Melissa Bernstein is best known for founding the inimitable toy brand Melissa & Doug, with her husband Doug. Based around the concept of encouraging open-ended, creative play, the Melissa & Doug brand is a familiar staple for any parent with young children.
In addition to becoming an incredibly successful entrepreneur, Melissa built a beautiful family; she is mom to six children ranging in ages from 30 to 15. Underneath all the success, though, was an undercurrent of depression that Melissa had been trying to keep at bay since her own childhood. “I was born with existential depression. This has nothing to do with what you achieve extrinsically. People would ask ‘can you honestly say you’re depressed’—and I would say yup,” shares Melissa.
Recently, after bravely facing these challenges head on, and sharing her struggle publicly to help others, she and Doug launched a new business, Lifelines. Lifelines is a collection of physical tools designed for stress relief using a revolutionary wellness technique called Sensory Immersion™: leveraging your senses to send calming signals to your brain.
Already, the brand is receiving praise for being as innovative for the wellness space as Melissa & Doug was for the toy industry.
The initial launch is based around Sensory Immersion™ tools that deliver calm and joy utilizing the sense of smell. Think: beautifully packaged pens, fidget tools, writing materials and more that feel great in the hand and smell even better, with specifically designed scents meant to relax and drive certain wellbeing states like focus or energy.
“Eighty percent of stress relief starts in your body, not your brain, and your senses are the quickest way to interrupt your stress response,” says Melissa. The 45 products have 16 patents pending and are reasonably priced for holiday gifts for family, friends and teachers (everything costs between $6 and $30). Already sold at Target, Amazon, Kohl’s, Barnes & Noble, CVS and Macy’s, the line is set to grow quickly with additional categories.
The Local Moms Network spoke to Melissa about her journey through self-described “existential depression”, how she parents her youngest two children differently than she did her older four, and of course, more about Lifelines.
How did Lifelines come to be?
Doug and I never thought we’d start another company. Melissa & Doug has been our life, but being an entrepreneur brings many different challenges. Lifelines has been about accepting my authentic self exactly how it is. I have a sensitive personality—it’s part of the creative temperament. I got the message early on that it’s not good to show the world that side.
Lifelines was born when the cry of my soul to be seen became so loud that I couldn’t repress it any longer. It was time to stop striving for the approval of others, and go inward and find out who Melissa is. It started with my memoir Lifelines: A Inspirational Journey from Profound Darkness to Radiant Light.
As a very young child I would write verses that would help me ponder dark questions. They were lines, buoys, to keep me here. Once I admitted I needed to go on that inward journey and feel, I realized I needed professional help. Through that process, I eventually created a practice around this idea of grounding, which is about how to become untethered from our thoughts and ruminations.
I initially tried yoga, breathwork, mediation – all of this made me more stressed. But one beautiful day I went for a walk. At first I was all balled up, tense. This wind came over me and sent it away, effortlessly. And I thought what if we can learn to release the power of our senses and ground ourselves?
What a powerful story. And the products are so simple yet beautifully designed. Can you tell us a bit more about your favorites?
Thank you! All of these use your senses to interrupt the flight or fight response. We can relax, rest, calm and begin to heal instantly. A favorite of mine is the super cool journal; the paper has embossing and tactile patterns. You can touch the edges and shade with them. You marry that with the pen diffuser and it makes a wonderful gift for someone who has everything.
I created the grounding stone because I never know what to do with my hands. It fits perfectly into my hand, has a fidget aspect and it opens to add your essential oil. The essential oil itself has a really cool bottle with a patent-pending cap that you dispense with one squirt. When I go walking I have it on my wrist.
I also love the pen. It has four vents at the top which release aroma and has this amazing ballpoint experience and it writes like butter. There are scents with four wellbeing goals: calm, energy, focus and joy. You can open it while you’re writing. We have this in five scent families – Citrus Grove, Walk in the Woods, In Bloom, and Spice Rush.
Can’t wait to buy these for so many deserving people in our lives—congratulations on your launch. But how did you raise six children while building a mega successful toy company—and dealing with ever-present depression?
I don’t have the traditional depression where you can’t get out of bed. I have existential depression which is a crisis where you don’t know why you’re here. You don’t know the meaning of life and feel the urgent feeling to impact humanity. My coping mechanism was to keep my life so busy, which I effectively did, regularly bringing six kids to six sports events in four different states.
And it was an amazing coping mechanism for 20 years—I didn’t think. I couldn’t go dark. I had too many places to be, people depending on me and products to create. And it was enjoyable, although there was an undercurrent of darkness.
Something I’m sure a lot of busy moms can relate to! What do your kids think about Lifelines and your journey through mental health?
It’s impacted my relationships with them so beautifully and dramatically. I despised myself for my whole life because I didn’t want to be this dark person. When they said ‘Mom I’m just sad’ I couldn’t tolerate it because I couldn’t tolerate it in myself.
When I became more empathetic to who I am, I became more empathetic to who they are. I was finally able to accept others in their full spectrum of emotions. As a parent, they could now come to me and share their feelings. It’s really beautiful.
Thank you so much for sharing so much today. Anything else you’d like to share about Lifelines?
We’re fortunate, in a sense, that we’ve hit a nerve in the industry that will stimulate change. There’s an epidemic of anxiety, stress and depression, and people need holistic tools to help them navigate life. Our product is certainly part of a larger solution of developing a personal self-care practice. It took us 30 years to make people see open ended play as a catalyst for imagination, and with this new brand we’re right in the middle of what’s happening in mental health.
This story is sponsored by Lifelines.