Melissa & Doug Co-Founder on Making Toys and Overcoming Depression

“What fueled all this creativity was a tremendous amount of despair that I had never touched, that I had never accepted, that I had never understood in myself.”
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ByNehal Aggarwal
Associate Editor
Updated
Mar 2021
Portrait of co-founder and mom boss of Melissa and Doug, Melissa Bernstein.
Photo: Bill Goins
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Melissa Bernstein is a mom to six and the co-founder and chief creative officer of Melissa & Doug, a highly successful toy company she founded with her husband Doug that’s been making toys for over three decades. Bernstein has had a remarkable career that many would deem ideal, but her initial desire to create toys was actually born from something darker. In her new book LifeLines, she’s sharing a side of her story that’s never been told before: her decades-long struggle with depression and anxiety and how she overcame it.

Alongside the book, Bernstein has also launched LifeLines.com, an online community with resources to help others who may be struggling find the path towards self-love and acceptance. We talked to Bernstein about how she co-founded Melissa & Doug, some of her favorite toys and what inspired her to finally share her story.

What led you to start Melissa & Doug with your husband?

Right out of school, both Doug and I embarked on very traditional careers. In that day and age, people didn’t think about starting a business when they were in college. In college, everyone was focused on pre-professional paths and basically stayed in those roles their entire life. We started down that path, but soon realized we wanted to do something meaningful—we needed to step off of society’s treadmill. I was so miserable that I could barely get out of bed to go to work. I probably would have suffered and stayed in that role for a really long time, but Doug was like, “we can’t, we’ve got to do something that brings our lives meaning and impacts others—let’s start a business together.”

And that’s what we did. We decided we would go away for a weekend to a quaint bed and breakfast in Massachusetts, and we wouldn’t leave until we decided what we were doing next. We were only certain about one thing: Our business was going to center around children. Both of us love children and both our parents were involved in education, so we truly wanted to do something that had the ability to impact children.

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What are your top favorite Melissa & Doug toys and products, and why?

In terms of category, I would say by far my favorite category in Melissa & Doug is Pretend Play. It has always been our fastest growing category because the toys were, in my opinion, so magical. Pretend play is essential for children because it enables them to try out adult roles in a safe environment and prepare for independence. In using these toys, children can readily try out different personas. They can make mistakes, they can fail and then they can try again. It is the essence of trial, error and mastery.

We try to make toys that really mimic that experience of pretending to be an adult, with many incredibly realistic features. We started with pretend play food preparation. Children even heard a cutting sound when they were preparing their food. In fact, not only did children love playing with those toys, but many adults admitted they did as well, as they felt it to be quite therapeutic! I myself found it extremely grounding.

We then moved onto so many different categories of pretend play: food preparation, cleaning, taking care of “babies”—whether that be a doll, stuffed animal, pet, themself, a sibling, friend or caregiver. We just created a pretend play doctor line complete with an entire doctor’s office and even a dental care set. Most recently, our newest line “ Love Your Look” is about showing your best self to the world and expressing yourself in all your vivid colors!

Photo: Melissa Bernstein

Is there a toy or product you’ve made that you’re most proud of? Why?

There are so many of those! However, I’ll give one example. It’s one of my favorites because it involved a great deal of tenacity to get it to market. I’m talking about our shopping cart. There were always a lot of shopping carts in the market, but they were all made of plastic. I wanted a cart that looked exactly like the shopping carts adults used in supermarkets, which were made of metal, so I said, “I want to make a metal shopping cart.” But no factories wanted to make it. The safety requirements for a metal cart that could potentially fit a child were extremely rigorous.

At the beginning of this endeavor I was told over and over, “Melissa we can’t do this, we should stick with plastic.” But I didn’t want to stick with plastic—I wanted to make that cart realistic, and I knew that if we made it as such, it would be a winner. So, we stuck with it, even though it ended up taking three years to produce. In fact, because no factory would agree to make it for us, ultimately we went to an actual shopping cart factory that made shopping carts for well-known food stores. We begged them to make a mini version of their regular cart, and they looked at us as if we were crazy.

We had to put two long appendages on our cart so that if a child sat in it, it wouldn’t move forward or backward. It required not only going to a very different factory, but also implementing many rigorous safety requirements. Despite these arduous challenges, we did ultimately bring it to market! I think that was maybe close to fourteen years ago and it’s still one of our very, very best signature items.

Running a business and being a mom to six is not easy. How do you balance your work and your family life?

I’m not a big fan of the word balance. In fact, I don’t think it should ever be used because balance is in our heads and an unattainable goal. It’s like saying, “I’m going to get straight A’s.” It’s another form of perfectionism, and I’ve been trying to leave that behind my entire life. I don’t think anything matters except being wholly focused and engaged in wherever you are or whatever you’re doing. When you’re at work, be totally at work and give it everything you have. And when you’re at home, be in your heart and give those children one hundred percent of your focus. If you can’t do that, which is difficult for so many because we are always multitasking, then you must craft your life in a way that you can absolutely do that.

