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Episode 135: Utah Policy editor Holly Richardson on how her testimony has helped her tackle the unpredictabilities of motherhood

Holly Richardson, who has a large and unique family, joins the Church News podcast to talk about Mother’s Day

As Mother’s Day fast approaches, this episode of the Church News podcast looks at the power of love, service, faith, community involvement and recognizing and elevating the potential we see in others – just as so many mothers do every day.

The editor of Utah Policy, Holly Richardson is a former Utah legislator, current columnist and contributor to the Deseret News; she holds a master’s degree in professional communication and a doctorate in political science. She and her husband, Greg, are the parents of a large and unique family of 25 children from eight countries.

She speaks about her journey in life as a writer, politician, educator and mother — and, most important, how her testimony of the Atonement of Jesus Christ has helped her tackle the unpredictabilities of life.

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Transcript

​​Holly Richardson: And I’ll just tell you, sometimes it’s really dark. I can’t feel the Spirit and what I’ve learned is when I keep moving on the path and doing the things that I know bring light, that eventually the light comes back. That’s what I’ve learned, going through more than one loss. Like, I’ve been collapsed on the floor, sobbing, it hurt so bad. But also knowing that as I read my scriptures, as I turn things over to the Savior, as I go to the temple, even if I feel nothing at the time, that over time, that light starts to come back. And it’s something that I’m really grateful for. And I love a lot of times where it feels like I don’t know what the next step is, but I know that it can be there and the light will be there. I know that it happens, and I just can’t back away from it.

1:03  

Sarah Jane Weaver: I’m Sarah Jane Weaver, editor of the Church News. Welcome to the Church News podcast. We are taking you on a journey of connection as we discuss news and events of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

As Mother’s Day fast approaches, this episode of the Church News podcast looks at the power of love, of service, of faith, of community involvement and of recognizing and elevating the potential we see in others — just as so many mothers do every day. Today, we welcome the editor of Utah policy, Holly Richardson.

Holly is a former Utah legislator, a current columnist and contributor to the Deseret News and Church News. She holds a master’s degree in professional communication and a PhD in political science. She and her husband, Greg, are the parents to a large and unique family of 25 children from eight countries. Today, we speak about her journey in life as a writer, politician, educator, and mother and how her testimony of the Atonement of Jesus Christ has helped her tackle the unpredictability of life. Holly, welcome to the Church News podcast.

2:11  

Holly Richardson: Well, thank you so much for having me. I’m really glad to be here.

2:14  

Sarah Jane Weaver: I am hoping we can start and I just want to hear a little bit about how you came to this point in your life. You’ve got a large family, you spent a lot of years at home raising children.

2:27

Holly Richardson: Yes.

2:28

Sarah Jane Weaver: And you and your husband met and married and was this always the plan?

2:31  

Holly Richardson: No. So, we have a, an almost typical BYU student story. We met at BYU and we were in the same ward. We married and we thought we would just have a, “quote on quote,” typical LDS family with maybe six kids and everything would be great. And we had our first child within a year of being married. And then, in rapid succession, we had our second and our third, but our second had really severe disabilities. And it really, it really changed the trajectory of our lives to have this daughter born to us where I really had no experience with dealing with children with disabilities. I was trained as a registered nurse before I married my husband, but having this daughter just really changed the whole perspective, I think, of how we were going to parent and what our life was going to look like. And we didn’t know at the time, but her coming is what led to us adopting all of these kids.

So, I always wanted to be a mom. That was my goal when I was a little girl — is to grow up and be a mom. I love babies. I thought it was really great. I was a, you know, babysitter, popular babysitter when I was younger. So we have these three kids. And we started to see news reports come out of Romania, this would have been early 1990, we started to see news reports that there were orphanages in this country about the size of Oregon, right. They had initial reports for 5,000 and later reports, it was over 50,000 children. And I, in my naivete at the time, I could not believe that there were still orphanages in the world. And my first response was, “Oh my gosh, I want to adopt a child from Romania.” But that seemed like a pipe dream. My husband and I had these three little kids, one with disabilities.

And then we moved from Washington State down to Utah. We bought our first house. We had no money. And then around Christmas time of 1990, there was a show on television and my husband was watching and he said, “Holly, you’ve got to come in here.” And it happened to be the Barbara Walters 20/20 special where she talked about these orphans in Romania. And they showed kids who are tied to beds and they showed a couple of families who had successfully adopted. And I am telling you, I was on fire with the Spirit and it was overwhelming. And even when I talk about it now, I still feel it, right. It was overwhelming. And I just looked at my husband and I said, “I have to go.” And he said, “I know.” And a few weeks later, I was in Romania.

And in fact, a funny side story: I transmitted through Yugoslavia. Before I was done with the adoptions, Yugoslavia didn’t exist as a country anymore. So, that’s how we started, right? That’s how we started. And we ended up with this really large family. And you mentioned I stayed home. I did. I actually, my first degree was an associate degree. And I didn’t go back to school until I was 49 and most of my kids were grown. And then I went and got a bachelor’s degree, and then a master’s, and then a PhD and I’m 58. And our ninth grandchild was just born. But I love being a mom and it’s also the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

Holly Richardson and her husband, Greg Richardson, on their wedding day. | Courtesy Holly Richardson

5:43  

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and we talk about a lot of things when we talk about motherhood. And I think we hear a lot when we talk about motherhood. And there’s so much wrapped up in that and very few bishops know how to conduct a Mother’s Day meeting, because they worry that there is sensitivities for people who want to be mothers and are not, or for women who wish they were better mothers or who who mourn for unexpected things that hit their lives with their kids or for kids who are not in the faith. And there is just so much complexity.

