kerry payne stailey – the children (i never had)

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‘The Children (I Never Had)’ explores the bloody battle of infertility, of hope and loss, played out monthly by women everywhere in their fruitless quest to become mothers. Our year of reproductive discontent was poetic and confronting and bittersweet, so like the melancholy I carry for the babies I did not. These are the children I imagined would be ours, and the menstrual blood that defied us, every twenty eighth day.

——– 

I was not called to be a mother
all the years I might have been.

now there is him
and in his eyes I see them,
the children I never had.

calendars turn
a battle of wills

forgive me, love
my body has won.

so quietly
we grieve
the babies I bleed.

 

Bio

Kerry Payne Stailey is an Australian photographer based in New York City. She is drawn to the healing power of photography – a tool she uses for exploring and acknowledging emotions as guides to the path of happiness. Her long term project “Left Behind” probes the complicated grief facing those left behind when somebody they love dies by suicide.

 

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42 Responses to “kerry payne stailey – the children (i never had)”


  • Kerry, as a father of five and a grandfather of four, you have moved me deeply and made me think. To the left, you have shown us pictures of things no one, especially no man, or at least not me, wants to look at and to your right, images of what we all want and hope to have put out of reach. In the combination, you have made at least me give new thought to the heartbreak childlessness can bring and to the chaotic wonder of my own children and grandchildren.

  • Christ Kerry, so damn moving. Heart in my throat. Speechless. I won’t forget this. Thank you.

  • Hey Kerry.
    Easily the strongest work I have seen of yours. Sorry it had to be the result of such sadness for you, but then that seems to be the way of things, especially in the creative arts.

    ….
    Did you plan this as a MM piece or was it a ‘works on the web’ kinda thing?

    Why the mock polaroid look? (if that is indeed the case)
    While working ok in an online MM presentation it would somewhat limit the reproduction of this in more physical terms no?

    Did I spot at least on frame from Love Cuba?

  • Kerry,

    heartful work… Thank you for sharing.

    Kyunghee Lee

  • VIRGIL,
    Thank you so much, I truly appreciate you taking the time to view the work, and share your response with me, so honestly.

    JOHN GLADDY,
    Thank you, my friend. I never believed it before, but it is indeed possible that we ‘can’t have it all’, although I still feel utterly blessed to share my life with a wonderful man I can call my husband and my friend. These files print well, and there is one image from Cuba, but it is not from the series Amor Cubano.

    I did not plan to make this a MM piece. I did not plan this as a ‘piece’ at all. I was simply displacing my pain and putting it into my camera each month, and this project evolved in a very natural way. The mock Polaroid look came about because I have been shooting another project “Instant Love” for the past two years (soon to be exhibited as part of “The Space Between”, an exhibition curated by Henry Jacobson, at the Center for Photography Woodstock) and this has been a big part of our story in that time.

    I recently took a workshop with Duane Michals and he encouraged me to publish the work as a stand alone project. I showed DAH a very early version, and based on his feedback, which always helps me go to another level, this iteration emerged. It’s actually surprising how clear it was to me that this is the story I needed to tell, both for my husband and me, and for so many of my friends who have and are experiencing the same thing. So here we are…

    KYUNGHEE LEE
    Thank you. An honor, coming from you. xo

  • FROSTFROG,

    Thank you for your truthful feedback and your always kind heart. During our year long journey we discovered this issue is far more common than most would ever guess, and like the suicide survivors work I am doing, one that is often not spoken about. I wonder why it is so uncomfortable for people to see images of menstruation, which is essential for life itself?

    Feedback I received on an earlier version, which was somewhat less ‘poetic’ and certainly more confronting, revealed a polarization between the sexes in how people responded to the work. With a couple of notable exceptions in both groups, I found women to be incredibly supportive, while some men simply didn’t respond to my request for feedback, and others felt there was ‘too much info’ and ‘too much biology’.

    These are men whose opinion I respect greatly and who are not at all unaccustomed to brutally honest, bloody imagery, such as the shocking images from the battlefield and natural disasters we are subjected to all too often.

    It begs the question ‘which spilled blood is it ok to show?’, doesn’t it?

    Hugs to you Frostfrog. I always enjoy our exchanges, whatever social media platform they occur on.

  • DEAR KERRY

    Again you have taken the path less (as in, never) traveled and addressed a subject that is rarely mentioned much less photographed. Suicide and now infertility. No one wants to think about the gaping wound that suicide leaves behind, and no one wants to see the red blood in the toilet bowl that signals another month of painful longing unfulfilled. You’ve got guts, my friend, and more than that, you’ve got creative honesty unlike any I’ve seen. Yes, both of these projects come out of sadness. But deep emotion fuels you as we also see in your love letters to your beloved husband. Just keep feeling and following those feelings where they lead you. You will never go wrong.

    love
    Patricia

  • “It begs the question ‘which spilled blood is it ok to show?’, doesn’t it?”

