How Melissa Bernstein channeled 'the dread' of depression into toy creation for Melissa & Doug

The Melissa & Doug co-founder and mother of six published a book to show others who are suffering that they're not alone.

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If you've ever purchased something made by Melissa & Doug, you know the brightly-colored, thoughtfully made Montessori-approved toys fill kids (and parents) with joy. So it may be surprising to hear the company's co-founder Melissa Bernstein has suffered from depression since she was a child herself. The self-proclaimed perfectionist and "martyrist" learned to transform her despair into hope and is here to show others suffering that they're not alone with a newly published book called LifeLines: An Inspirational Journey from Profound Darkness to Radiant Light.

On the latest episode of The Motherly Podcast, the mama of six opens up to Motherly co-founder Liz Tenety about her struggles with depression, and how she was able to rise above the darkness.


"My childhood was absolutely terrifying. It was not an idyllic childhood," she tells Tenety bluntly. "And I think, not for any fault but my own chemistry, I was born with a lot of darkness and a voice in my head that basically told me life was meaningless and to end my life, because anything I could do to make meaning would be vain. So I lived with this real demon in my head."

However, when she was able to visualize a future for herself, Bernstein always knew two things: she wanted to be successful and she "desperately wanted to have children." In 1988, she and her husband "conceived a toy company out of wedlock," but it was also one of the lowest points in Bernstein's life.

"I had a massive, terrible eating disorder and weighed like 80 pounds," she recalls before adding that she began eating again as a way to "please" her boyfriend. Bernstein continues: "I never thought of myself as a creative or a designer, but those hyper sensitivities also enabled me to come up with toys. So, it was very cool when I realized that I could channel this darkness and despair into something as light and bright as toys. It was the most miraculous experience of my life because I truly felt like I could breathe for the very first time. And making toys has been such an incredible salvation for me."




But it took years before the 55-year-old was able to find permanent light, and in the process she raised four daughters and two sons. "I'd say motherhood has been the most challenging journey of my life," Bernstein confesses. "And I often say to my closest friends, my personality composition really wasn't that conducive to having children because I'm so highly sensitive. And when someone says something that hurts me, it feels like a dagger has gone through my soul."

With that being said, her children's teenage years were exceptionally brutal because she just wanted to fix their problems instead of letting them feel their emotions. "I've had to change quite a bit and sort of admit that I was emotionally stifled myself and made it so they felt that they couldn't share their deepest, darkest emotions with me either," she tells Tenety.

It wasn't until she reached middle-age that Bernstein sought out professional help. "It was only then that the pain that I had submerged and repressed my whole life and then the resistance to all that pain was equaling such intense suffering that dam that I had put up to hold it all back started to crack," she explains. "When you deny everything you're feeling and everything you are for decades, it is utterly exhausting. I mean, there's no other way to put it because you're not being yourself and you're hiding yourself. And that is so much more exhausting than just being who you are."

Now, Bernstein talks to a therapist once a week; she takes an hour-long walk every day; she drinks tea; she practices self-care; she recites mantras; she plays—and with LifeLines, she encourages others to accept all parts of their personality and find the tools that work best for them.

"Not enough people are saying, I have a mental affliction that I was born with and I will die with, and I have a chemical imbalance. That's just part of who I am," she says. "But that doesn't mean that I can't live a bountiful, productive, joy-filled life. I want to be proof to so many in despair who believe there's no hope and believe it's all or nothing."

To hear more about Melissa Bernstein's experiences in motherhood and her career, listen to The Motherly Podcast for the full interview.

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