Wherever you are in life - earnest Catholic, aspiring author, discerning woman, wife, or mom - Simcha Fisher has insight to share. Last March, she spoke to a crowded ballroom at the FemCatholic Conference, and today, with her signature humor and strident chagrin, Simcha answers a few of our questions about her writing and publishing process, podcasting with her husband, Damien, and daily life in the Fisher household.
FemCatholic: Your writing is nationally and internationally syndicated, you travel the country as a well-loved speaker, you’re a respected Catholic commentator and moderator, a published author, a regular podcast host, a wife, and a mom, raising 10 kids with your husband. Did I leave anything out?
Simcha Fisher: No, but when you put it that way, it sounds like a completely different person. Sometimes people ask me how I manage to do it all, and I'm kind of baffled. Then I realize, "Oh, they think I'm doing everything well." I'm not. My house is a wreck. I miss deadlines. Everything smells weird and I have a very poor relationship with the cat. My spiritual life is a circus act, and not in the fun way. But I do have a preternatural ability to pick myself up and start over ten billion times, and that has proved very useful.
FC: How would you describe your ideal writing environment, and how does that compare to the reality of your usual writing environment?
SF: I write my best work hunched over on my bed, wearing clothes I slept in, drinking cold coffee from a cup balanced on my leg, telling kids I'll be done in a few minutes, and scritching my scritchy blanket to help me think. There are probably better scenarios, but I'm too old to change. I also write in airports, at McDonald's, on playgrounds, on receipts at red lights, in Adoration, and in my head when I really need to be sleeping.
FC: Your book, The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning, has become a quintessential gift for Catholic newlyweds, the most recommended book in social media complaint threads on Natural Family Planning (NFP), and a staple on any Catholic family bookshelf. What motivated you to write the book?
SF: After we had three kids in three years, we figured it was time to buckle down and start learning that NFP thing people were always talking about. As serious (or trying-to-be serious) Catholics, we were committed to using it and our local Catholic hospital actually paid for lessons. But we quickly found that the mechanics of it - the charting, the recording - were only one piece of the puzzle, and what we really needed help with were the psychological and spiritual aspects of NFP.
What we really needed help with were the psychological and spiritual aspects of NFP.
There was a lot of happy talk about marriage building, increased communication, and low divorce rates, but when we actually started using NFP, we found instead that we were confused, hurt, frustrated, and lonely. It was near impossible to find information about how to actually live while using NFP. How do you talk about it so you and your spouse understand each other? What do you do when you're not having sex? What can you do when you're not having sex? What can you do when you are having sex? How do you figure out when to use NFP? Why is there such a mismatch between men's and women's expectations, and how do you stay happy? Is this what God really wants for us? What is wrong with us? Is it always going to be this difficult?
Happily, I had an online group of friends who were going through the same thing. I learned so much from that community over the years, from people who had been through what I was going through and who came out stronger and happier on the other end; and from people who were going through things completely different from my experience, but whose issues and lives were just as Catholic as mine.
I wanted to write something that would give other people the comfort and encouragement I received from that group, but also something to challenge them to realize the breadth and depth of the lived experience of other Catholics. Also, I wanted to remind people that it's good and healthy to laugh about sex. Sex is so very profound, but it's also really silly sometimes. Being able to laugh puts our trials in perspective.
FC: From what I understand, publishers weren’t initially interested in your manuscript, turning it down as a niche topic that wouldn’t interest most readers. Obviously, they were wrong. Was there ever a moment that you believed them and thought about scrapping the book?
Yes, many publishers thought it was too dark and irreverent. They wanted something joyful and edifying. Frankly, I think my book is joyful and edifying. It's just not covered with pink frosting and edged with lace. A lot of Catholics aren't comfortable talking about sex, and they're especially uncomfortable hearing a woman talk about sex. That made me mad. Biologically and emotionally, women carry an outsized burden when it comes to sex and reproduction. But we're supposed to use euphemisms and veiled language and somehow just draw on our mystical feminine intuition to do some of the hardest things known to mankind. This is flat-out cruel. We should be able to talk plainly and sincerely about what we're actually experiencing in love and marriage, so we can work through the hard parts, and so we can realize we're not alone.
[Women] should be able to talk plainly and sincerely about what we're actually experiencing in love and marriage
Anyway, I thought I had something to say that people would like to hear, and a friend who is a successful author persuaded me that self-publishing isn't just for losers, so I did it. And it did really well! Then I had the inexpressibly delicious experience of being approached by the same publishers who rejected me, asking for print rights.
If you want to be a professional writer, you should expect to do it without being paid for a good long time, and you should expect a ton of frustration and self-doubt. But if you find that you can't help writing, then you're a writer, even if no one ever pays you for your work.
FC: Anyone who listens to your podcast, “I’ll See Myself Out,” experiences first hand your down-to-earth approach to life. You laugh easily through stories and conversation and call out absurdity in everyday life. What is your favorite episode or topic so far?
SF: I like talking about movies, actually. Damien and I have very different taste in movies, but we take them pretty seriously. I love it when we discover some underrated gem and persuade other people that it's worth watching.
FC: When your husband, Damien, joins you on the podcast, there’s a dynamic that’s somewhat unfamiliar in public showcases of Catholic marriage. He pours you a drink. You poke fun at each other’s idiosyncrasies. You’ve mastered the ability to be, at once, each other’s prime annoyance and uncompromising ally. The best description might be that you seem to genuinely like each other. How has that dynamic developed over time?