During my more challenging periods, not only was there no balance, but there was also a tremendous amount of anxiety. I didn’t have the appropriate care at home in order to be intentional in work and motherhood. I was terrified when I was at work about my kids’ health and their safety. My fears about them made it so that I wasn’t giving my all to work. As a result, when I was at home, I was always thinking about work. This was because Doug and I couldn’t afford good childcare and had to rely on childcare we didn’t trust. I realized, for me to be “okay,” we needed to invest in higher-quality childcare that we could depend on. Once I had qualified childcare I was able to finally give my all at work, and, once I was able to give my all at work, I had the courage to be able to leave work and say, “Now I’m going home to give my all to my kids.” But I never think about it as balance. It’s just about being there and being intentional about giving your best self to both.

Your upcoming book talks about your decades-long battle with anxiety and depression. What inspired you to share your story?

I think 10 years ago I would have never imagined that I would write a book about my life-long battle with a mental illness. But as I grew older, I realized I could no longer live a lie. I was still hiding who I was even from both myself and the world. What fueled all this creativity was a tremendous amount of despair that I had never touched, that I had never accepted, that I had never understood in myself. I knew that if I was ever going to find true fulfillment and be at real peace, I was going to have to make this deep journey inward and discover those disassociated parts of myself that were festering in the dark.

Photo: Cari Miller

Considering Melissa & Doug’s success, what has it been like to share the more vulnerable side of your story?

I think that M&D’s success is actually what has propelled me to expose my truth. I wore a facade throughout my entire life. I presented this image of being perfect, never making a mistake and never showing any emotion. I think the fact that I have this platform now showing me as imperfect is the greatest gift ever. It finally allows me to rip off the mask and say, “not true, a complete fabrication.” I want everyone to see that material goods don’t lead to fulfillment, so that they can perhaps focus a bit less on the goal and enjoy their own extraordinary journeys.

We’ve received so much gratification through making toys, but when you chase goals and you don’t really ever accept yourself in totality, you still remain empty no matter what you succeed in attaining. It’s not that I didn’t feel profound joy through Melissa & Doug, and not that I didn’t have this beautiful family and a great relationship with Doug, but there was something in me that was still desperately empty and seeking. And no one or thing could fill it other than myself. Only I could fill it through accepting, loving and showing myself compassion for exactly who I was in my whole spectrum of emotion and totality of being.

What’s one thing you’ve found to be most helpful in keeping you grounded?

Being grounded becomes this question I ask in my book: “What are your lifelines?” Your lifelines are the practices that you must adopt and build over the years to help you remain steadfast. Once I came to accept myself in totality, I realized that every day was not going to be “perfect,” and I wasn’t going to feel amazing every day. I was going to have some days that were really low, and I needed a practice that helped keep me calm in the face of life’s ups and downs.

There are a few of these lifelines that I depend on to keep me grounded. The first one is nature. One of my favorite quotes is, “there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.” No matter what the weather, I will head outside for an hour-long walk every single day because nature calms me and makes me feel like I am one with something much more powerful than myself. I also exercise while I’m in nature, so I can feel strong and powerful and know that my body supports me through thick and thin. I also absolutely love drinking tea. It’s a real ritual for me, every aspect of it, from choosing my tea to pouring the boiling water to feeling its warmth flowing through my body. Also music is unbelievably powerful to me. Although I don’t play musical instruments any longer, my playlist is perhaps one of my most important possessions. Discovering a new song for that playlist brings me a lot of joy and can be a very emotional and important experience to me.

Finally, being in genuine, authentic relationships with family and friends is also one of my lifelines. I love nothing more than being with my children when no one is stressed and anxious and experiencing in-the-moment, beautiful occasions. We recently watched the Super Bowl and we were all so relaxed—the fire was roaring and it had just snowed and we were enjoying some delicious food as well. Best of all, we didn’t feel any pressure to have a bunch of people over to watch it with us. In a way COVID-19 has given us the blessing of feeling content with just being with our closest family members, and it was such a relaxing, enjoyable evening. Identifying my lifelines has helped me feel agency over my moods and emotions each day.

What do you hope other people will take away from LifeLines?

My ultimate goal with LifeLines is to build a community inclusive of every single person. Any individual who has ever felt as if they don’t belong or feel stigmatized for any reason should feel at home in LifeLines.

LifeLines is based around three core tenets. The first is “you’re not alone,” because I grew up feeling so very lonely, so isolated, so separated from everyone and everything. I was certain no one would ever accept or embrace me as exactly who I was. I therefore now wish to show others that isn’t the case at all and that we will support you in any way that you need. The second tenet is that we all have the ability to turn our darkness into light. I proved through making toys that I could actually take this profound darkness that has always been with me and channel it into something as light and bright as toys. The third tenet is that in order to find true meaning we need to make the journey inward and embrace ourselves in totality. That is the journey I have recreated with LifeLines and LifeLines.com.

I’m only at the beginning of creating it, but I’m honored and humbled to share the journey that has brought so much meaning to me with those ready to take that exhilifying plunge inward!

Published March 2021

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