    What a good question, Kerry. I have been thinking about it ever you posted it and I cannot come up with a satisfactory answer. I’ve tried out a few answers, but none satisfy me.

    One thing I forgot to say:

    “Thank you!”

  • Beautiful
    poetic
    loss
    and
    intimacy..

    thank you for sharing..
    a light,
    you are….
    xox
    ***

  • !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    i will write more tonight Kerry for you and this piece….

    powerful, lyrical and tugging (physically, photographically, emotionally)….

    much to write (including a personal story for you), but will do that late tonight!

    love
    b

  • btw, the pictures on the left of the diptychs ARE pictures i want to see and look at…and i was fascinated (as a child) of my mother’s menstrual cycles (i cant have been the only child) and when i was married, it was another aspect of my ex-wife’s life that drew me to her and bound us…i’ve never understood why men are afraid of the blood or the cycle or the appearance…why are menstrual pads always hidden??..in my house, they were not…and not only is the pictures of the blood powerful but i think just as profound as the pictures of the children…and i love the simple pictures with the blood in the toilet or on the legs….

    on what planet did those men who advised you to use less blood live on/come from?…i’d love to see that earlier edit and know what they were advising?….

    anyway, i have much to say, later tonight…

    must run to teach…

    hugs
    b

  • kerri…i admire your courage to share and show your very private and physical evidence of something raw and real for you. the blood is a wonderful companion to the images of the children. a natural part of life, and in my opinion who cares if it makes some wince. but i’m also a nurse, so it doesn’t’ bother me at all. i hope another path to motherhood can emerge for you and yours.

  • Beautiful work Kerry. I know first hand about the struggles, the multiple procedures, the excitement, the hope and the heartbreak. I can intimately feel this piece from the perspective of my own path through infertility. Nicely done. Bravo!

  • Kerry, you are amazing.

    “Now there is him, and in his eyes I see them, the children I never had. Forgive me love, my body has won.”

    Your amazing photographs notwithstanding, it is these words that brought a lump to my throat that is still there.

  • PATRICIA,
    As one of the first photographers I met when I moved to New York, you set a shining example, my talented and courageous friend. You continue to do so. Thank you so much for your beautiful words. xoxo

    WENDY, PAIGE, BOB,
    Thank you so much. Bob, I look forward to your writing more. xo

    GORDON
    Reading the comments of men and women who can relate, like your note and the one from EDITE above, and the dozens scattered throughout Facebook today, and the emails and text messages I’ve received from photographers (male and female) near and far telling me how moved they were on watching this slideshow… THAT is what has brought a lump to my throat and many tears to my eyes. Thank you, my friend for your kind words. xo

  • MIKE,
    Our messages crossed in cyberspace. Thank you Amigo. Thank you.

  • “….
    Your rusted mountain stream impregnates my stubborn, aquatic body.
    The effluvium of our lives spit forth like ink upon rice paper
    and the children who will not make it yet to this life haunt us.
    And we remain, like the water fireworking from the mountain,
    agape…..”

    –and excerpt from GHOSTS AND THE GOLDEN FALLS OF THE YING-YANG SEA

    Kerry:

    forgive my self-quoting, but the above lines come from a poem that I wrote last year (later to be published this year) about love and loss and partly about this subject itself…from my own perspective as first a man/husband who had worked hard to try to have a child with my ex and later, in another relationship, negotiated the meaning of that loss and what it might mean to not only the need to create from our own fresh and aspirations and sinewy lives something greater than self but also the hard-fought battle agains our biology…..and our body’s (and our hope and time’s) mortality…..

    you see, this story speaks to me for many reasons…..

    each of us, for different reasons, struggles with legacy…for me, my own struggles have often been much less interested in whatever legacy my own work (writing or art-making) would accumulate or gather but instead what the significance of my life would mean or rather how i lived and measured out the manner and the material of my life, including what my body would give, alone and in tandem with another…..

    when I married, i married a woman who already had a child (to be a father, to raise a father, was always equal in my own life’s rhyme to anything i would write/publish/make/exhibit, etc) and his presence in my life became not only a compass of meaning and probity but also a scale by which i measure my own, very small accomplishments, not in terms of history or art or society definitions but simply in terms of acknowledgment: that I was, in the end, still defined by the things that i could not control no matter the batter….as a couple we tried for more than a year and that part of my life didnot yield what I and what we had hoped…and so, a different and just-as-soulful life materialized…her son became my son through presence and love and acceptance rather than from the seed and history of my own dna and biology…in the end, it was ok…that child became my child through the impregnation of love and time and embrace and the fact that his blood and his body were not shaped by my biology gave way to a simpler truth: that i became a father from love and presence rather than the skill or acumen of my sperm racing toward a cove to seed….

