First married at age 18, Kimberly White emerged from an abusive marriage to earn a degree from BYU in philosophy and marry in the temple. She is the mother of five children, one of whom was stillborn, and currently lives in New York City. She shares her thoughts on the unfinished stories of women who struggle with suffering children, the death of a loved one or trials of every kind.
I was raised in the church. I have seven brothers and sisters. Many things about my upbringing were wonderful, and yet not everything was wonderful. There was a constant background noise of never knowing when I was going to be hurt or insulted or ridiculed because of family dynamics.
In my early life I had a number of times when I would feel overwhelmed by the sad part of my life, frustrated and helpless and very, very lonely. It wasn’t obvious outside the family that there was a problem. Nobody knew that it was rough. But I felt like everything was horrible, and I knelt down and said a prayer and He answered me, as a young child, with comfort and assurance that He was there and He was watching over me.
Then I became a teenager. The teenage years are complicated and you get stupid. I ended up becoming bitter at my situation and I left the Church and I left my home. I ended up married to a person just like the mean people already in my life. It’s a cliché. I was continuing to play out those patterns of abuse.
I became pregnant with my oldest daughter at 18. She was born when I was 19, so I was very young. When I was about 7 months pregnant, I was in a car accident. I started going into labor and at the hospital they told me that if I delivered, the baby probably wouldn’t survive so they were going to try to stop the labor, which they ultimately were able to do.
But I was very scared. As I look back now with the eyes of an adult, it’s clear to me that the doctor who came into the ER to care for me was respectful and comforting and behaving the way a professional doctor should behave to a young mother in a panic. I really appreciated him, but my husband at the time decided that he was flirting with me, and he became so angry he wouldn’t let that doctor come back into the room and actually decided that he wasn’t going to let any male doctors anywhere near me. But at the same time, he wouldn’t himself take responsibility and tell the nurses and doctors, “I’m mad. Don’t let the doctor come back in.” He made me tell the nurse that I didn’t want the doctor to come back in, that I didn’t want to see a man. This is the sort of life I was living. I was afraid all the time. I was blamed for things that were not my fault.
The baby was born a few months later. That day my husband was mad at me for a number of things, so it was a very unpleasant experience having the baby. After she was born, my husband went home to take a nap, and there I was in the hospital, nineteen years old and alone with this baby that I didn’t know what to do with. I thought, “How did this become my life? I’m a smart person! I could have done other things!” It was awful.
For the first time in a long time, I remembered those experiences I had when I was young where I prayed and felt comforted, so I started to say a little prayer, asking God to help me out, and my prayer was interrupted. I felt or heard a voice, not a happy voice, but a stern voice, telling me, “This is not your daughter. This is my daughter. And you are in no position to take care of her.” And I realized that it was true. I was now responsible for another human being, one of Heavenly Father’s children, and I wasn’t in a situation where I was able to give her what she needed. I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t living the gospel. I felt the full force of the decisions I had made. I felt what it meant not just to my life but to hers that I had chosen to become bitter about the problems in my life and had stopped turning to the Lord for help. This is what I’d ended up with.
That was it. In a matter of weeks, I left my husband and moved back home.
It’s a hard thing to do when you’re caught up in a relationship like that–it’s hard to get out of. But I just couldn’t forget that I was responsible for a human being and that I needed to get it right.
The divorce itself was difficult. My parents were very, very supportive of me. Everything they could think of to help me out, they did it. But, they didn’t have unlimited funds and they were in the process of moving an entire household across the country. A friend of a friend handled my legal work pro bono. On the other hand, my ex had a team of 4 lawyers. It was ridiculous. He wanted to take custody of this small child whom I knew wouldn’t be safe with him. It was a terribly lonely and frustrating experience.
This was one of the first times where it became clear to me that the goodness and support of other people is so important when we’re experiencing trials. There are many times in my life where the Lord spoke to me and comforted me directly. But this was a time when the Lord mostly spoke to me and did His comforting through other people.
My old Young Women’s leaders were so nonjudgmental. I had left the Church in a big dramatic show and then I’m back in two years divorced with a baby. Nobody said a word of criticism. It was just, “It’s so wonderful to see you here again.” I had been so afraid when I was going back to Church that people would treat me as the bad seed. But nobody did. The kindness and consideration of the people who were in my parents’ lives, and in my life, so blessed me.