But when I think about you, I think about this ability to advocate and to lift and strengthen other people. And that is one of the things that, I think, mothers do very well. You know, there is no more impassioned plea than for the second grade spelling test. “This word really was spelled right!” And so you learned to advocate on that very first trip in 1991 in Romania. Tell us a little bit about that.

6:42  

Holly Richardson: Yeah, sure. So over time, I’ve gained this reputation of being, you know, kind of a fierce advocate. But it did start with my kids and it started there in Romania. My husband stayed home. He actually stayed home to work, because, like I said, we didn’t have any money. And my mother and my mother-in-law, both split a month. I was gone for two months. So my mother-in-law was there for a month and my mom was there for a month. And while I was in Romania, it was really a spiritual and also a very difficult experience. But one of the things that happened is the senior missionary couple that was their were Elder and Sister Price at the time, and Elder Price gave me a blessing. And he told me in that blessing, “You have already found one child. You are going to find your next child tomorrow.” And so, I knew exactly who I had already found — it was a little girl with Down syndrome. And then the next day was a trip to an orphanage and I just knew immediately which child was meant to come home with us.

And for some reason, one of the men helping us — we were able to adopt the second child without any trouble. And then he said, “OK, that’s enough. You can go home.” And I said, “I know that this little girl is supposed to come home with me. It is a little girl with Down syndrome.” And, and he said, “No, you need to go home.” And I said, “I know I need to take this little girl home.” And I was scared out of my mind. I was 26 years old. There is this man yelling at me. He was like, three inches away from my face. And I just said, “I know she’s supposed to come home with me.” And I said, “If you can’t help me, can you help me find somebody who will?” And eventually, it was the driver who had been taking us around who helped me. And it actually went through really well.

The adoption was very smooth — the process — and it took a little bit longer to get her cleared, because at the time Down syndrome was considered an excludable condition from the Centers for Disease Control. So we had to get extra permission to bring her home, but we did and she lived with us for about three and a half years. And then she passed away. But we just were blessed to have her. But that’s really where my activism started is, “I will advocate for my children.” I think the phrase, “Mama Bear” — I think everybody’s familiar with that. There’s a reason for that.

8:52  

Sarah Jane Weaver: I want to deal with something very early in this podcast, because in order to go get these two precious children from Romania, you had to leave three kids at home and a husband. I am sure that over the years, you have been criticized for some of the very personal decisions that you and your husband have made as you have planned your family.

9:15

Holly Richardson: Yes.

9:16

Sarah Jane Weaver: How do you deal with that?

9:19  

Holly Richardson: Well, it gave me good experience for being involved in politics, too. So, I think one of the things that I was first really cognizant of is people criticizing the family size. So it wasn’t so much that we went to Romania. There was a lot of people who went when we went, but it was that we had three biological children, then we adopted two, and we were going to adopt our third child which would have been six, overall. We had some comments about, “Your family is big enough and you know. You are starting to have miscarriages. That’s God’s way of telling you that your family is big enough.” Sometimes things happen, but I don’t think that’s how He helps us do family planning.

But I took some of those criticisms to heart and I really had to ask myself, “Are we doing a disservice to these kids?” And, and I had, actually, two answers and one of them is, you know, “What is the alternative?” Are we the perfect family? No, we’re not. Right, we believe that children should be able to be raised by a mother and father who are married and who love each other. Right? And that includes where they are born. But that is not the ideal. These were kids that were already in orphanages. They were considered hard to place. Some of them were older. Some of them had disabilities. Some of them were a different race. Some of them came as a sibling group. Right? So we actually deliberately looked for children who were considered hard to place. So that was one issue.

What is the perfect scenario? It was not to come to an adoptive home, right? But the rest of the question is, well, “What then, right?” And children who grew up in orphanages don’t have really great outcomes as adults. So that was one factor. And the other one was literally me, saying, “I do not want to get to the other side and have Heavenly Father say to me, ‘Holly, I had more kids for your family, but you were too worried about what the neighbors would say to go get them.’” And I just thought, “That’s it. I’m gonna go.”

And we’ve had criticisms, but I had them in politics. I have them when I write sometimes, you know, and I think it’s part of being out there and living in a way that’s really, it’s kind of different. I mean, it’s even different within the [Latter-day Saint] culture. It’s very large. Our family is very big. We have multiple races; we have multiple ethnicities; we have kids with all kinds of abilities and disabilities; and we have lost children. We have 19 living out of those 25. And that is, you know, heartbreaking to go through. So, we just, it’s been, like I said, one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but it’s also been one of the greatest blessings.

Holly Richardson is editor of Utah Policy. | Courtesy Holly Richardson

11:46  

Sarah Jane Weaver: And I want to talk about the process of adoption, because what we hear most is people saying, “I tried to adopt, I have done everything I can. I have one child.” Or, you know, “It just didn’t work out for us.” Now, we just need to acknowledge that that looks different for every family. And that it is a difficult journey.

