As the first professional midwife elected to a state legislature in modern times, Holly Richardson already has an impressive influence. But her reach doesn’t end there: as the author of one of Utah’s most influential political blogs, Holly on the Hill, and as the mother of 24 children (20 adopted from 8 countries), Holly desire to serve, improve others’ lives and be involved in her community inspire countless people. Holly talks about her journey into adoption, the death of four of her children, her love of politics and her desire to follow the Spirit wherever it leads next.
Would you introduce your family?
My husband and I have been married almost 26 years and we have 24 kids. We adopted 20 of them; I gave birth to 4. Twenty are still living. We have kids from 8 different countries. Currently, I have 2 married sons, 2 adult daughters who are out of the home, one son on a mission in Virginia, and then two little girls in Africa who we haven’t been able to get visas for. The other 12 are minors and are still at home.
We did not start our family thinking we would go down this path. We had three little kids – and I mean little! My baby was only 10 days old – when Nikolai Ceausescu was assassinated in Romania and within a few weeks, stories of the horrors of Romanian orphanages started to trickle out. This was early 1990. All year long, we had in the back of our minds, “Gosh, we wish we could go to Romania and adopt!” We didn’t think we would get it to work out, but at Christmastime in 1990, my husband was watching a television show about orphans in Romania. He called me in to watch with him. The reporters had been to Romania several times taking pictures and interviewing families who had adopted from there. And as we were watching, we were just engulfed in the Spirit, absolutely engulfed. We looked at each and said, “We have got to go.”
A few weeks later, I was on a plane to Romania! I was still nursing my baby, but I left the baby and our two other kids at home. I didn’t know how long I’d stay or how we’d afford it but we went forward in faith. In the end, I adopted two little girls while I was over there. My mother and mother-in-law helped take care of my kids because I was actually gone for two months. I came home with those two little girls and that was the beginning of our journey.
When I told my husband about the condition of the orphanages, I said, “If there is any way we can continue to adopt children who need families, I want to do it.” It turns out there have been 20 kids we have been able to help in that way. Most of our kids came internationally – there have been a few we’ve adopted domestically – but that was the beginning of our journey with adoption.
Would you describe your day-to-day life of your household?
My youngest now is about to turn 8, so things are a little calmer in our home than they have been in the past. At our peak at home, we had 20 kids from an infant under a year up to a 17 year old. It was a lot of fun to have them all home at once. The most difficult year I had was the first year after I adopted those two Romanian girls because I ended up with three 1-year-olds, one of them with Down syndrome, and a 2-year-old who was disabled, and then my oldest was barely 4. I had 5 kids four and under, only one potty-trained. I’ll be honest – I can hardly remember that year but we got through it, the kids got older and we kept going.
How did you figure out how to do this? What were your resources?
We got better at it with practice. After the first time, every time we added a new child, we knew what to expect, so it got easier to add kids in. In fact, going from 14 to 18 was one of our easier transitions. The new four were four different ages – I had a newborn, a 4 year old, 7 year old, and 12 year old with that adoption – but we were able to fit them in relatively easily because we’d had so much experience by that point.
Everybody wants to know how I cook for that many people. The answer is I just double and triple and quadruple and octuple the recipes. I octuple most of my recipes. We don’t do prepared foods, because we can’t afford it for one thing. Imagine how many boxes of Hamburger Helper we’d need! So – we cook from scratch. I teach my kids how to cook. I have eight teenagers at home currently, plus two who are 12 and one more who will be 12 soon old. We rotate with all of them so that they get experience. When they go out into the world and they go on missions or to college, these kids know how to work and they know how to cook. That’s been something over a long period of time we’ve trained our kids to do: to work and be part of the family and be participatory. In fact, in that adoption I mentioned earlier when we went from 14 to 18, the kids were all from Ethiopia and the 12 year old was a boy. When we introduced him to the job rotation, it was his turn to do the dishes and he said, “I don’t do that. That’s women’s work.” We just said, “Welcome to America! We all work!” He rotated in and learned those skills. That’s how we do it. We all work together as a family. I did teach them out of necessity that everyone has to pitch in.