I was given custody of my daughter. My husband was granted visitation initially and it went very, very badly. The divorce dragged on for a couple of years. All I could do was wait around for the legal system. Finally, he lost all of his parental rights. It was very hard, but I never lost the sense that I was responsible for this human being, that she was Heavenly Father’s child and not my own. It was about what I needed to do for this child of God.
Had you gone to college before she was born?
I had not. I didn’t even graduate from high school. After she was born, I took the GED and enrolled at a community college. I was able to transfer to BYU after a while. And so I went through BYU as a young single parent.
My parents had moved to Salt Lake City. At first I just commuted to BYU. But I didn’t want to be the kid who got in trouble and moved back home and grandma raised her daughter. I didn’t feel like that was what Heavenly Father had in mind. I wanted to do it as much as possible on our own. I had to take out student loans, but we got our own apartment in Provo. A horrible, tiny, dark basement apartment. She was young enough she didn’t care and I figured, “Well, at least I’m going to college.”
I was able to pay for some daycare and I was able to take her to some classes with me. When those options were exhausted, my brother, who was a freshman, and his six pre-mission roommates in Helaman Halls would take this two year old girl. They would watch her for 6 hours or however long I needed. They were amazing babysitters. There aren’t a lot of nineteen year old boys who just think it’s cute and funny that they’re babysitting two or three times a week. And these guys did. It was a wonderful blessing. So I was able to make it work all of those years at BYU, working and going to school full-time. I eventually got a scholarship that helped, too.
It must have been a very small demographic, being a single mother at BYU.
Oh my goodness, yes. I loved BYU. It was a great place to be, but I had no peers. There is actually a single parent group at BYU, but it was mostly women whose husbands had left them after 25 years. I admired those women, but it was a very different situation than mine. I never met one other young single parent. I had friends, and I even had friends with kids, but they were all married. Having a social life was awkward.
My parents were always supportive of my single parenting. There were times when we were in the habit of their having my daughter every Friday night through Saturday so I could work or finish papers or do things that were hard to do otherwise. It couldn’t have been done without their support. I feel like I was really lucky to have so much support. But at the same time you can’t get enough support to make single parenting easy. You can’t get enough support to make being alone and without peers easy.
What did you study at BYU?
I studied philosophy. Not a very practical choice. But it’s my personality. I took classes about some of the more obscure points of doctrine. It was an amazing thing to study.
Philosophy brought into focus—though it didn’t solve—two big issues I had to sort through. One was the problem of evil. Life can be bad! And it’s not your fault. How does that mix in with there being a God? If you’re put in a family with an abusive person, you didn’t do anything to deserve it and yet you have the consequences your whole life. My daughter didn’t do anything wrong, yet she had some traumatic experiences in her early life with her visitation and now she was being raised by a single mom who couldn’t be there for her. I remember one time having to ask her daycare teacher what she thought she’d like for Christmas because I wasn’t sure. That’s terrible! It was my fault, not her fault.
The other issue was, what does it mean that the Lord had comforted me in my childhood and then I left Him? What kind of standing had that left me? Do you lose your salvation entirely if you do that? I knew there was a God. I knew that He cared for me. And yet I had left. What does that mean?
I felt that my behavior had probably disqualified from the highest levels of heaven, but I decided that would be fine. I felt the love of the Lord, and I was so grateful for whatever the Lord was willing to give me. I could be a ministering angel. I had no problem with that.
But then I started to think, as part of raising my daughter, I wanted to go to the temple, like an adult. When I went to the temple, I was taken totally by surprise. To be told that my sins were forgiven struck me so powerfully in my heart. Forgiven means forgiven. You don’t disqualify yourself. This is what life is for. Everybody messes up. I feel like I hadn’t understood what the Lord’s forgiveness meant until I was in the temple
It must have changed your view of yourself.