    but there were moments when i struggled with a simple truth: how was it that the one act that seemed to be each of ours (male and female) by birthright and intrinsic design (to bring life into the world) seem to be given so easily to so many, including many who were not even interested in the alchemy of what that meant and yet remained aloof and unreachable by someone (me and us (my ex and I)) when trying so hard…it seemed at times a cruel irony…and what that taught me and the acceptance of that as well was a certain poetry…a certain rhythm that made the person that was meant to be my child was that much stronger because his presence game through the miracle of serendipity and hardwork and grief and embrace rather than the mechanics of blood and sperm and groin and cadence…..

    it taught me a great deal to lose something i wanted so profoundly in order to take into my life and my body something that meant so much more….

    and in this work, i hear that song. Yes, there is lamentation but it is the celebratory nature of those beautiful and often ‘prosaic’ (in the sense of the quotidian, not in the sense of boring or trite) pictures on the left that become so meaningful to me…..

    the possibility of the alchemy of life is not the final realization but in the belief that one shaped their life toward that love-shape and not whether it was realized in ways that are predictable….

    and, as you know, i’ve always prefer the work that speaks of person opening and reimagination…just as Fukase’s Ravens are about coming to terms with divorce and marriage set against the rocky coast, this series too (to me) is about not loss so much as reconciliation and embrace…the embrace of what is part of you (and by extension each of us): our imperfect, wayward hearts and bodies…and the cycles continue as reminders, that though it may not always hitch, our bodies (and more importantly our hearts and our hopes and our accpetance) lay fertile in their essential meaning…..

    my dear, please take this to heart when i say this:

    you body is your body, it did not ‘win’ it remained true to its nature, what won was your heart and that you mothered (and your partner fathered) a world and lives that may not have come from the immediacy of your bodies but from another place…

    there are children waiting for your light and this series (to me) is simply a signifier of that light inside you….

    keep your eye on that…and dance to that swirl….

    mothering, fathering, entering has less to do with the simple abacus of biology than it does with what you make of that…and, my dear, you’ve already brought light into this world…

    rhyme that wide….

    hugs
    b

  • Kerry…

    Excellent work! Beautiful, poetic and thought provoking.

    Love it. and as John has said, sorry it had to be the result of such sadness for you.

    You are an inspiration. Some of the best work i’ve seen on burn for a long while. (i watched this late last night and awoke thinking about it… so personal, so touching… ) big respect, big hug x

  • Kerry, I have Sam Harris to thank for sharing the link to your beautiful, poignant work. You are so brave. Not only to go through what you have and come out the other side philosophically, but also to share this experience so powerfully and honestly. You speak the unspeakable without speaking. I am so sad for your losses. This work is powerful on so many levels. Thank you.

    I am now going to explore more of your work and am looking forward to the journey.

  • Heavy, emotional, going deep.
    You show with this essay, how far a photography can go to show emotions and things of personal impact.
    I am deeply moved.

  • BOB BLACK,

    This line brought me to tears.

    “there are children waiting for your light and this series (to me) is simply a signifier of that light inside you….

    mothering, fathering, entering has less to do with the simple abacus of biology than it does with what you make of that…and, my dear, you’ve already brought light into this world…”

    Thank you, kind sir, for your always thoughtful, considered comments. Producing this work was healing for both me and my husband. It gave us a platform to better understand our cycles of hope and grief. We’re both acutely aware that the universe gives, takes, and always, always, gives again. In our two years together we’ve known such love, beauty, and pain, and it has served to strengthen our bond and bring us closer to our wonderful circle of friends, many of whom are having babies right now. Beautiful babies we can wrap our love around. We are exactly where we are meant to be.

    If the work helps others process their own journey, and perhaps take some comfort in the knowledge that they are not alone, that is another gift, altogether.

    Gratitude prevails.

  • Bob Black – Beautiful poem. And a heartfelt, well-thought out comment.

    For my wife and I, it seemed all we needed to do was smile at each other and she would be pregnant again. Not even an IUD could stop our babies. Sometimes, when we first learned, I would feel frustrated but that frustration was always short-lived. I am so glad those babies, wonderful if complicated all, knew how to evade the obstacles and pull themselves together.

