The Chattering Absence of Epistemic Humility

by Maria on November 12, 2013

Of course mine was unplanned. Which goes to show anyone can. Never say never!

Believe me, you don’t want the heartburn, the swollen ankles, the back ache and I swear to God if ___ just brushes my nipples again I’ll murder him.

Every cloud has a silver lining.

I never really wanted them myself.

You know, a friend of mine moved to a warmer country and within weeks. Have you ever thought of doing that?

You know, a friend of mine tried for ten years and then they gave up. And then it just happened like that. And they’ve had two more since.

You know, I have a good feeling that it’ll work out for you. I just know it.

If you could just relax a little, you know? Sometimes that’s all it takes.

Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be.

Have you thought of trying fertility treatment?

But you’ll be such brilliant parents. You just have to believe it and it’ll come good.

God I know exactly how you feel. We thought my first one was an ectopic until I had the scan.

God I know exactly how you feel. It took us nearly a year for the first. I was sure there was something wrong.

Have you thought about adoption? They’ll let anyone do it these days. Sorry. You know what I mean.

Well at least you have each other.

You’re so lucky. Lie-ins are a thing of the past for us. I haven’t been to the toilet on my own in three years.

Still, there’s always being a god-parent and uncle or aunt. Lucky kids. And you get to give them back when you’ve had enough.

Have you thought of volunteering?

Think of all the holidays you can take. Just the two of you.

My friend went to some clinic and it worked for her. I’ll get the name of it. I’m sure it will work for you.

You’re always hearing of people it worked out for in the end. I’m sure it’ll be the same for you.

Well you know, what with over-population and everything.

Look at the state of them. Are you still sure you want any?

At least you‘ll never have to go through childbirth.

You know I really believe you’ll get there in the end. You just have to stay positive. I know you can.

And here’s the one response that doesn’t cut down to the bone, whatever the situation or experience of the friend / acquaintance / or heavily pregnant lady at the parking permit office who wouldn’t take no for an answer (yes, just this morning):

“I’m so sorry.”



Pete 11.12.13 at 1:04 pm

This is beautiful and tragic :(


ZM 11.12.13 at 1:33 pm

I’m very sorry Maria, if this is your experience, I don’t know what else to say.


Maria 11.12.13 at 1:46 pm

I’m just a bit irked at the most recent interaction, but I expect I’ll live!

The funny thing about these statements is that I’ve thought many of them myself, about my own situation, and from a beloved friend or relative, in the right situation, they’d be fine. But they’re not a good starting point for a conversation.

And also, that most people, in most interactions, probably should not presume on asking any follow-up question to the perfectly ok ‘do you have any children?’. Because that’s what usually precipitates these statements.


MS 11.12.13 at 1:54 pm

This is very, very tough. I’m sorry; I’ve been there myself. The best blog I read during our long period of infertility – wry, insightful, beautifully written, occasionally heartbreaking:
The archives section will cover the infertility stuff. She now has two children; her first has special needs, and so much of the blog is now focused on that (still witty, and very much worth reading).


MPAVictoria 11.12.13 at 1:58 pm

“And also, that most people, in most interactions, probably should not presume on asking any follow-up question to the perfectly ok ‘do you have any children?’. Because that’s what usually precipitates these statements.”

So much this.

/Beautiful and sad piece Maria.


Lynne 11.12.13 at 3:55 pm

Maria, I’ve wondered how you were doing since you posted about fertility treatments. I’m so sorry this is the update (there’s nothing so bad it can’t be made worse by insensitivity).


Matt 11.12.13 at 4:13 pm

What would be a better thing to say? (I’d like to think, if I had to say something, I’d say something like, “I hope things work out in a way you’ll be happy with”.)

Or, perhaps it’s better for people to not ask questions that might lead to the need for awkward answers? (I’d old enough, and have been married long enough, that people who don’t know me well often ask if my wife and I have kids. We don’t, by choice at this point, but I’m often surprised by people asking what could easily be an uncomfortable question.)


MPAVictoria 11.12.13 at 5:32 pm

” We don’t, by choice at this point, but I’m often surprised by people asking what could easily be an uncomfortable question.”

People are made nervous by silence and so the start looking for topics that you may have in common. So I can see why the question gets asked but we could all work at being more sensitive.


Maria 11.12.13 at 5:53 pm

Thank you, Lynne and MPA.