It really did. I’m not a person who could have been a good person and then blew it. A person who can be a great person can be a great person at any point. You never blow it! I feel like I had never quite understood the Lord before. Not just to know that for me the possibilities were still endless, which is a wonderful thing, but to know that the kind of God I’m dealing with is one who doesn’t keep score! He doesn’t say, “She’s pretty good, but remember when she was 18? She knew better.” He’s not doing that. He’s saying, “Repent, and we’ll get you right back like it never happened.” He’s not holding on, so we don’t need to, for ourselves or for other people. Among my biggest regrets in life is that I hadn’t gone to the temple earlier. I felt a powerful difference in my life afterwards.
It’s an inspiring story!
The inspiring stories we tell in Church, they’re all true. There is no miracle the Lord can’t perform, He is full of mercy. But often, telling things in the form of stories leads to this idea that if you’re keeping the commandments and if you’re a good person, everything wraps itself up neatly. Life doesn’t have the structure of a story. It just keeps going on and on, like a movie where they keep making too many sequels.
I thought at the time—this was so naïve—that my experience with the temple was so powerful that I would never do anything wrong again. Why would I ever go a day without reading my scriptures? And of course that’s not how we are. Life is less pretty than that. I’m still forgetting to read my scripture. Surely the Lord has done everything He needs to do to convince me that this is important, and I still forget.
I feel like I want to talk to you about some of the things that have happened recently because they have had such an impact on my life. I feel like it would be unfair to leave them out.
So, thinking of the notion of stories, here’s mine: I had a difficult home life and then a crazy abusive husband, and single parented for all these years and finally, just before I finished at BYU, I met this wonderful man and married him. My husband adopted my daughter, and we had other children and we had a close, splendid family, and we all lived happily ever after. That’s a lovely end to the story, if that were the end. Those things did happen, but it wasn’t the end. Important things have happened since then.
My husband and I went to England for him to get a master’s degree a number of years ago. I was pregnant with my fourth child, our third biological child together. I cannot tell you how much it felt to me like I was living out the happy ending of a story in the Ensign: I went to the temple and I got married and everything was wonderful. I had a wonderful husband, and two adorable little boys. Our oldest daughter loved her dad and was growing up so big and pretty. I was having another baby and we were living in England surrounded by wonderful people. I felt so happy and so blessed.
One day my husband came home from Church and said, “We had an elder’s quorum lesson today and it really struck me. The teacher said, ‘Bad times will come to everyone, and it’s hard to build up the Spirit when you’re struggling and suffering. When things are going well for you, you should devote time to the Spirit and build up reserves so when the bad times come, you have a lot to draw on instead of having to pick that moment to start reading your scriptures or start praying.’” We were both really struck by that idea because everything was so perfect in our lives. We had the time and energy, so we felt inspired to start getting up about half an hour earlier every morning to read scriptures together, which was lovely.
Right at the end of this pregnancy—I was a full forty weeks—I happened to have a regular check-up. My boys loved going to the doctor, loved listening to the baby’s heartbeat. I chatted with the doctor, and my little boy climbed up on the table. He said, “I want to heaw the heawt.”
After a minute, the doctor said, “Why don’t you get down, honey. We’re not going to do that today.” Because there wasn’t one. There I was in the doctor’s office with two boys and no heartbeat.
It was very rough. The worst part of things like that, seriously, is that you don’t get to just respond emotionally. You don’t get to break down and cry. Because there are logistics that you have to work out. Someone has to reach your husband. Someone has to take care of the boys. Someone has to pick Caitlyn up from school. All of these mundane, earthly things that have to be dealt with.
I was very lucky. I’d just run into my neighbor so I knew she was home and wanted my boys to come over. So that was taken care of. I was able to reach my husband easily. I had a friend with a car so we could get to the hospital. So those things got worked out easily. But still, when tragedy drops into your life, you should be able to just faint like in the movies. But no, you have to work out all these little steps. It’s insulting. The whole world is falling apart and I have to find phone numbers and make phone calls.
I had called my husband. I had dropped off my boys. I was in my house alone, sitting on the ground with my phone, waiting for my husband to come, waiting for the situation to resolve itself somehow. I remember having this distinct sense that since I hadn’t broken down and cried or responded emotionally yet, I was completely capable of going one of two directions. I could say, “This is not fair. The Lord has betrayed me. I didn’t deserve this.” And I would be fully justified. No one would blame me. That way was fully open to me.