    So the both of you – and yes, you too, Edite, from this and some of our earlier conversations, focus a reality in front of me that in my own life was so remote as to hardly be contemplated. You make me contemplate.

  • Kerry :)

    indeed, dear, indeed…..!

  • Kerry,
    it’s hard for me to express my feelings. Let me share our story.
    My wife and I used every medical help that is legally allowed in our country to have a baby. We got pregnant, but then we lost the baby.
    All this happened over more than two years, and I got deeply depressed. I’m still recovering, and I admire my wife, she seems to have found a good way to say goodbye to our dream of having a baby.
    I tried to find a way for myself, but I couldn’t say it with photographs, so I did it with letters to my unborn baby.
    It will always hurt.
    Looking at your project I felt everything again.
    I think that your photographs work strongly together.
    Thank you for showing this, Kerry.
    And thanks to Burn Magazine, too.

  • lots of love Kerry.

    very effective.. strong.. love your blunt honesty and graphic approach.
    the series produces conflicting feelings which are difficult to consolidate, which must relate in a small way to the experience of wanting children and being unable to.

    carries the month-to-month trauma in the most human way and without a flinch.

    x

  • …….strengthen our bond and bring us closer to our wonderful circle of friends, many of whom are having babies right now……………..that time passes and the journey takes a different path.

  • Bob Black – beautiful and deep words. And those lines! “…The effluvium of our lives spit forth like ink upon rice paper and the children who will not make it yet to this life haunt us…” Will love to read that whole thing when published.

    Thank you Frosfrog – dear Bill.

  • Hi there Kerry…

    I’ve been quietly going over and over again this essay and I’ve been meaning to post a comment here for a couple days but I’ve been lost for words. I follow intently your Instagram feed I’m that guy “adesirecalledcamera”and I had noticed a couple of hints of what was going on, so frankly I wasn’t surprised the other day. Oh, I really wish for once my uncanny intuition was screwed up and utterly wrong. I’m sorry, because I get the impression you love children. You possess what the Spanish sometimes call “Duende”, that something else great artists are born with. The capability of fully expressing your feelings through your photography and really shacking us. You see I’ve always been extremely aware how lucky I am in having two great young kids, however this week your beautiful essay has managed to intensify this feeling.
    Kerry, what about adoption? My next door neighbors have two young kids from India, essentially after a couple of weeks of just adjusting to each other the love seems to be just as strong…

  • Paul,
    a lot of people say “why don’t you adopt…” when they are confronted with this topic. But adoption is very different from being pregnant and giving birth to your own child. Adoption is a great thing for a lot of people, but it also brings problems… it’s a complete different story. I know a guy who says about the adoption of his son “best thing I did in my life” and I know another guy who says “worst mistake I ever made”. That’s a huge topic and I hope someone will do a good photo essay about it someday. In my country it’s even a long and hard process to officially qualify for adopting a baby… and going to another country, especially to a poorer part of the world, brings up even more problems. Think and read about it.
    It’s just too easy to say “what about adoption” when you see somebody suffering from not being able to have a baby. Instead of offering this kind of “solution” I wish people would try to let it be like it is and acknowledge that it is a tragedy and that it will deeply affect the rest of our lives and that there is no solution.
    It’s late now, I’ll try to get some sleep. Sorry if I bashed you too hard.

  • MARK,

    Thank you for sharing your story. It makes me sad that this work has caused your pain to return to you in waves. I’m so very sorry that you and your wife lost the baby you worked so hard to bring into this life.

    For us it was a little different. Neither of us were particularly called to be parents before we met one another. In my late thirties I began to contemplate ‘what if I do I, what if I don’t?’, but at the time I was married to another man who was not interested in adding to his flock of three grown children, and I was not interested in bringing a child int the world with somebody who did not want it with all of his heart. Not surprisingly, that marriage failed and it was only when I met my now husband, that we understood, at a cellular level, this human desire, drive, to create a human life together.

    We didn’t want ‘babies’, we wanted OUR baby. I too, know people who have built beautiful families through adoption, and others who had their family torn apart because of it. It’s not for us, at least not at this time. But who knows what the future holds.

    I am no stranger to loss. The suicide of my father 13 years ago, and the subsequent work I have done with others who have lost those they loved to suicide has taught me a great deal about the importance of mastering my thinking. I’ve seen people able to move beyond their grief and become more because of it, and others who get stuck. My mind, I’ve come to learn, is a ‘two bit whore’. It will happily sell itself to the highest bidder and absorb beliefs, self justify, feed my ego, destroy me or make me. It all comes down to my thoughts and the stories I tell myself.