In fact, I had one daughter who potty trained one of my kids for me! She was so sick of changing diapers on this one little boy that, one time when I was out of town, she trained him with M&Ms. That was great!
How were your biological children affected by your decision to adopt?
You know, it was just so normal for them. My oldest child turned 4 just when we got the two Romanian girls, so it has always been a part of their lives. I had one additional biological child a few years after we did our first adoption. He’s 17 now. It’s just normal for them. In fact, that 17 year old, when he was 5 or 6 was just sobbing one day. “I only have one mom! I want to have two moms like everybody else!” He cried and cried because the other kids would talk about their birth moms and their birth families; even though, for most of the kids, we don’t know the birth families or have any details about them, the kids are aware they exist. The ones who came to us older remember their birth families.
As they’ve gotten older, we’ve dealt with the behavioral and emotional problems that come. We’ve dealt with mental illness; we’ve dealt with trauma and attachment issues. All of the kinds of things you’d expect. And when we first started coming up against these issues, it was overwhelming. But now after twenty years of experience, we know what’s going on and we know how to get through it. One of my daughters – we adopted her at 5 and a half from Kazakhstan and she’s now 23 – is a single mom, but I’ve never seen a mom love her baby more than she loves hers. My daughter always struggled with attachment issues; I’m not sure she ever fully attached to our family until she became a mom herself. Now, though, she could not love her daughter more and that’s so healing for everyone concerned. She was able to learn by example how you treat babies and then she let herself do that with her own child. I’m very proud of her. It’s scary to love and to trust when you’ve been burned before and as a five year old, she had been burned.
You mentioned that only 20 of your 24 children are living. Would you talk about the four that have passed away?
When we adopted in 1991, I came home with 2 little girls. One was 18 months old and only 13 pounds, and she had Down syndrome. She was very disabled, less functional than most children with Down syndrome. She never walked, for instance, and she never talked. When she was 5, she choked on a peanut butter sandwich. That was our first loss. It was so unexpected since the Down syndrome alone wouldn’t have significantly shortened her expected life, but the day she died I remembered a blessing I received while I was getting her four years earlier in Romania. It said, “For the short time that you have her, she’ll be a blessing to you and those around her.” And I remembered thinking in the blessing, “I wonder if she’s going to die young.” I immediately dismissed it out of my mind, but then it came back to me the day she died.
My second biological daughter was born severely handicapped. In 1988, the doctors told us she’d maybe live a year, then it was four years, then they said she might live until she was ten. In fact, she lived until she was 17 years old and she died two weeks after she turned 17, in 2005. So we knew that one was coming. It’s a different kind of grief.
I had multiple miscarriages as well. Even though we were adopting and we loved these other kids, I was not ready to be done having biological children.
Then there was a little girl we adopted from Africa. I had traveled to Africa to pick her up, but we were having visa issues so I had to leave her there. She was healthy when I left her but then she got meningitis and she died before we could bring her home a couple of years ago.
And then, one year ago exactly, my youngest daughter died at three years old. When we adopted her, she was missing most of her brain. She had fluid instead of brain tissue. She had had a family that was lined up to adopt her, but when the doctors realized the extent of the brain damage – that she would be blind, that she would be completely dependent – the other family didn’t feel like they could take a child with that level of need. She came to us as a 9 day old baby. We went in eyes wide open, knowing the heartache that would come but knowing that it would be worth it to love her in this life. I held her almost all day every day of her life. She died in her sleep. It was expected in that we knew her life would not be long, but it was unexpected in that she hadn’t been sick. It’s still one of the greatest heartaches of my life because I adored her so much.