But next to this there was an option that I could say, “I know the Lord and I trust him and I’m just going to bow my head and do this thing that He apparently has called me to do.” I decided that, while I might be justified in being angry and upset, there was nothing to be gained in that. It wasn’t clear to me how there could possibly be any purpose in losing a child, and in losing a child in this way. But I decided I was just going to give the Lord a chance to show me that it was OK.
And so, that’s what I did. I bowed my head and went to the hospital. They did the ultrasound. The child was dead. We hadn’t even known if it was a boy or a girl. With this sort of situation, you want to have a C-section immediately, but they only do C-sections when either the child’s or the mother’s life or health is at risk. When the child has died, the operation is a serious risk to the mother so you just have to wait and deliver the child in the normal way.
We were back in the hospital only about 24 hours later. It was a very difficult delivery. If the baby had lived two days longer, she would have just been delivered alive, without any other problems. It turns out there was a knot in the umbilical cord. Which is almost never a problem, but in this case, for some reason it got pulled tight, and cut off.
One of the really difficult things about having a stillborn baby is that church doctrine does not tell us anything about the status of unborn children. I know people walking around today who were delivered earlier than my daughter. They are alive! People I know who lost infants find great comfort in the idea that their baby got a body, that they got to see him, that he served his purpose. I, on the other hand, can’t get any doctrinal solace because doctrine doesn’t say what the rules are for a child who dies before he’s born. So in addition to the trial of losing a child, we couldn’t draw on gospel comfort because the doctrine isn’t there. I suppose that’s something I could have become very angry about.
But I decided not to get angry. Nobody said church doctrine tells us everything that is true. We have prayer and we have the Spirit when doctrine doesn’t answer our questions. It gave me comfort to know that just because something isn’t answered for the entire church, that doesn’t mean it can’t be answered for me and my husband. We can get revelation directly. Just because I can’t say to anyone else, “The spirit enters the body before birth,” I know what the Spirit told me. It would be nice to know that everyone in my religion agreed with me, but it’s not necessary.
When something like that happens, you spend years having up days and down days. As much as I think the Spirit confirmed to me that this fully-gestated 7 ½ pound human female was a real person with a real spirit who would be resurrected and saved like everyone else, other than having that assurance, I never, ever from the Spirit or from any other source got any inkling or indication or even foggy idea of what sort of purpose this might serve. It doesn’t make any sense. And frankly, if you gave me the reason, I probably wouldn’t like it. But, as it became clear that there just wasn’t going to be a reason given for this one, my husband and I decided that if the Lord was giving us a trial that wasn’t going to have an explanation, that it was up to us to find a way to get a benefit.
So we used this as an opportunity to think about things we wanted to change in our family, things we wanted to do in our lives, things we wanted to repent of, that we’d never been able to fix before. It has turned into one of the great blessings of my life to have made the decision to do that. When I think of Elizabeth, even though we never met her, I can say, “This is the positive impact she had on my life,” because of the things that we chose to do.
That attitude, that approach, has proven so useful in smaller trials: the trouble finding a job, someone’s having trouble at school, I don’t like my calling. It has given me the option in my own heart and my own mind to say, “OK, this is bad, but what can I pull out of it? What can I do in response to it that’s going to be a good thing?” It’s amazing, but you can always find something to make your life better.
I think often in the Church we talk about having trials as if there’s something about having a trial that makes us learn. But actually, that’s not true. There’s a lot of agency involved in how we respond to our trials.
I’d never say that I’m glad I went through that experience of losing a child. If I had a time machine and could go back in time, I would, and I’d change it. But since I don’t have that option, I have been very grateful that I learned to respond the way I did. I feel fully reconciled to whatever it was the Lord was trying to do because it has ended up being a blessing.
That would also have been a lovely end to my story: I had this big trial, and I got through it, and Kimberly White’s life just went on all lovely. It has not gone that way.
I would have loved it if the loss of a baby was the final difficulty of my life. As the years have gone by, more difficulties have arisen and not been resolved. We were able, about a year after Elizabeth died, to have another little girl, which was a great blessing for us. She’s been wonderful. We always thought we would have another child and never did. I know I’m not in any position to talk about that kind of pain when there are people who never have children at all. But, when you want something and it’s a righteous thing and you know of no reason you shouldn’t have it and yet you don’t get it, that’s still hard. I cried a lot and suffered a lot.