    I read this quote once, somewhere on the Internet, and it resonated…

    “Your situation may endanger your life and limbs, but only your thoughts can endanger your happiness. Telling yourself a miserable mental story about your circumstances creates suffering. Telling yourself a more positive and grateful story, studies show, increases happiness. Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, choose thoughts that knit your heart together, rather than tear it apart.”

    This is the path I took when processing my fathers death, and it is the path we have chosen this time. We felt the sadness, we let it in, we sobbed together, we raged a little, we let it wash us clean, and then we chose to focus on all that we have, and there is much to be grateful for.

    I hope you too will reach a place of peace. For me, turning my camera on my pain diffused it. Perhaps your letters to your unborn baby can do the same for you.

    Sending you a hug Mark.

  • PAUL, SAM, TRACY LEIGH, DAVID, THOMAS, EDITE, PAIGE,

    Thank you for your thoughtful words and for taking the time to write here. Some of my writing in my comments above is also in response to you.

    This conversation has meandered down sweet and sad and gut wrenchingly truthful paths and and that is what inspires me most. When songs or art or photographs can generate discussion, elevate thinking, make people feel something they may not have previously considered, it reminds me why we must continue to shoot, paint, write, create.

    Heartfelt thanks to DAH and the Burn crew for consistently being at the forefront and publishing work that fosters discussions such as these, and to you all for your wonderful contribution.

  • Kerry,
    thank you so much for all you wrote to me.
    It means a lot to me.
    I send you a hug, too.
    Mark

  • Mark it’s OK I’m grateful you took the time to point out how adoptions don’t always work out. Three families in our street with adopted kids and two of my wife’s cousin each with two adopted girls all OK and happy families. So I’m surprised and very curious too hear the negative side to all this. I’m going keep this in mind research on it sometime.

  • KERRY

    i cannot think of anyone with as cheerful and smiling a personality as you….you are always a positive thinker in everyday life….you are literally the “life of the party” in any social circumstance…

    yet your work digs….revealing a deep personal sadness with both suicide and infertility…i have mentored quite a few over the years, but none took my “go deep” quite as far as have you…your ebullient personality is for real and so is the pain…your photographs always show the mix, the confluence between suffering and joy…this is the “real Kerry”….you do not separate your life and your work….

    you are fearless..brave…sensitive…forgiving…embracing…and with the resolve to put brush to canvas…..you finish…..

    we have chosen to leave your essay up just a bit longer than most…if one more person sees it to positive effect, then that is enough….

    you are an inspiring person Kerry….thank you for your courage to reveal…

    big hugs, big love, david

  • Wow David, way to make a girl start the day with tears in her eyes.

    Thank you. For the example you set every day, for mentoring me these past five years, for your friendship, for welcoming me into your beautiful family, both blood and chosen.

    To say taking your workshop back in 2008 ‘changed my life’, would be the understatement of the century.

    Love and gratitude.

    Kerry xo

  • a civilian-mass audience

    I rarely post a comment in the “essay” aisles but KERRY…remember this:
    “My chickens are your chickens”…

    THANK YOU for “telling” it as it is…and yes, LOVE,LOVE,LOVE my brave redhead …!!!
    your civi

  • Wow, I am not sure if I am going to be able to express what I feel watching your work. Paying attention only to the pictures, I see something unique, different, the blood on the left, children on the right, “weird mix”… I like them and the aesthetic you use. And then, later, I read the story behind those pictures, the poem,… I have no words… The way you show your privacy, your inner, your pain,… and you transmit it through this pictures… Awesome!

  • Two thumbs up! Bravo Kerry !!!

  • Dear Kerry, with brutal simplicity and courage you have created and shared this. I believe in doing so you will give others the courage to face this reality as well as other deeply personal challenges. I am sorry with you for the content’s reason, of course, but I salute you for, once again, demonstrating the power of photography to share stories and emotions in this way. Thank You. Richard x

  • 1 in 7 couples will have difficulty conceiving. In Health Class, they never tell you that. They just tell you that if you have sex, you’ll get pregnant/get a girl pregnant.

    I’m glad she made this essay. I don’t think it’s uncommon for infertile men and women to fantasize about their potential children. But who knows? So few people talk about it. There’s some shame involved most likely. So there are no writsbands, bumperstickers, 5Ks, etc.

    It is often the job of the photographer to introduce us to people, concepts and feelings that we’d rather avoid.

  • I don’t know about that whole body winning thing, Kerry. It seems to me that so long as you’re seeing the pictures on the left then the pictures on the right remain within the realm of possibility. It ain’t over till it’s over, kiddo, and I’m pretty sure the mister won’t mind continuing to try.

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