12:08  

Holly Richardson: Yeah. Yeah, and, you know, I had times where people actually said to me while we were adopting, “You’ are doing it the easy way.” And I would say, “There is no easy way,” right? I mean, the reams of paperwork, and the amount of money, and the time and things, but I have to say this right off the bat. It is not as easy to adopt now as it was when we adopted, at least internationally. Things have changed significantly worldwide and it is much harder. And it really is, sometimes people will try for months and years and not be successful in bringing a child home and my heart is with you.

We were lucky enough to have timing work out so that there was a window of time where international adoptions were kind of on the upswing and we were there just right at the right time. Our last international adoption was 2004. So it is already been almost 20 years, right — 19 years ago. And things changed significantly. So that’s one thing. But the other thing is that ... was right for our family was to look for children, like I already said, who were harder to place.

So we did not go out looking for newborns. We actually adopted a couple of newborns, but they were also hard to place. They were born to a mother who was addicted to [Methamphetamine]. And so there are, you know, consequences — long term consequences — for that. But we just were willing to say, “You know, we’ll take a child who needs a home.” And that was because of Elizabeth who was born to us, right? And we’re like, “OK, once I got over the grieving part,” there was some real grief there. And there was also guilt layered onto that, because I thought if I was a faithful member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I wouldn’t grieve. I wouldn’t be sad. I would just say, “This is God’s will and so everything is going to be great.” And it turned out great. But it didn’t start that way, right.

It was a process of learning. And now, of course, I count it as one of the great blessings of our lives. But it was very, very difficult at the beginning. But once we moved through that part of the breathing, it was just like, my heart just expanded, like, you know, three times. I don’t think I was the Grinch going in, but it expanded three times that way. And I just said, “Look, if any child needs a family, that we can help provide that for, we want to do that.” And I will also say, we got into things that we had no idea what we were going to be dealing with.

14:31  

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and I want to talk about Elizabeth. So this baby comes to you, and it sets you on a path that changes your entire life, but that had to just be overwhelming to a young couple.

14:45

Holly Richardson: Oh, yeah. ... We had just moved from Utah [when she was born]. My husband had graduated from college, and we had moved up to Washington State so we actually didn’t know anybody. We were outside of our support group and here is this child that’s born with disabilities. So she was born in 1988. We did not know before she was born that she was going to have disabilities. And when she was born, the doctors were like, “We can tell there’s something wrong. We don’t know exactly what it is. So we can’t tell you exactly what her lifespan will be. But it could be a month, or it could be a year or it could be for years.” In the end, it ended up being 17 years. But it was just, you’re right, totally overwhelming to this young couple. And we had a toddler who was only 19 months old. And just like, “What do we do with this information?” Right. And, you know, there were people there to help us learn the process of helping her have therapies. And she had club feet and her hands were turned in. And so she wore splints and some things like that. But it was, yeah, really overwhelming.

15:48  

Sarah Jane Weaver: And now I want to talk about what you learned from that, because so much of what we hope to talk about today is this idea of how do you recognize the potential in others? And how do you help them reach the potential for their very life? And that looks different for each of your kids based on their abilities and their opportunities.

16:09  

Holly Richardson: It does. And you know, one of the things that I loved is I had a lot of reliance on the gospel. I did a lot of searching and reading. And I’m a real reader and so I tried to find as many sources as I could. And I love the internet now, because everything is so readily available. But I found a quote from Joseph Smith, it said something, basically, that every soul that comes to earth is capable of enlargement or enlightenment. And I just thought with Elizabeth, right. She never really developed past maybe a three-month-old level, but she still had the ability to develop. So she learned to actually work a toy where she could push a button and it would make a sound and it would make her laugh, right. Or she learned if we tied a helium balloon on her wrist, she could yank on it and it would bounce and it would make her laugh. And I feel like with her, the veil was very, very thin and that she could see people on the other side and that she was interacting with them often. And that was a real blessing in our family too. Because she’d look over our shoulder and it was clear, she was looking at someone that we couldn’t see, you know. And it’s like, well, that was a great gift.

But what that did for me was say that every child that came into my family, I did not have a set of expectations for them. I did not go into any parenting, any child after Elizabeth to say, “Well, you’re all going to be straight A students and you’re going to go to college, and you’re going to have this and you’re going to have that.” Because her abilities were so different, it really helped me and my husband become flexible in our expectations for our kids. Which is one of the reasons I think we were successful at raising these kids to be productive members of society. They are all adults now, except for one, and the ones that are living, and they all have jobs, and they are out and they are working and they are making their way. And you know, and it looks different for everybody. I have a son who works for a very big tech company and Texas is where he lives. And I have another son who has his own blacksmithing business. And I have, you know, a daughter, who is, she’s a brand new mom. But she found a job where she could be at home, because she wants to be a mom and so she is able to work at home with this new baby. I mean, there’s just all kinds of different ways that they have found their way and are finding their way. 

Our fourth child — I did have one other biological child four years after my third. And he is 28, now, almost 29. He is in a wheelchair, mentally normal, physically disabled. My expectations for him are different, right, than some of the other kids. And I think that has been really helpful. Sometimes the kids complained. “It’s not fair,” right. It’s like, “Yeah, you’re right, because you’re not all in the same area.” So different kids have different rules. Different kids do different activities, right. It would not be fair to say, everybody is going to be, you know, grounded or not everybody had a curfew, because some of my kids were more reliable, right and they would come home on time. Some of the kids needed a curfew.

