This post contains SPOILERS about the recently released movie “Tully”
For the past month or two, my maternal mental health groups have been blowing up over the movie “Tully” – a film starring Charlize Theron. The trailer portrays the movie as a lighthearted but “real” look at motherhood. “Finally!” said moms everywhere. Tully is the name of the night nanny who comes to help the new mom out during the postpartum period. That is all we know from the trailer. Then the tide turned and articles started coming out about how “Tully” was not at all a comedy and was making light of serious postpartum mental health issues. As maternal mental health professionals, we were upset that Hollywood was not portraying mental illness accurately or even giving Marlo’s symptoms the proper diagnosis. Of course I had to see it myself. It was not what I expected. Much of the mental health aspects of the film were so subtle and nuanced that without knowing the plot ahead of time, I think it would have totally gone over my head.
Yes, there is plenty to criticize. This movie was in no way a comedy and billing it as such in the trailer was misleading and possibly dangerous for moms who had struggled during the postpartum period or who are still in the midst of recovery. There were a few sarcastic one liners that brought on a laugh – but those were mainly “I’ve been there too” parent moments. The big plot twist: Tully is a hallucination alluding to Marlo’s younger carefree self. Are hallucinations of this kind part of postpartum depression? No. But they never mentioned postpartum depression. Or psychosis. Or really even mental illness other than the doctor asking if Marlo had a history and her husband mentioning that she was depressed after the birth of her second baby. Could they have run a public service announcement at the end of the film with resources or shown Marlo getting treatment? Of course. But this is Hollywood.
The more I thought about this movie, the more I realized that it is actually very accurate in many ways. Becoming and being a mom is hard. The monotony, loneliness and sleep deprivation of the first few months can be hellish. Moms are a ball of conflicting emotions after having a baby. Breastfeeding is often very hard and painful. Moms need more support and resources. Bringing home a newborn when you have older children is an exquisite exercise in balance (three ring circus comes to mind…). Partners need to be plugged in – participating and paying attention. There is a lot of loss involved in becoming a mother and it is okay to mourn those parts of your old life and identity.
It’s also accurate in the way that no one screens Marlo or asks questions about how she is really doing. Her husband notices her acting odd, yet does not pursue or ask more specific questions. He is busy with his video games and working long hours. Her daughter notices she is wearing much more makeup than usual – this is common with moms suffering from postpartum mood disorders. There is a desperate need for these moms to hide what is really happening lest they be judged as a bad mom or risk getting their baby taken away. The stigma can be unbearable. The day they go to the OB/GYN or pediatrician might be the only day that week where they shower, dress and put on makeup. Marlo is dismissed by her doctor as suffering from exhaustion the same way MANY moms’ symptoms are minimized by providers as “baby blues” or “needing rest.”
Maybe this movie is not for moms at all. Maybe it’s for the partners, families and doctors who love, support, work and live with the 1 out of 5 moms who are suffering from a perinatal mood disorder. Only 15% of moms get treatment – if this movie can help increase that number at all by reducing stigma, starting a conversation and/or making people more aware of symptoms to look for then I think that is a good thing. Even in the best circumstances, momming is difficult.