Matt, I was going to say ‘I’m so sorry’ or your suggestion of hoping it works out fir the best are pretty good. But thinking back to the epistemic humility Ingrid very thoughtfully introduced the other day, I think it’s not so much about finding the right (culturally specific) formula of words of response, but rather about how we react to someone else’s sad and discomfiting news.

So the first thing with this whole childless issue is definitely to have the cop not to follow up ‘do you have kids?’ with ‘why not ?’. Seems a no brainer but you’d be surprised. Because the ppl who haven’t picked up in the shutting down cue in my usual response to ‘do you?’ (‘I’m afraid not.’) often are embarrassed by the answer to ‘why not?’ (Something along the lines of ‘unfortunately , we can’t), and then find themselves scrambling to say something that answers the whole thorny topic. Hence the myriad variations on ‘have you thought of …’

But this topic isn’t really answered by hitting on the currently acceptable conversational response to infertility. Getting back to Ingrid’s piece, or what I took from it anyway, we won’t succeed in responding ‘correctly ‘ to every painful disclosure someone can make about something we’ve not experienced, be it the loss of a child or parent or other examples in that thread. I think our anxiety about saying the right thing may even be at the root of the problem. Words don’t solve pain. Maybe sitting quietly with the information for a moment or two can help, a short expression of sadness for your friend, a gesture. Something that acknowledges the weight of sadness and doesn’t imply it can be banished with a suggestion or a ‘me too’.

Last week I told an old friend I hadn’t seen in a few years. He sat back and took it in for a moment, and did indeed say ‘I’m so sorry’. I welled up and he reached across the cafe table and put his hand on mine. After another moment we started to talk about it quite candidly and the conversation flowed on.

We don’t always have that well of friendship or experience of our own life’s sorrows to drink from, of course, but our impulse to chatter through others ‘ pain can make them lonelier. The answer isn’t always an answer, because sometimes there just isn’t one.


Lynne 11.12.13 at 6:40 pm

It’s an awfully insensitive and personal question to ask someone you hardly know why they don’t have children. Would someone ask a stranger why they do have children? It took me a long time to be able to answer intrusive questions with a question of my own: “Why do you ask?”

It is a charitable reading to suggest people are trying to use words to solve pain. No doubt some are. Others are probably wondering what the heck to say and reach for the nearest pat expression (“It will all work out for the best”) but I believe this rampant insensitivity is selfish at base: people protect themselves from having to empathize by brushing aside sad things. It is easy to do with the current cultural mindset that anyone can do anything if only their attitude is positive enough. We can all make our dreams come true, don’t you know, and we should none of us have any regrets.

Weird, and isolating for anyone who suffers a loss that can’t be undone by hard work and a good attitude. Which eventually is everyone.

Sometimes very sad things happen.


CJColucci 11.12.13 at 7:18 pm

I have sometimes answered the “why no kids” question with exquisite medical detail, going back to my birth with an undescended right testicle, but only when I’m in a bad mood or the questioner seems unusually oblivious to boundaries. You seem like a nicer person than I am, Maria, so I’m not recommending it for you.


ingrid robeyns 11.12.13 at 8:23 pm

thank you for sharing this with us, Maria. And I think you are so right about the ‘being silent for a moment’ / gesture / body language (in your response #9).


John Quiggin 11.13.13 at 1:39 am

Thanks from me also.


js. 11.13.13 at 3:07 am

Oh my. How do people even think to say such things? I don’t really get why anyone would think to ask ‘why’? It seems so utterly unnecessary and out of place (unless you’re a good friend, and then you presumably have some idea why).

I have good friends who lost a parent; given my age cohort (mid 30’s), that’s of course very much the exception (given time, place, etc.). Some version of, “Do you need anything/I’m here for you if you need anything,” (tho perhaps more specific depending on circumstances) is about the only thing that’s seemed even vaguely, well, possible to say. It’s not really a comparable circumstance I suppose, but still, why not go for the most obvious, “I can’t imagine…,” because of course you can’t.


Omega Centauri 11.13.13 at 4:17 am

Well we can imagine, imperfect as our imagining will be. I’ve never been any good in these sorts of situations, I tend to clam up -since I know I can’t fix it.


Kiwanda 11.13.13 at 5:11 am

As so often in life, I wondered “What would Miss Manners say?”, and googled up a response to a kind of inverse question: Would it be rude to ask people not to send me birth announcements?


Emma in Sydney 11.13.13 at 5:32 am

I’m sorry you’ve had this struggle and disappointment, Maria.