So anyway, that is really how we approached it is to say we are going to expect and help you do the best that you can for you. And maybe that’s a “C” at school. I’m going to be super happy, right. And maybe for you it’s an “A”, right. And that’s really great, because it’s really easy for you to get an “A” in school. And anyway, things were just very different and varied. And I think that that, it’s more rare than I realized. I thought that maybe every parent approached parenting that way, but a lot don’t. And I think it was really thanks to Elizabeth that really helps me see not every child needs the same thing.

Holly Richardson and her husband, Greg Richardson. | Courtesy Holly Richardson

19:38  

Sarah Jane Weaver: And you brought a lot of children into your home with disabilities. You have a nursing background, which I’m sure was helpful to you, but you were dealing with a whole spectrum of abilities in your home. Give us an idea of what that looked like.

19:52  

Holly Richardson: Well, everybody wants to know, you know, “How much food did you go through?” And at the peak of having kids at home, we had 20 children at home at one time. And they went from age one to age 17. I had four in diapers. I had two in wheelchairs. My 17 year old did not drive. So it was my husband and I; we were the only drivers. And we would literally go through — we never were big milk drinkers — but we’d go through like eight gallons of milk a week. When we made hotdogs, it would be 60 hotdogs at a time. We would go through loafs and loafs and loafs of bread. I mean, just incredible amounts of food. When I made pancakes, it was octa-pling the recipe.

And one of the things that is funny is that now, that my husband and I, (we have adult kids living with us and our eight-year-old granddaughter that we’re raising) we have a really hard time cooking for only two or three or four. Right? We’re like, “How do we cut this recipe down? I don’t remember.” So yeah, I mean, it was really, just really intense. And I, again, I was home with the kids, and I was home all day and it was, you know, get up before the sun go to bed way after the sun and work like crazy in between just getting them fed and clothed and to school and all the many appointments that we had and stuff.

And I think people with kids with disabilities might be familiar with “IEPs”, which are individualized education plans that you can do with the school. I think I did over 100 of those as a parent, right? I’m not a teacher. I’m not a principal. But we just had to keep going in and saying, “OK, well, we just adopted a seven-year-old. She’s never held a pencil. She doesn’t know the alphabet in her own native language,” right. And so we are going to need help teaching her everything. She learned the basics of how to butcher a cow and how to grind corn before we adopted her, but she didn’t know, colors. It wasn’t a critical survival skill, right. And so there was, some times we had to start from the really bare basics.

Anyway, we adopted a couple of sibling sets. I had a seven-year-old and a 10-year-old brother set that came. And in fact, my son that was 10, when he came to us, he just turned 30, and he went on his [Latter-day Saint] mission to Richmond, Virginia, where he is super excited that they just dedicated the temple. So it’s just, you know, it’s really been fun and hard. And, you know, not all of my kids are still active in the Church. And I think it’s one of the things that parenting has taught me, is that I really have this really deep gratitude to know that we are in act two of a three-act play. And that some of them came with really significant issues. We didn’t know a lot about attachment disorder until we adopted (after the fact) and just a variety of things, right. And I just know that in the end, all will be made right. And I don’t worry about meeting their family on the other side. Like none of that is concerning to me. I think we are all going to be happy. And I think we will all love each other.

23:00  

Sarah Jane Weaver: And that brings me to my next point, because so much of what we accomplish in life is accomplished with the support of other people. And so you must have an amazing husband, but also a ward that was patient and supported each of your kids in different needs and probably some pretty great school teachers along the way.

23:21  

Holly Richardson: Yeah, so I actually homeschooled for the first 12 years. And part of that, was I wanted the kids, as they joined the family, to really feel like they were part of the Richardson family culture before they got picked up by other cultural influences, especially coming from orphanages and in countries that were still developing. So, so yeah, we have had support. We have also, honestly, had times where we felt very, very lonely. And it was hard to know, honestly, who we could turn to for help, who we could trust. And it’s sometimes been very difficult.

But I remember we had a bishop when we moved into the ward, where we live now, which has been, almost 20 years ago. And he called Greg and I into his office and he said, “Help us know how to support your family.” That meant a lot, right? He said, “We’re not used to families with kids in wheelchairs.” And ... it was like, “Wow, OK.” So I appreciate the effort. It was good.

And we had to go into Young Women’s one time and talk to them about mental health. I have a daughter who really struggles — still struggles — with mental health and they were willing to reach out to her and talk to her. I have children from Africa, so they’re black. That’s been an issue sometimes, and sometimes not right. But I have had kids who have been willing to stand up and say, you know, “In Church I don’t feel welcome when I am hearing you say these words about me or, you know, just sometimes perpetuating I think some false doctrine about their righteousness and the pre-existence,” right. It’s very painful, oftentimes. So, we have had help and we’ve also felt very lonely at times.

25:05  

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, I want to talk about that, as well as the sense of loss that accompanied being willing to take kids with special needs. Some children, you were never even able to bring home before the adoption was finalized. How have you dealt with loss?