Most recently, our sweet little oldest girl, whom I single-parented for so long and whom my husband adopted to raise as his own, has had difficult problems. Right now she’s in a psychiatric hospital. I don’t know how it’s all going to play out in our family life. My daughter is struggling so much right now. It’s too raw. I can’t talk too much about it.
You know that there are things you could have done better, that you should have done better. And if your children grow up OK anyway, you can wipe your brow and say, “I guess it wasn’t too bad.” And if they struggle for any other reason, because of mental illness or other traumas they face at school, or just their personality, then as a parent you can’t pretend that it wouldn’t have been better if you had been a better parent. But at the same time, you can’t beat yourself up. Nobody’s a perfect parent.
If I could pass a law for the Church, it would be that nobody is ever allowed to say, “The reason my seven children all went on missions and got married in the temple is because we always had family home evening.” Or “I gave them a blessing at the beginning of every school year, and that’s why they’re all OK.” In my experience, that’s just not true. The world is more complicated. I never heard a prophet say, “Everything in your life will go OK if you have family home evening.” They say, “You’ll have more of the Spirit in your home. You’ll have more inspiration, be better able to help,” not that you won’t then struggle.
I’m actually kind of glad we weren’t able to schedule this interview earlier but are doing it now right in the middle of this trauma with my daughter. I wouldn’t want this interview to sound like a story that was finished. Life just doesn’t work that way. Or at least it doesn’t work that way for me. I think there are a lot of people who just never settle down to ease and happiness.
The Lord has this whole vast church to run and the people best equipped to be in positions of leadership are the ones whose lives are stable. Everyone has trials, but some people have fewer than others, and those are the people He should use as church leaders. They’re not going to be falling apart all the time. We often see that our leaders have children faithful in the church, they have jobs, they have hobbies and big full lives. But it can be difficult for other people looking at that. They may think, “If you’re more righteous, if you’re good enough to be the Relief Society president, you also get this kind of a life.” That idea creeps into the Church sometimes. I just don’t believe that’s true. Obviously it’s not true. I mean, Abinadi got burned at the stake.
What might be a helpful way to tell the stories of our lives?
The way we frame the stories of our lives for each other matters. It‘s true that there are people who come back to the Church and people whose lives are saved by loved ones. It’s just that it’s also true that there are people who never come back and people who die and people who suffer from horrible diseases for years and years and years. We forget that for some of us, the happy ending isn’t going to come in this life.
In this most recent conference, someone told a story of his daughter-in-law who had had three or four children and then she was unable to have more. I really resonated with that story. Although I know it’s much worse if you can never have any children, I appreciated its being acknowledged that being unable to bear a child is a painful thing even if you already have children. But then the story ended that she went on to have two more children. Tell a story that doesn’t end happily! Tell a story where she just found other ways to be happy. For a lot of us, that’s what we have to do.
God puts us here, knowing we won’t be perfect. He gives us children, knowing we’re not always going to treat them right. He gives us callings, knowing we’re not always going to do them right. I’m not always the kind of person I wish I was. This whole messy, muddy business with all these complications and uncertainties, the grunginess of mortality: this is the plan! He sent us, fallen, to let us fight it out.
If this messy, complicated mortality with all its pains and miseries and unfairness is the plan, if all this serves a purpose for our Heavenly Father, how sacred and wonderful all of these messes and pains must be. There is something divine and purposeful about what it means for us to struggle through all of this darkness.
There’s one way of looking at the gospel that says, none of us are good enough to deserve the exaltation that the Lord has promised. Maybe only a very, very few of the most righteous will really deserve to become powerful gods. But I look at it differently. I think if we get out of this life, having made any kind of a consistent effort, with all of the noise that Satan throws at us and all of the difficulties of just being a person, what a wonderful thing that is! People who have done that have really earned great blessings.
Anyway, I hope so.
At A Glance
Location: New York, NY
Marital status: Married at 18, divorced at 20, married at 25
Children: 5 total: age 18, 11, 10, 6 (our deceased daughter would have been 8 )
Schools Attended: BYU
Languages Spoken at Home: English
Favorite Hymn: “Praise to the Lord”