For my 17-year-old daughter, school shut its doors unceremoniously in mid-March—there would be no graduation, no prom, no senior spring break trip, just an apologetic email that the school would scramble to provide online courses and keep her occupied while at home.
At the end of the note was a plea for parents to pitch in as well, to make sure our kids stayed busy and didn’t succumb to anxiety and melancholy. Hah! I thought to myself, that would be quite a feat considering my own nerves were raw and my hypochondria was kicking in big time. Every sniffle, every dry cough I imagined to be the virus, contracted from that last Uber car ride or date night out with my husband in New York City.
I had to rein in my own emotions
I simply had no idea how to react, how to rein in my raging emotions or how to process what the next days, weeks, months might look like. But as parents, we had to suck it up, set a good example and soldier on. At least that was what the email said.
The next days offered little guidance or relief: Life as we know it had ceased and all of my work along with it. A book proposal I had been hired to write was on indefinite hold. “But stuff like this has happened before, right?”my daughter asked me.
I searched my memory for anything in my 50+ years that could compare. The tragedy of 9-11 came to mind, but as horrific as that was, it never involved sheltering in place or shutting down all stores and nonessential businesses. At the time I was entertainment editor for A&E Biography, interviewing Tom Cruise over the phone a mere day after the tragedy. If anything, my work was booming—but this was pre-motherhood, pre-middle age, when I was bold and brazen and let little derail or scare me.
“No,” I replied. “There’s never been anything like this.”
We are all feeling our way through this
Which means, in essence, we are all flying blind, making our way through each day with little or no guidance as to what the future holds. My work as a celebrity ghostwriter has all but dried up, Hollywood is shut down and my script pitches with it; my agents are hibernating. I struggle to get out of bed before noon or go to bed before 3 am; it’s as if the hours have flipped upside down with no deadlines or school mornings to contend with.
My fiercely independent child is now trapped with me 24/7, a fact that she remedies by going on long runs and shutting her door so she can make FaceTime calls with friends. Slowly, the patterns shift; I become the chief cook, cleaner and laundry folder, and she works diligently at her writing career.
We have co-written 21 children’s books over the years since she was eight years old, with me—the experience pro taking the lead. But now, she is in the driver’s seat. She quickly secured a remote internship with a teen magazine and submits stories weekly, proudly printing out the online articles and placing them in a scrapbook.
“Isn’t this what you did?” she recalls. “With all your articles when you were starting out?” If she means the volumes of McCalls and Instyle magazine pages I stored in binders on my home office bookshelf then yes, I did. But it’s been a very long time since I’ve thumbed through them.
Then one night, she keeps me up till 2 am, asking for my help in editing a very personal essay: “What about the high school seniors?” that a magazine will be publishing in its June/July issue. In it, she writes how she feels to be robbed of these precious last moments before college but also insists that her generation will be the most resilient, the most powerful, the most able to change the world in wonderful ways. I listen, I suggest a few word changes here and there. The essay is not just good…it’s great, a testament to the brilliant writer she is becoming.
“Thanks mom,” she says simply, then hits send. Other times she snuggles up to me on our couch: “Can I pick your brain?” she begins. “This idea came to be in the middle of the night.” I buy her a journal and a mini book light so she can scribble down other epiphanies should they strike past midnight. “When do you get your best writing ideas?” she actually wants to know. I pause for a moment then smile: “In the shower.”
I have become my daughter’s writing teacher
And this becomes my role over the weeks that follow, unofficial journalism teacher and sounding board, as my daughter’s creativity and imagination thrives. I marvel at how she asks my opinion on pitches and runs leads by me—wasn’t this the kid who always told me to “mind my own beeswax” when it came to her school essays and rolled her eyes when I recounted my own tales of breaking into the publishing industry. “Mom, that was a long time ago, now everything is digital.” She isn’t wrong; things have changed a great deal in media. But I still can craft a clever turn of phrase and knock out an attention-grabbing title or caption.
I give her a book, one that I was required to read each semester in college journalism classes, William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. She soaks it in, jotting notes and quoting its passages back to me. One in particular resonates: “Writers are the custodians of memory.” How could I have forgotten this? How have I let my voice go silent when I need it the most, to express my fear, anguish and yes, hope, during these times of mass uncertainty?
I write an essay…then another…then another, and I print them out, handing my daughter a pile of pages to read.
“You really want me to critique them?” she asks, “I mean, you’re the writer.”
No, Carrie, we both are.
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Sheryl Berk is a New York Times Bestselling Author and celebrity ghostwriter, as well as the former founding editor in chief of Life & Style Weekly. With her daughter Carrie Berk, she has written three children’s book series: The Cupcake Club, Fashion Academy and Ask Emma.