25:24  

Holly Richardson: Well, I’ve had a lot of practice and that’s a sad thing to say, right. But the last child that we adopted, we adopted her in 2007. And she was born here in Utah. She was missing most of her brain when she was born. And she needed a family, even knowing she was not going to live very long. So 50% of the kids with her diagnosis die before they’re one. And another 50% of the ones who survive that first year will die before they are five. And she actually passed away when she was three and a half. So we adopted her knowing that she would die. And when I had just had Elizabeth, we actually met a woman who was a foster mother who took in terminally ill children. And I said to my husband, “I could never do that. I couldn’t do it.” But when we adopted Angela, we had not lost Elizabeth yet. But we had lost our daughter with Down syndrome. And we knew that Elizabeth’s life would not be that long and we adopted Angela, knowing that she would pass away.

And I’ll just tell you, sometimes it’s really dark and I can’t feel the Spirit. And what I’ve learned is when I keep moving on the path and doing the things that I know bring light, that eventually the light comes back. That’s what I’ve learned, going through more than one loss, right. Is sometimes like, “I’ve been collapsed on the floor, sobbing, feeling like I wanted to crawl out of my skin, it hurt so bad.” But also knowing that as I read my scriptures, as I turn things over to the Savior, as I go to the temple, even if I feel nothing at the time, that over time, that light starts to come back. And it is, I think, something that I’m really grateful for. And I think too many people feel like if they go through a period of darkness, it means that they should just, you know, jump ship.

And I live a lot of times where it feels like, “I don’t know what the next step is, but I know that it can be there and the light will be there.” I relied on my faith a lot. But I’ve done things like listening to inspirational music, the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square. I put them on repeat and listened a lot. Journaling has been a powerful outlet for me and for a method of healing. I’m not great at getting out and exercising — that works for a lot of people, though. Who has the time for that? Practice of gratitude, right? I started to do like, that just little tiny things where I could, I could try and make a difference. 

27:59  

Sarah Jane Weaver: And now I want to talk about the skills that you learned from home as you were raising children, and how you have applied them outside. So you decided to go back to school and did you think, “What next?”

28:16  

Holly Richardson: I did and, you know, I kind of had had a goal — “I want to get a bachelor’s degree.” And so I actually lost an election in 2014. And I’m like, “OK, fine, I’m gonna go to school.” So I started at school to finish a bachelor’s degree and the honest truth is I picked what I thought would be the fastest to just get done. I was 49 and I picked a degree in communication and it turned out I really loved it. And I had already, at that point, I had already started the blog, “Holly on the Hill.” I had already been involved with the legislature. I had already actually been a legislator and I’m like, “OK, I’m just going to do communication, nothing with nursing.” And it was great. I loved it. And I also had a chance to be a midwife; it was also great, I also loved it. And it was time to pivot and do something different.

And so I went back to school. I got this degree. Partway through that degree, I’m like, “OK, I think I’m gonna go ahead and get a master’s degree.” And I had friends who were recommending this online program and I actually went there and it was Southern Utah University. I did my entire master’s program online. I didn’t have to leave my house until I went to graduation, which was really great, because that let me take care of the family full time during the day. I did a lot of my work between 9 p.m. and midnight, and like 5 a.m. and 7 a.m., right, before the kids were really up. In fact, I had one professor, I was at least halfway through the program, and he said to me, “I noticed that you get your assignments in like two minutes before the midnight deadline. Are you sure you can handle this program?” I was Like, “Yep, I just know it works for me.” And he’s like, “OK.” So, I basically got straight “A’s” or “A-’s” that whole program.

And as I was getting through that program, I didn’t know exactly what was next. But my husband said to me, “I think, you should think about a PhD.” And I said, “No, I’m not smart enough for a PhD.” And he said, “I really, I really think that you can do it.” And so kind of spur the moment, which is how I make decisions often, I applied and I applied to two different programs. I was nicely rejected from one and accepted to the other and four years later, I had a PhD. That was just last year. So I never thought that would be the case, right? So I did not have my life planned out at 25.

30:22  

Sarah Jane Weaver: Wow, well, and could you have ever imagined where you’d be? 

30:27  

Holly Richardson: No, not in a million years, right, not in a million years. In fact, I did a talk that’s on the Church’s website, I think it’s a “Hope Works” talk. And I say people asked me, “Did you plan this?” I’m like, “Who plans this?” right. So I have grown kids, young adults, now that are saying, “Oh, my gosh, I’m 23 I have my whole life planned out.” I’m like, “You do not need your life planned out.” And even if I had had my life planned out, it has pivoted so many times. Like I said, I didn’t even know I was going to get a PhD until literally two weeks before I applied. So like, things pivot all the time, and you don’t have to know what you are going do for the next 40 years when you’re 23.

31:11  

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and let’s talk politics for a minute. You have all of these responsibilities at home, you’ve learned a lot about raising kids, and what on earth made you decide to run for the legislature?

31:26  

Holly Richardson: Well, like many women, actually, who get involved in politics, there was an issue that I really cared deeply about. And it spurred me to action, just like my activism with my kids did in Romania. So what happened was, I was a midwife. So I had been a registered nurse. I became a midwife, but I was doing home births. And at the time, there was a midwife who was arrested and charged with practicing medicine without a license. And we felt like there was a — at least a contingent of us within the midwifery community — who felt like it was the law that was the problem, not that her practice was the problem. And we decided that we were going to change the law.