I went into all of this voluntarily. The day I adopted her, I knew I would one day go through that grief. Like everything, when you do it more than once, it gets easier. It’s not that the grieving gets easier, but I know that I’ll get through it. I know that there’s an end, that there’s a light on the other side. I hate grieving. It’s so visceral and consuming. It colors everything in your whole life. But you do get through it, and you’re able to look back with fondness and tenderness.
I was blessed to have a profound spiritual experience with my last little daughter. I had had experiences where babies came to visit me, regardless of whether I was pregnant or if I was adopting. If the child coming to us was older, I didn’t have the experience, but if I was having a baby or adopting a baby, they would visit me. I never saw anyone, but I would feel a presence and I would know there was a spirit nearby. With Angelia, my littlest, my son called to tell me she wasn’t breathing and I was in the car with my husband driving home when I could feel her near me. I could feel that she loved me and that she was happy. There were no words; that was it. That’s been one of the biggest blessings: I can say, “I loved that little girl who never spoke, who never saw me.” I just adored her and I miss her a lot. I know she’s happy.
You’ve served on the Utah State Legislature and write one of Utah’s most influential political blogs. But if was midwifery that got you into politics. Have you always been interested in midwifery?
As it turns out, I didn’t even know the word “midwife” until I was an adult and had already graduated from nursing school. But when I was young, I wanted to do things with moms and babies. I wanted to be an obstetrician and my very first college paper I ever wrote was comparing and contrasting three different methods of natural childbirth. So, well before I had my own kids, I was very interested in it.
I became a registered nurse. I worked in labor and delivery and post partum care in a hospital, then I started teaching natural childbirth classes and became a doula and from there I became a midwife. That was 12 years ago. I love being a midwife. I’m on hiatus right now; I don’t know if I’ll go back to it, but I love it.
In 2000, in Utah, we had a midwife who was arrested for practicing medicine without a license, and I realized that we had to fix that problem. I actually had no interest in politics. I voted, but nothing beyond that. But I was just so driven that this was something was wrong and had to be righted.
So a group of us got together and started working on changing Utah’s laws. We worked for years – in fact, we went through five different legislative sessions before we got our bill passed in 2005. It was totally on the job training. I had to learn how to lobby. There was no money involved, it was totally citizen activism, but we had to present our case and talk to legislators on both sides of the aisle. We had sponsors from both parties and as I worked and worked, I realized that I just loved politics.
I kept going up to Capitol Hill here in Utah even after our bill was passed. In 2009, I was on the hill one day, and I was bored. I have ADD, and I didn’t have a bill on the floor or any specific issue I was following, but I wanted to make sure that nobody was going to try to change our midwife law. Plus, I just loved the environment. In order to have something to do, I started a blog, Holly on the Hill. It just took off, and it’s become one of the most popular political blogs in Utah. And really it was just something I started to keep myself awake and engaged while I was sitting there listening to meetings!
Then, in January 2010, there was a special election held for a state representative and I was elected into the position by the delegates in my area. It was one of the best things that’s ever happened to me and one of the best years of my life because I felt like I was really able to make a difference. After just a year in office, I decided to step down to work on a national senate campaign. It has been one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made – and one of the best. It’s not one of the hardest experiences I’ve ever had – burying my children is by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done – but one of the hardest decisions. I had to decide if I would stay in the legislature, or if I would resign from the legislature to work on the national senate campaign. The truth is, I decided three times that I was going to stay in the legislature, but when I went to pray about it, three times the answer was, “That’s not the right decision for you. You need to step down.” I admit, I cried! I still cry about the decision because it’s something I loved so much. Even with the negative stuff that comes with being a legislator – you become a target, and a lot of people feel free to tell you how rotten you are—I loved feeling like I was out there really making a difference, having an influence over laws that impact people’s lives. I think I brought something to the table, both as a woman and someone who’s outspoken. There are very, very few women on Utah’s Capitol Hill, but I was surprised at how many legislators are not very outspoken. I’m very outspoken. I say what I think. Other people make controversial votes and then never talk about it again, but I say, “I know you’re wondering why I made that vote. Here’s why I did it. Here’s what I think.” I loved being able to talk in a way that engendered respect from people who agreed and disagreed with me. I could defend my position, explain why I thought the way I did.