People can be so blithely insensitive, pushy and insensitive, focused on their own curiosity, or the decisions they think they’ll be able to choose to make. As an older woman now, I try to hold my tongue when younger ones tell me their five year plans for future children, because it doesn’t always happen. And that’s so hard to bear.


Larry 11.13.13 at 3:23 pm

I can certainly relate to this, and have been on the receiving end of a few of these too. As a parry & riposte I recommend “So you have got kids then? Oh, poor them.” Mind you, I’ve never been faced with anything beginning “You’re so lucky…” which seems to positively demand a physically violent response. All the best anyway Maria.


Eszter 11.13.13 at 3:23 pm

Thank you for sharing this, Maria. I’m so sorry.

Lynne, thank you for your suggestion of the “Why do you ask?” response, I have long struggled with how to address a question that people have no business asking. For me it’s not about pain, rather, frustration about assumptions and societal norms and expectations . I also struggle when I see people asking it of friends whose story I know and whose story is painful. I wonder if I can throw “Why do you ask?” into a conversation as a third party. Not sure that would work. What would work in such a situation?

My department started a “tradition” a few years ago: when someone (or someone’s spouse) gave birth, we’d informally collect money to buy a joint gift. We would only do this when someone gave birth. There seemed to be no other occasion, whether happy or sad, when we would “come together” in that way. Eventually, I raised the issue at a faculty meeting and suggested we quit this practice. If people want to congratulate their colleagues, fine, but semi-institutionalizing it without considering anything else as appropriate of acknowledgement with a joint gift or card seemed wrong from so many angles. Thankfully, we no longer have this “tradition”.


godoggo 11.13.13 at 3:45 pm

That list reminded me of this


Widmerpool 11.13.13 at 4:13 pm

Same thing for depression — think how lucky you are, this will pass, have you tried working out, I was really sad once, do something for other people, lots of famous people were depressed.


Lynne 11.13.13 at 4:45 pm

Eszter @ 18, I find I can use the “Why do you ask?” response now I’m older because I can say it pleasantly/blandly. When I was younger I would have been angry and that would have shown, and it wouldn’t have worked. Now it just makes a space for the speaker to talk some more and somehow works in a low-key way that can be very useful. It would be harder to use that as a third person standing by. Maybe a remark redirecting the conversation to the speaker would work better. It’s hard to say, without a specific example, but if someone was asking your friend why she didn’t have children, would it work to chime in with something like, “You must enjoy your children very much.” ? Though how much help this would be to your friend I’m not sure, if it led to endless tales of how cute the speaker’s children are.


prasad 11.13.13 at 9:21 pm

I am very sorry.

I’m also put in mind of the ending to Tokyo Story. Funeral’s done, the kids have done their insensitivity thing, duly contextualized by daughter-in-law. Old man sits alone and unhappy in his living room, and neighbor walks by and stops to make small talk. (It’s at 2:14:00 here) The conversation is rather direct, and ends with the neighbor saying “You will be lonely” with the man agreeing, the whole thing portrayed as small talk after a fashion. Seemed very jarring to me, but it’s hard to judge to what extent that was the desired effect, rather than differences in cultural mores about how “honest” one is supposed to be.


ezra abrams 11.14.13 at 12:31 am

When I was young (<10) and used to complain, my dad told me of a snippet from CBS news:
On camera, they interview an old lady on thestreets of Tel Aviv, and ask her, isn't inflation awful, the price of butter has gone through the roof ?!

And she says, I was in Auschwitz, this isn't so bad…..
so stop whining: you could have been born in Biafra; life sucks; pick yourself up and do soemthing


ZM 11.14.13 at 1:34 am

This is your own extrapolation – I don’t know why you are bringing up old ladies who had undergone that degree of suffering and who may have said that compared to that inflation was nothing, to imply that a woman in this situation who dared to voice and share something in this space was “complaining” and to “stop whining” – if that is what you’re trying to imply…

This is your complaint, and I agree with your father.


ZM 11.14.13 at 2:04 am

Having said that, if I were older I’d probably just go with ” you should take a good, hard look at yourself, young man”


MPAVictoria 11.14.13 at 2:47 am

Ezra, I want you to know that I considered this post. That I thought about it and that I mean every word.

Go fuck yourself within a rusty chainsaw.


Eszter 11.14.13 at 5:04 am

Ezra, did you seriously just compare this post to concerns about the price of butter? Do you even hear yourself when you write this stuff?

Lynne, yes, good point about level of anger. I’ll have to practice being calm for when (not if) this happens next.