So we had plenty of people say, “Holly, you don’t know what you’re doing. It can’t be done. You’re going up against one of the most powerful lobbyists in the state.” And they were pretty much right about all of that, except that we did do it. It took us five legislative sessions, actually. But we worked on it and it’s still the law. And it’s been the law now for almost 20 years. And that gave me a taste for politics that I had not appreciated before. So I had always been a regular voter, but I didn’t really like politics, I thought it was kind of dirty and messy, and it is, actually. But I saw this process of lawmaking and the policy discussions and they were actually really interesting. 

And when there was an opportunity for me to step up to fill a seat for the current representative who was no longer able to serve, I took it and so I was elected in a special election, and I only served a year. It was a really great year. It was a really hot year. We had some hot immigration policies at the legislature that year, but one of the things I think that it helped me realize, is that politicians actually are real people too. That in Utah, at least, they largely get along with each other, right? They can work with each other pretty well. And it really shifted my viewpoint on some political policies, that year. Specifically was immigration and to have a sense of compassion, because I had been all over the world adopting these children. And I had started doing international humanitarian work, to just say, “Would I, as a parent who felt like my child’s life was in danger, would I tried to get them to safety?” Absolutely, I would, right.

So my parenting informs my politics. And I don’t ever separate my religion, from my politics, right? So I’m always asking, “Well, you know, what would Jesus do?” But it’s, you know, it’s a really interesting kind of conversation. And sometimes people are like, “Well, you have to separate your religion from your politics.” I’m like, I can’t. I can’t. It’s part of my whole person. It informed my dissertation as a PhD student and candidate. It informs my politics and informs my writing when I write and it’s part of my parenting and it just is part of who I am.

Holly Richardson and her husband, Greg, pose in a home with with some of their 25 children and their grandchildren. Adults and children are sitting on the floor or on chairs and others standing on a staircase
Holly Richardson and her husband, Greg, with some of their 25 children and their grandchildren. | Provided by Holly Richardson

34:22  

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, I’d love to talk more about that. We have talked a little bit about this idea that we should bring our full self to the public square. On the Church News podcast, we did a podcast last year with Rabbi Meir Soloveichik. And he spoke about how it is so important that we can be everything that we are not just in our homes, but in public, in politics, in school. How do you find that balance and why does that matter?

34:52  

Holly Richardson: Well, I think it really does matter. I found it interesting, when I first started getting involved in politics, that there were some politicians who seemed to separate the two. I found that a little bit confusing, right, because it’s like, this is part of me as a whole person. I don’t compartmentalize my religious life. I tried to live my testimony. I think it was St. Francis of Assisi, who said, “Bear your testimony everyday and if necessary use words,” right? It’s probably a paraphrase, but something like that. And I want people to be able to say, “Your actions and your words and public match what you say you believe,” right. And so I think the more we have people who feel like they can say that in a way that is also loving, right.

I think all the world’s great religions, they have some kind of golden rule, right. They have some sense of, “We’re going to treat others well and that’s what we’re supposed to do.” I have a Muslim son-in-law now and we just went through Ramadan and his observance of Ramadan, and, you know, praying, and they lived with us for that month. And it was really powerful. And he was very kind, and he is very sensitive to respecting my religion, and we try to respect his, as well, right.

So I think if we had more people who brought their whole selves to the public square and who felt like they could be genuine without being absolutely destroyed, that they would do that. But I think the internet, one of the downsides of it is the anonymity and the quickness with which people can attack others. And so sometimes it’s just a protective mechanism, right. We don’t want to share that, because it feels vulnerable and it’s already vulnerable enough, right. I’ve gotten to a point where it is “I don’t care,” right. I mean, if people close to me have something to say, then it can wound me, but anonymous commenters online, they don’t affect me.

But I’m also not in an elected office. And I know that politicians now are getting more real threats to their safety and to their families safety, right. And I think if more people stopped to think [that] these are real people, they have real families, they have kids, right. We can disagree with their policy, but we can do that in a way that’s respectful. And we can do that in a way that doesn’t make them feel like they’re at risk for PTSD, that their life is at risk, that their safety’s at risk. That’s deeply concerning to me.

37:16  

Sarah Jane Weaver: As we talk about faith in the public square, I want to talk about your faith. How has your membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints influenced who you are?

37:28  

Holly Richardson: Well, I think it’s just all wrapped up into one big, this is who Holly is. And one thing that I have come to really appreciate, I think, as I’ve gotten older, I’m pushing 60, I’ve got a couple more years, but I love this gospel and I love my Savior, right. And I have the best calling in the world right now. I’m a gospel doctrine teacher. I love the deep dive that I get to do into not only the scriptures where I start, but also all this other information that’s now available on, you know, what might have been happening at the time and what some of the words might have been translated as, and there’s a really, a richness and a deepness. ... I’ve had so many experiences, I think, with feeling God’s love, but also His direction with feeling the Savior’s balm. I’ve come to understand the Savior’s Atonement in different ways.

