The Opportunity 'Tully' Missed to Talk About Maternal Mental Health
Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody’s new film “Tully” has been making headlines since its release earlier this May. I remember when I first saw the trailer while I was laying in bed exhausted after one of those days of having to negotiate everything with the 5-year-old dictator I call my son. I thought, more like yelled to my husband, “Finally! A movie that shows the uglier sides of motherhood and still looks funny. A movie that’s not all about the cute and cuddly parts. A movie that gets it! This is the movie I have been waiting for.”
I was so excited for May 4th when I could escape my own mess for two hours and feel like someone else understood my life — the emotions, the exhaustion, the overwhelmingness, the pretending kids are a blessing even when we feel the opposite at times, the frumpy clothes, the fake smiles and part serious, part joking thoughts of wanting to end it all because mom’s self-care has taken a back seat to keeping her tiny humans alive and she feels empty, alone and has no idea who she is anymore.
It took me a few weeks to get to the theater because… motherhood; but when I finally did, I realized I was mistaken. Yes, the film portrays the unglamorous sides of mothering. Yes, I could relate. And while I applaud Diablo Cody for writing a script that follows a mom who is in direct contrast to the majority of Instagram moms out there, something bigger lies at the core of this movie.
Something more than just sleepless nights and isolation and pretending everything is amazing when it’s the opposite. Something that the trailer fails to tell you about. Something that looks a lot like postpartum depression (PPD), perhaps even postpartum psychosis.
If you haven’t seen the movie and plan to, don’t read ahead. This is the part where I spoil it for you. The film revolves around Marlo (Charlize Theron), a pregnant mom who already has two kids and although it’s never said, it seemed to me her son was on the autism spectrum. Her husband works all the time and when he’s home, he is less than helpful. When the new baby arrives, she tends to the newborn’s every need, often without any help from him.
Her body is not her own. She’s basically a milk machine. She’s irritable. She’s overwhelmed. She’s angry. It would be an understatement to say she has her hands full. She’s alone. She’s probably depressed. I say this because it takes one to know one. I recognized that darkness in her eyes the moment the movie started because I experienced that same darkness when my son was born.
It wasn’t just the “baby blues.” It wasn’t just coping with those first “90 days of darkness” as they are often referred to. It wasn’t just having to parent a newborn while taking care of two other kids, one with possibly a disability. It was much deeper than that.
To help her cope, she hires a night nurse named Tully. Spoiler alert: Tully is a figment of her imagination. A version of her younger self before kids and according to director Jason Reitman, she invents this younger version of herself to come save her.
In the same interview, Reitman also tells Newsweek that this movie is not a clinical film. It is not about mental health. But how could it not be? When a mom is irritable, withdrawn and sad all the time, we usually call that postpartum depression. When a mom has visions she believes are reality and they cause her to harm herself, that moves into the postpartum psychosis category.
I’m pretty sure a night nurse in the form of her younger self qualifies as a break from reality. Yet the film never uses these words. Maybe it’s because Reitman doesn’t consider his film to be a clinical one. But how else can you explain the main character’s downward spiral as she becomes so overwhelmed, she leaves the house with the imaginary Tully (without telling her husband) to drive into Manhattan to get drunk. And when Tully informs her it’s time for her to move on, she begs her to stay, angrily takes the car keys and drives away towards home, culminating in a near-fatal car accident.
It’s during Marlo’s hospital stay that we find out the film’s twist when we learn Tully was her maiden name and we are forced to go back and watch her take care of her baby alone. It’s also the only time we hear the word depression during the film. The doctor asks Marlo’s husband if she has a history of mental illness. He can’t think of any but then suddenly remembers some when her son was born. This time is different. He thought she was doing great. The person who lives with her and sleeps next to her thinks she’s doing great. So both the film itself and the adult in the film who spends the most time with her ignores what is really going on.
The doctor attributes her accident to exhaustion and sleep deprivation. All moms are exhausted and sleep deprived. Not all moms invent a night nurse, go out to a bar, get drunk, fall asleep at the wheel and crash her car into a body of water. That is something way more serious. Again, if this isn’t a break from reality, I’m not sure what is.
The maternal mental health community seems to be divided into two camps. On one hand, there are moms and professionals who think this film was a missed opportunity to discuss maternal mental illness in the mainstream media. And there are other moms who wish the movie came with a warning label. Watching this film triggered them because of what they experienced when their babies were born. They too believed the film to be a dark comedy about your everyday motherhood struggles, when instead it had them reliving their own postpartum mood disorders. Both sides are valid.
The slogan on the movie poster reads, “See how the mother half lives.” Diablo and Reitman have said they had nothing to do with how the film was marketed and if that’s the case, then there needs to be a bigger conversation with those who did. The problem with both the way the film is marketed and the failure to every use the words postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis is that there actually is a way the other half lives in motherhood. It’s made up of hundreds of thousands of moms each year who will struggle with a postpartum mood disorder. And that includes the mom in this film who experiences psychosis, which affects 1 in 1000 new moms.
And most likely, I think she had some form of postpartum depression with her son and some form of prenatal depression during her third pregnancy. And because no one ever names these conditions, we leave new moms confused and without the education to know that if they have signs of what they are watching, not only do they need professional help, but if they are having visions like Marlo, they probably need to get themselves to an emergency room right away.
I have always been a fan of Diablo Cody and applaud her for showing this darker side of motherhood, but it has a name and the film missed an opportunity to call it out. Maternal mental health needs big institutions with reach and voice to step up and stand up for moms by telling these real stories rather than hiding behind the fact that mental illness isn’t pretty and not as marketable.
When 1 in 5 moms struggle with a postpartum mood disorder, there is an entire population of women who need these stories to be told. They can help reduce the shame and stigma so no mom ever has to feel alone or struggle in silence. Don’t just show a mom struggling. Name the struggle. Normalize the struggle. Show these hundreds of thousands of moms you understand the struggle.
Diablo Cody attributes the unresolved ending to her own motherhood struggle where she didn’t immediately get the help she needed and that her experience wasn’t tied up with a pretty pink ribbon, but why not use that to make sure the same doesn’t happen to other moms?
What happens when Marlo goes home from the hospital? Does she go see a therapist? Does she take antidepressants? Having her husband home more will help, but I don’t think it would solve the problem. An “I love you” from her son is great, but it’s not the cure.
We can’t just graze over her possible mental illness. That’s not where this story should end. There could have been an end card before the credits addressing maternal mental illness and showing moms where they can find resources to get help. Instead, it concludes with the message that the key to motherhood lies within yourself. It gets easier when your husband spends more time at home and your children listen more and can express their love for you.
As a postpartum depression survivor and advocate, I can tell you that the help needed to get better isn’t going to come from a made-up savior, no matter what form it takes. When it’s time for Tully to leave, she tells Marlo, “I was really here to get you through the danger zone.” Newsflash: That’s not how a mental illness works. No invented savior and no amount of I love you’s can make you better. You most likely need professional help, and moms should feel empowered to ask for it, not believe that they have to figure it out themselves. They shouldn’t think they have to save themselves. Because they can’t always do that.
“Tully” is the most relatable, real film about motherhood I’ve seen in a long time. But it doesn’t just toe the line about the subject of maternal mental health. It crosses over it. And as a result, there is an obligation to call it what it is. To give it a name. To do better.
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