MG 11.14.13 at 5:06 am

Maria – this is a heartbreaking and beautiful post and thank you for writing it. And I am so sorry for you.


Eszter 11.14.13 at 5:09 am

Ezra, it is hugely offensive to Holocaust survivors (of whom there are several in my family so I don’t say this in the abstract) to suggest that they would even think to draw the kind of comparison you are implying with respect to this post.


godoggo 11.14.13 at 5:42 am

Who ever heard of a holocaust survivor kvetching?


godoggo 11.14.13 at 5:45 am

p.s. I only had one in my family that I knew of, although I don’t remember her too clearly.


adam.smith 11.14.13 at 6:13 am

I’m not sure if it’s wise to dignify ezra’s ass-hattery with another reply, but since it gives me the opportunity to point out something that has stuck with me since my sister said it when, in a very similar situation, she was confronted with a very similar argument:
Most women in Biafra would, in fact, not find it hard to empathize with any woman (or couple) struggling to get and stay pregnant.


Z 11.14.13 at 12:49 pm

I find it remarkable how an innocuous list of quasi-random statements could end up so sad, beautiful and thought-provoking. Mostly, I think we tend to be not so good at dealing with the feelings of others (be they pain or joy) and that judging, offering a solution, praising or condemning etc. come much more naturally than a moment of reflexion and plain empathy.

Regarding the lack of epistemic humility, I must say that as a relatively successful son of an educated upper middle class family in the developed world, I had grown accustomed to considering my successes and failures as reasonably faithful reflections of the pertinent objective conditions, and in particular of my own efforts. When I found myself in the situation of not being able to have a child (in my case thankfully for a brief period of time), I had the rather unsettling experience of living a failure I had absolutely no way to impact in any way, with all the usual symptoms I had read in sociology or psychology books (deep feelings of helplessness, urges of irrationality…) but never experienced in my flesh before.

Anyway, thanks for the post.


Shelley 11.14.13 at 3:46 pm

I just read Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s book How To Be A Friend To A Friend Who Is Sick.

Remarkably similar to what you’re saying here. The moral: don’t pretend you know what somebody’s going through when you don’t.


Main Street Muse 11.15.13 at 3:14 am

To Maria, My parents both died by the time I was 22; it was horrible, the grief. When I went through infertility, the grief was potent, powerful, overwhelming. I found infertility to be bewildering in its power and sway over my emotional state – nothing rational about it. People who have not experienced it have no idea.

One of my favorite people never had a child of her own. She became aunt and mother to many (myself included) but she still grieves that loss.

I wish for you the realization of your heart’s desire.


BubbaDave 11.15.13 at 7:49 am

OK, I work in IT, which is not a profession that’s noted for producing sensitive and socially conscious peeps– and even I can’t imagine anyone following up the “do you have kids” question with “why not?” I mean… I just… wat?

But then, we also live in a world that produced an Ezra, so clearly there are depths of stupidity which I cannot fathom.

And Maria: I’m sorry you’re hurting, and I wish you happiness.


Andrew F. 11.15.13 at 2:30 pm

I realize that I usually only comment when I disagree with something in a post. But that was moving and poetically expressed, and I’m sure every reader felt sympathy.

And I am sorry.

One thing to keep in mind, is simply that this represents one part of the story, one thread in a life – that a life is not encapsulated or defined or doomed or saved by how this one thread develops. It’s a truth that I’ve found to be useful eventually in adjusting to and enduring unexpected and negative events of significance, though nothing but time and friends can help initially. Your mileage may vary.


AJ 11.17.13 at 1:42 am

> so stop whining:
@ezra- chill out, dude. The general etiquette on blogs is – let people who want to sympathize sympathize. There is no value added by being unsympathetic. There is no objectivity to grief. Be a mensch.

> I am a bit mystified about AJ’s escape clauses (a) and (b).
@Ed Herdman- I don’t want to threadjack, but this is just to say that I read Ed Herdman’s comments in the context of the other thread on epistemic humility. Re: the escape clauses – escape clause (a) was obviously meant in jest even if there is more than a grain of truth to it. Escape clause (b) was also meant in jest. What I was saying is that ‘ad hominem’ attacks should not be ignored on blogs. And you don’t have to wait for others to help you. You can try and help yourself. The above Ezra example is a good instance of that.


ZM 11.18.13 at 4:16 am

Maria, if I am banned from commenting on all the threads it would be helpful for someone to point this out, then I shall not compose any further comments, and shall return to being an observer of the blog.
Yours, etc

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