I thought it was just for sin for a long time, right. But when I lost my, my first daughter and I was just beside myself with grief and guilt, and, you know, when I’m sorrowing over kids who are making choices that I wouldn’t make, that He’s there for that too, and that He sees us and knows us in all of that. And so, I feel like, to bring my whole self to anything, I’m just going to bring my whole self and that includes this portion of, you know, really loving the Savior and the gospel. 

And I have kids who have asked me and I have had friends who have asked me, “How can you stay in the Church when sometimes you can see that there might be issues?” I just say, “I have had too many experiences to back away from it,” right. I’ve had too many. There are scriptures that promise that you can move mountains. I’ve never seen a physical mountain move, but I have seen mountains moved to get my kids home. I have seen it. I know that it happens and I just can’t back away from that.

39:29  

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and I’m so glad that earlier you mentioned Richmond, Virginia. Just this weekend, I was at the Richmond Virginia Temple dedication. President Dallin H. Oaks dedicated that temple in this area of the world where we actually get the roots of religious liberty for the United States. And the temple is this beautiful, beautiful symbol there of religious freedom and it’s a beautiful temple. But President Oaks made sure that as he talked about this temple — that is significant to the area and looks like the area — that he also emphasized that the purpose of that temple, and every other temple, is to draw us to the Savior, Jesus Christ, where we can make covenants with Him and become more like Him. You once wrote an article for the Church News about temples. Share your feelings with us about the temple.

40:25  

Holly Richardson: I am lucky enough to actually work in the temple and I was called as an ordinance worker about nine months before COVID shut everything down. But before that, I had been an active temple-goer. And I actually found real, literal strength from going to the temple. There were times with the kids that were so hard, especially as they hit teenagers, the bulk of them, and you know, they’re trying to process through stuff, and they’re, all have their own things, that I would go to the temple seeking strength. And I would come out feeling like my shoulders had been strengthened and I could do it again. I also had times where it was a little bit slower. It was more drop by drop.

But I am not one who goes to the temple and says, “I can answer every time I go.” For me when I go, what happens is it puts me in a state of mind that I feel like inspiration can come when it needs to come. And also what I found in the temple is the more I gave time to the Lord, the more I had time to get the things done that I needed to do. So it’s the Lord’s time. It’s so unique. I would be so busy sometimes with school and family demands. I remember getting close to Thanksgiving one year and I, you know, have this big family, and I’m in charge of this, and I had multiple school projects due, and I had kid stuff. And I just said, “Heavenly Father, I cannot do this by myself. If I go to the temple everyday this week, I know you’ll help me.” And I went every single day that the temple was open. And I got everything done. It does not make sense, but I know that the power is there and I just love it. I love the temple. I love it.

42:02  

Sarah Jane Weaver: And this weekend, Sister Sheri Dew spoke at Women’s Conference.

Holly Richardson: I was there.

Sarah Jane Weaver: I actually saw you there. We both heard her speak. She says there’s just something about going to the temple. You feel different. You feel better. There’s something about priesthood power that can touch and elevate and help you when you’re not there.

42:26  

Holly Richardson: Yeah, and you know, even to the pandemic, I think one of the things that I realized is that in some ways, I had started to use the temple as a crutch. You know, I’ll just go put somebody’s name in on the temple prayer role, and I don’t have to pray for them specifically. And that’s what I wrote about for the Church News is saying, “Ah, I realized that I have started to take this for granted in a way that I shouldn’t,” right. For somebody in Richmond, where it’s new to them, they don’t have to travel nearly as far, right, or some of the other countries where new temples have been dedicated, I think there is that sense of, we are so blessed. And I live one mile from the temple. I can walk there if I want to. And I try not to take it for granted. But it’s always a good exercise to turn inward and say, “Am I taking this for granted? Am I just showing up to check a box?” But I go because I feel enriched and empowered when I go.

43:18  

Sarah Jane Weaver: Yeah, I think COVID changed all of us and the way we view the temple. Our second daughter was preparing to go to the temple to take her endowments out. Her session was the morning that temples shut down And so she had come up from BYU, her bag was packed, and temples close. And something that had always felt so accessible to us was in one instance, out of reach.

43:46  

Holly Richardson: Yeah, out of reach. And I was actually on a humanitarian trip in Colombia and South America when the temples started to close down. And when we got word that they were going to be closed on a Monday, I was in Colombia. And there were three of us. We were able to fit into one of the very last sessions before the temple shut down for months. And it was like, “I don’t speak Spanish, but luckily, they have headphones” and I wanted that one last endowment session before everything shut down.

44:15  

Sarah Jane Weaver: And you know, we are running out of time, but I do want to ask you a question that I think is really important, especially as we contemplate Mother’s Day. And that is this idea of comparison. You have 25 kids. I have three. We’re probably more alike than we are different. But I think it’s so easy, especially for Latter-day Saint women, to look at the lives of other people and say, “Wow, they’re doing so much. I’m maybe not doing that,” or we compare our weaknesses to their strengths. Or we say, “I’m at capacity” and really, the years I was raising my kids, I was at capacity with three kids. And my kids might tell you, “She didn’t do all that well.”

Holly Richardson  45:00  

Kids are rough on their parents. It’s better when you’re grandparents, right?

Holly Richardson is editor of Utah Policy. | Courtesy Holly Richardson

45:05  

Sarah Jane Weaver: How do we get through this life when it’s so easy to compare who we are to who we think we should be?