Do you see any connection between politics and spirituality?
Absolutely. I wouldn’t have thought there was a connection before I started working in politics, but there were plenty of times when I prayed over votes that I made. I believe there is a place for spirituality in politics. I’m not going around quoting the Book of Mormon to my colleagues, but I’m not just a “Sunday Mormon” either. I’m an “everyday Mormon.” I believe it every day, and it affects my actions.
I think as a religious person you have to be sensitive politically. A lot of people are uncomfortable with others wearing their religion on their sleeves. We have a broad range of religions represented on Capitol Hill here in Utah, including Jewish representatives as well as other Christian denominations. We talk about God, we pray every day to start our floor discussions, we pledge allegiance to the flag. But it’s not an opportunity to bear your testimony. Personally, I would never campaign on the fact that I’m LDS. I find that inappropriate and offensive when other people list their church callings on campaign materials as if it’s a qualification for being elected. I’ve seen flyers where someone will say, “Vote for me because I’ve been a stake president.” I’ve never seen a woman tout her Relief Society calling!
Do you have any comments about the current political situation?
I’m a Republican because of my religion, and there are Mormons who are Democrats because of their religion. I know Mormons who are Libertarian because of their religion. I think that’s another reason you need to be sensitive: you can find ways that each party’s positions mesh with LDS doctrine. In fact, I’ve even heard people say that Communism meshes with the gospel in regards to the United Order. Even though I disagree, I respect the fact that I have friends of other parties who are staunch LDS members.
When I look at the United States’ political activity, I believe primarily that we should be involved. In many ways, as LDS members, we should be even more involved. If we believe this is the Land of Promise, we should do our very best to make sure we have good people in office and that we’re involved. If we look to the Book of Mormon, we see that if the majority of people don’t choose good, then the governments change and things don’t go so well. I’m disappointed by how few people are really engaged in politics, especially in Utah. In Nevada, at the recent presidential primary, the LDS turnout among voters was much higher than their representation in the population. I think they’re 9% of the state, but 23% of the people in the caucuses were Mormon. They had a strong turnout, which was great.
The phrase, “All publicity is good publicity” is true in politics as in many other industries. With Mitt Romney running for president of the United States, I’ve realized there’s way more anti-Mormon sentiment than I thought. I think that’s entirely what happened in the South Carolina primary – his loss didn’t have to do with policy. But at the same time, when he ran four years ago, people had the “Could we have a Mormon for president?” reaction and now it’s more, “Yeah, he’s Mormon but can he do the job?” I think it’s becoming less and less of an issue. It’s like me running as a midwife. My being a midwife was not an issue when I ran for my legislative position, but it would have been if I had run ten years ago. As it was, I had been around the Hill, people knew me from my participation and from my blog, and so the fact that I was a midwife wasn’t that big a deal even though I was the first certified professional midwife elected to a state legislature in modern times.
Now, it’s on to the next adventure! I’m super involved in the national senate campaign right now and I can’t tell you how that is going to end. I just know it is what I am supposed to be doing right now. When the next doors open and opportunities come, I’ll pray about them and go with the Spirit that time too. Following the Spirit is truly the adventure of a lifetime!
At A Glance
Location: Pleasant Grove, UT
Marital status: Married on April 17, 1986
Children: 24 children, 20 living, from age 7 through 24
Occupation: Political activist, midwife
Schools Attended: BYU, Midwives’ College of Utah
Languages Spoken at Home: English
Favorite Hymn: “Because I Have Been Given Much”
On The Web: www.HollyontheHill.com
Interview by Neylan McBaine. Photos used with permission.