One Thing Melissa & Doug’s Co-Founder Wants All Parents to Stop Doing
I was a guitarist my whole life, but stopped playing cold turkey when I decided to go to college rather than go the professional musician route. I would no longer be able to practice four to six hours a day and maintain my level of expertise, and I was very black and white. I either wanted to play at a professional level or not play at all.
Due to this unfulfilled dream, I knew that when I had children, I wanted at least one of them to be musical. So when my first child was about 8 years old, I convinced him to take classical guitar lessons. He agreed, a little bit grudgingly. But I noticed that when he returned home from each lesson, there was no light in his eyes. He wasn’t running in the house wanting to show me what he played, and I began to notice that he wasn’t even practicing between lessons—he just hid his guitar in the closet. Of course I wanted to ask him why he wasn’t practicing, but perhaps I didn’t actually want to know the truth.
About two months passed and one day he came into the kitchen. He was always such a happy-go-lucky kid, but at that moment his head was down and he truly looked terrified. He said, very seriously, “Mom, can I talk to you about something?” I panicked, worried about what it might be. He continued, “you’re going to be really angry for what I have to tell you.”
“Angry?” I said back to him, “what do you mean? I could never be angry at you!” He gazed at me with tears in his eyes and quickly spit out, “I’m not a guitar player, I’m a baseball player.” He had to repeat it a couple of times because he said it so quickly that I couldn’t even understand what he was saying. But when it finally sunk in, my heart nearly stopped. I realized at that moment the horrible crime I had committed.
I think the biggest threat to children are their parents’ unfulfilled dreams. I see it over and over and over again; parents who haven’t gotten to the place they want to be personally, now using their children as tools to fulfill their dreams—and there’s nothing more tragic to both parties. As a parent, you’re not living your life and kindling your own innate sparks because you’re living through someone else. And then the children feel obligated to mold themselves into who we want them to be and are never able to simply be their true selves. I find that unconscionable—and I was one of those very parents.
That experience taught me such a powerful lesson—although I absolutely made the same mistake many other times after that. I had tried to make my son into what I wanted him to be, and, thank goodness, he had the courage to tell me I was wrong. If he hadn’t been strong enough to tell me the truth, he could have spent the next 10 years trying to be a guitar player in vain. The truth is, not only would he have been miserable, but he would have also been a terrible guitar player because he didn’t feel it in his heart. So it wouldn’t have served anybody’s purpose. I wouldn’t have been happy because he wouldn’t have been a passionate guitar player, and he wouldn’t have been happy because it wouldn’t have brought him an ounce of joy. Literally no one would have achieved anything of beauty or worth by forcing a square peg into a round hole.
Ideally I think we wouldn’t become mothers until we truly accept ourselves. I think the more we know ourselves as individuals before we have children and the more we accept ourselves for exactly who we are without lamenting the past, then the more empathetic and compassionate we will be toward our children. I was such a flawed mother because I wasn’t a whole person. I was just a superficial, outwardly focused image of perfection. Although I knew that I needed to “be different for my kids,” ultimately I couldn’t stop who I was from shining through, and I let that need for perfection encompass them as well.
If I became a mother today knowing what I know now, I would be an entirely different person. I would accept every emotion my children are feeling, and I would accept them as exactly who they are with utter aplomb.
Melissa Bernstein is the co-founder and chief creative officer of Melissa & Doug, the toy company that she started with her husband and has created over 5,000 children’s products and sold billions of dollars of toys since its inception. A mother of six with a remarkable career, Bernstein kept secret her lifelong battle with existential depression and anxiety. She reveals her struggles in LifeLines, her first book, which she wrote to help others who are also suffering. Bernstein’s book heralds the launch of LifeLines.com, a digital ecosystem that will support those who are embarking on their own inner journey to live a more authentic, fulfilling life. Bernstein lives in Connecticut with her husband Doug and their six children.
Published March 2021