SF: We have always liked each other and loved each other and wanted good for each other, but we have been through some dark and terrible times together. Part of that was the pressure of having a bunch of little kids and hardly any money, but we are also both very prone to depression and anxiety, and we've only started really dealing with that in the last few years. We've been married for 22 years. I wish we had gotten help sooner. I wish we had realized that some struggle and sorrow is normal, but intense suffering isn't.
I wish we had realized that some struggle and sorrow [in marriage] is normal, but intense suffering isn't.
We are so happy now. We both work from home, we go running together, we cook together, we drink together. We get along best when we're together a lot, which gives us plenty of opportunities to be nice to each other, and also to be jerks to each other and then to get over it.
I think it's probably helpful for people to realize that good, strong, healthy, happy marriages go through many different seasons, for want of a better phrase, and it's helpful to take the long view. There are peaks and valleys. Lots of peaks and valleys.
FC: What does a typical day look like for you?
SF: We take turns getting up early to get the kids to their various schools, and then the morning person comes home and wakes up the sleeper, and then we go for a run. Our 19-year-old is taking a gap year, so she can be home with the preschooler, which is immensely helpful. Damien is a reporter who works from home, so he's on the road a lot, but also around a lot more than he used to be, so we cobble together a schedule for the day. We both try to cram in as much work as we can before the afternoon insanity begins, but we're both also kind of always working. We mock each other mercilessly for being degenerates who don't know how to stop working.
FC: What book should everyone read?
SF: The Brothers Karamazov. The Iliad. Moby Dick. The Fannie Farmer Cookbook.
FC: Could you talk about the choices you make about education for your kids?
SF: We homeschooled for about six years. The local schools were intolerable in that town, so we didn't really have a choice; but I also had a lot of dumb ideas about sort of keeping my kids pure from contagion. I was getting more and more overwhelmed, and then we moved, and a new Catholic private school opened up, so we sent a few of the kids there. The school itself was a disaster, but at least we discovered we could do something other than homeschool, and not die. We looked into parochial school, but it was hideously expensive; so then we discovered there is a great little charter school not too far away. Most of my kids now go there, and then they attend the giant public high school.
It was very liberating to realize that there are problems and gaps with the education they're getting . . . and that will always be the case, no matter what kind of education your kids are getting. Nothing is going to be ideal in every way. But we've been pleasantly surprised at what a good education the kids are getting in public school. Yeah, we've had to correct some bad ideas they picked up from their friends and teachers; but we feel like it's better to address these things and talk through them, rather than shield kids and have them be unprepared.
It was very liberating to realize that there are problems and gaps with the education they're getting . . . and that will always be the case, no matter what kind of education your kids are getting.
Of course, this varies depending on what your kid is like, and what the school is like. What I always encourage people to do is to remember that one school is just that: one school, and it's foolish to make assumptions about what "that kind of school" is like. Some public schools are good, and some are bad, just like some home schools are good and some are bad, some Catholic schools are good and some are bad, etc. And just about every school has some good and some bad.
FC: Your cooking series, "What’s For Supper?” is impressive: diverse and gourmet with a humorous reality check of what it takes to routinely feed a 12-person household of restricted diets, picky eaters, and distracted little ones. Do you have a go-to meal that everyone in the family will eat?
SF: Everyone loves shawarma! I have an oven roasted chicken shawarma recipe that's fantastic, and I serve it with about fourteen little bowls of various toppings and sides, so everyone can pick what they like. That's my best strategy: I present you with lots of decent choices, and you build a meal that looks good to you. I've found that offering good things with little or no pressure is an effective strategy, and the kids very often decide to give it a try on their own. I have no desire to fight about food. They can go fix themselves cereal if they want. If they eat a reasonably balanced diet over the course of a day, or even over the course of a week, I don't stress out about individual meals.
FC: You convey a spirituality that’s orthodox and grounded in Catholic tradition but not scrupulous or obsessive. Could you share more about your faith life, both personally and as a family?
SF: I worry a lot that I'm not doing as good a job as my parents did in transmitting the Faith. I really knew my stuff when I was growing up. Lots of memory work. But I also picked up a lot of rotten ideas about what God is like, and I have had to work pretty hard to shed those, and to really feel assured of God's tenderness and mercy. So Damien and I tend to focus more on teaching our kids the beauty of the Faith, and the centrality of having a genuine relationship with Christ, and I kind of figure they can always look up specifics if they need to know them.
I don't know how it's working out, to be honest. They don't hate and fear going to Confession like I did, so we must be doing something right. We pray together every night; we pray before meals; we all attend Mass. The house is full of the most beautiful, appealing religious imagery I can find. We cross ourselves when we pass a church, and pray when we hear a siren. If there's decent faith formation available, we go to that. From time to time, I read theology books with the older kids, with mixed success. I try to make expressions of our Faith a normal part of every single day, and we try to make it easy to talk about, and easy to laugh about, too. It's central and of immense value, but also not some arcane, untouchable museum piece.
[The Faith is] central and of immense value, but also not some arcane, untouchable museum piece.
It's probably the thing I worry about the most. Am I doing enough? Am I saying the wrong things and turning them away? Do they look at my life and see hypocrisy? But all you can do is entrust your children to Mary and to God, over and over again. And hope that if they do leave, they'll come back again. Damien and I both left the Church as teenagers, and we sure came back.
Find out more and follow Simcha's work at www.simchafisher.com.