved their children so much that they ate them up." The first time I held my baby and looked at his amazing face. I loved him with an all-consuming, fierce, and wild kind of love. I was a lion and he was my cub.

Most of us start out like this with our children. When they are helpless infants, wild parenting is an appropriate style of care. But as they grow, and become their own people, it becomes an imperative to "reduce parental love," as Campbell says, "by something like ninety-nine and nine-tenth percent," so as not to consume the poor kids with excessive coddling. I admit that I am still working on reducing my parental love to a reasonable percentage, although this may be a moot point, since my children are now men. In fact my oldest is now spoon-feeding lavish percentages of love to his own little one.

We chose our firstborn's name from the Bible: Rahmiel, the angel of mercy. Even though he cried from colic for months, rarely slept, and showed us little mercy night or day, I could see who this little one was. Some infants enter the world looking like the archetypal baby: fat, sweet, and sleepy. Some babies resemble old people, tiny versions of who they will grow up to be. My first baby looked neither new nor old. He was other-worldly, like a pure ray of intelligence, like an innocent visitor from a more benevolent planet. I saw this in Rahmiel's face.

It was a good thing I saw it, and it was a good thing that I had no previous experience with babies when my first was born—I assumed they all cried all of the time, and so I walked him around, day and night, until we were both dizzy and wrapped tightly around each other's heart. When the crying stopped, Rahm became a sweet yet bossy toddler, and we his loyal servants. He was a careful, smart, and sensible fellow, not the kind of child who wants a lot of toys or watches endless television. He always knew his limits. When his grandmother gave him carte blanche at FAO Schwartz, the most opulent toy store in the world, he chose a ball. But when he wanted something, and couldn't have it, his tantrums were legendary.

Learning how to parent

Broken Open
Once he threw a spectacular fit when a friend of mine was visiting. At that time Rahm was three and we had yet to reduce parental love by even a few percentage points. Our baby was the sovereign ruler of the household. He had established a law that only his favorite music could be played in the car or the house. For several weeks we had been listening exclusively to "The Singing Rabbis", a collection of folksy Jewish songs that someone had given us. For some reason, this became Rahm's all-time favorite cassette tape. I had neglected to warn my visiting friend of the music law and was upstairs when she foolishly chose another tape and pressed the "play" button. By the time I got downstairs, the little king was revving up into royal histrionics. When I refused to replace the unauthorized music with "The Singing Rabbis," the tantrum escalated into the kind of sobbing that resembles choking. I had to take Rahm outside and put his bare bottom in a snowdrift just to get him to breathe. My younger sons love this story.

As he left the toddler stage, Rahmiel grew back into his name. He became an unusually caring kid, a protective older brother, and the family peacemaker. As he grew up, I began to wise up. Loving one's child did not necessarily mean giving in to his every desire. This was the kind of love that the ancients knew must be reduced by ninety-nine and nine-tenth percent. If we don't purge ourselves of disproportionate, neurotic caring—if we raise our little darlings in a bubble of comfort, if we stay one step ahead of their every need; if we try to shield them from the pain of the world—we deprive them of learning important life lessons. I write from experience. I tried to do this. I learned that too much giving to children is not a gift. Rather, it's a taking away. It denies children the skills they will need for life outside of the bubble. All of my sons taught me this as they grew. Rahmiel—the angel of mercy—was the first. Today, Rahm is one of the more compassionate men I know. I'm still learning how to be a parent.

As the co-founder of Omega Institute, America's largest adult education center focusing on health, wellness, spirituality and creativity, Elizabeth Lesser has studied and worked with leading figures in the fields of healing and spiritual development for decades. A former midwife and mother of three grown sons, she is also the author of Broken Open and A Seeker's Guide.

Keep Reading

Excerpted from Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow © 2004 by Elizabeth Lesser. Reprinted by arrangement with the Random House Publishing Group.


Next Story