45:12  

Holly Richardson: Yeah, look, I think one of the things that I have learned is — I have impostor syndrome all the time, right, which means I feel like I’m not doing that great and I look at other people who are doing much better than I am. And it’s easy for me to compare myself. I know that people have asked me, “Can you possibly love all those kids? That just can’t be a thing.” I’m like, “Of course, I love my kids. Of course, I know their names. Of course, I know their birthdates,” right. But we’re not in a race with each other. We’re not in a contest with each other. I know families who have more kids than I do. I know families who are adopting into much older ages than my husband and I are. We are done, but it’s not a race. What it is: “Are we doing the best we can to follow the Spirit for what is right for us and for our family and our family situations,” right?

I always wanted to be a mom and I was blessed with being a mom. I had my first baby 12 months after I got married and that’s a real blessing and yet I have good friends who are still single and that’s painful, right. And I want to be empathetic. If I haven’t had the lived experience, it doesn’t mean that I can’t be empathetic that it’s painful. I don’t love Mother’s Day, actually. It is painful, right. And looking at the perfect families, because I don’t have the perfect family. I’m never going to have all the kids who grew up and got married in the temple. It just is not part of my reality and that’s OK, because I love my kids, and they are great human beings.

And I think we really do ourselves a disservice in the Church, especially as sisters in the Church, when we start to hold up — not buoy each other up — but we start to point fingers at, “Well, you know, you’re doing that” and take it as an affront, right. Sometimes people take my adoption as an affront to them. It’s not about them, right. And it wasn’t about people who said, “Well, you know, you should leave those kids for other people to adopt.” Like, there are so many children in the world that you can go adopt another child, right.

So to really just move past this idea of comparison. And really, how can we lift each other? Because I think you’re right, we’re way more alike than we are different. I thought parenting kids was hard. I thought, you know, I have some favorite stages and some less favorite stages, right. You know, it’s hard. And I’ve learned great lessons, but, you know, I think some people have this idea, “Well, you just got a PhD and you have 24 toddlers at home.” That is not the truth. My oldest is 36.

47:37  

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and I love sitting in Relief Society. I do love Relief Society. But what I really love about Relief Society — and it’s taken me a long time to learn this — but I can be in a room with women of all different ages, and all different life experiences and often of many different cultures, and who have different challenges and opportunities every single day and I know that whoever I sit by, we’re going to be linked by our belief in Jesus Christ.

48:13  

Holly Richardson: You know what I love, I love this ability to connect through story, right, because we do have common stories. And I think one of the things that’s powerful is, when I’ve done international work, I’ve done work with refugees where it would look like on the surface, I don’t have anything in common with them. I was not chased out of my village. I didn’t have my child ripped out of my arms. I didn’t see my husband gunned down, right. But where we do connect, is we’re women who want to do what’s best for our family. We want to keep our kids safe. I can relate to a mom who had to bury her child, because I’ve buried a child, right.

And once you start to realize that every human being on this earth is a son or daughter of God and that there is something that we have in common with them, we can look to find that commonality. And when we do, then we have a connection. And you never hate the people that you know, right, or it’s rare, right. But we have this connection. And it’s much easier to say “OK, all right, you have a different political opinion, or you have a different religion or you have a different, you know, family situation, but we’re still sisters in arms or we’re brothers and sisters together.” And I love that.

49:18  

Sarah Jane Weaver: And that is such a perfect place to come to a close. At the Church News podcast, we have a tradition, we always end with the same question. And we always let our guests have the final word. So I am going to turn the mic over to you and, and have you tell us what you know now, after the opportunity to be a mother.

49:38  

Holly Richardson: I know now, that we have Heavenly Parents who love us, because as I have imperfectly loved my children, it has really opened my eyes to how much love Father in Heaven must have for us, right, as He looks down on us and I have this one story I have to share. It’s about child number 25. So when I was a younger mother and I was having a series of miscarriages, and I was really distraught, and I felt like God hated me, and that He was really deliberately hurting me. And I couldn’t reconcile that God with a loving God, right. So I went through some stuff.

Well, fast forward a number of years, and we have this little granddaughter and she’s two years old and she’s kid number 25. She’s throwing this major tantrum on the floor. At this point, I have so much experience as a parent, I just looked at her and said, “You know what, it’s OK. Oh, honey, it’s gonna be OK.” And I just loved her. And in that minute, I realized that Heavenly Father was probably up there saying, “Oh, Holly, it’s gonna be OK. It’s gonna be OK. Hang in there. I’ve got you. I love you.” And I think that the love of me, as a mortal mother, has really helped me connect to Heavenly love, and has given me really just deep, deep gratitude for the ability to keep trying and to move on to act three when it is time.

51:17  

Sarah Jane Weaver: You have been listening to the Church News podcast. I’m your host, Church News editor, Sarah Jane Weaver. I hope you have learned something today about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by peering with me through the Church News window. Please remember to subscribe to this podcast. And if you enjoyed the messages we shared today, please make sure you share the podcast with others. Thanks to our guests to my producer, KellieAnn Halvorsen, and others who make this podcast possible. Join us every week for a new episode. Find us on your favorite podcasting channel, where with other news and updates about the Church on TheChurchNews.com.

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