Early motherhood doesn’t remotely resemble the blissful existence typically seen in movies. And it’s almost never the breathtakingly beautiful pictures presented on social media. Nope, it’s really none of that.
The true picture, the honest down and dirty real life existence of new motherhood, is agonizingly on view in the new movie, Tully. In just the first 15 minutes of the movie I went from laughing to nearly crying at the chillingly accurate portrayal of the few days before the main character, Marlo, gives birth and the weeks immediately following.
New motherhood is adult diapers and sitting on O-rings to avert pain. It’s numbing spray for episiotomy stitches and hemorrhoid cream. It’s engorged breasts and literally crying over spilled breastmilk. It’s sleep deprivation and an endless rotation of hotdogs and frozen pizza for dinner. It’s unwashed fetid bottles and strewn Legos that no one bothers to pick up—for days or weeks at a time. It’s messy and painful, and Tully thankfully shows all of that.
However, it’s the dangerous aspects of the postpartum experience that become the focus of Tully as we learn more about Marlo. She appears to have symptoms of severe mental illness. To avoid spoiling the ending I won’t say more about the specific likely diagnosis. But it’s enough to say that Marlo became a danger to herself and her family.
Watching Tully is uncomfortable. The raw veracity that permeates the entire movie lodges a knot in the stomach of any mother. Watch the trailer and count how many moments remind you of your own experience. My personal count was 17 (from just the trailer).
I saw Tully in a private screening in a room filled with only women, almost exclusively moms. Toward the end of the movie the audible sniffles turned to sobs as many in the audience felt the portrayal of Marlo’s symptoms were painfully close to their own. Without a trigger warning I fear some moms may go see this movie unprepared for the feelings that will inevitably arise. But while it was excruciating to see so many suffering with flashbacks from the worst moment in their motherhood, I was left feeling hopeful that this movie can bring about a change for new mothers.
There is a good deal of criticism about the movie, and it’s absolutely justified. The portrayal of Marlo’s husband as warm but more focused on video game playing than childcare is an unfair dig at dads everywhere. As careful as the movie is to honestly portray the female experience they are as careless with the dad’s experience. However, the main concern is that the movie solves Marlo’s severe condition seemingly with just her husband agreeing to help out more in the home. This significant oversimplification leaves the movie woefully incomplete. There was an opportunity to raise awareness about successful treatment, and it was left out of the equation. Similarly, the movie could have provided additional information and resources about postpartum illness before the credits but it did not. And yet, the movie has incredible value.
As a person who has worked with thousands of new moms I know the benefit of early detection and treatment for postpartum mental illness. My hope is that while there were some unfortunate omissions in Tully, the accurate portrayal of the experience will get people talking. And if people are talking then the next step is to find ways to reach out and help new moms through this difficult time in their parenting journey.
It is estimated that 1 in 7 new moms will experience significant symptoms before or after the birth of a baby. Here are six ways to address perinatal mental health:
Assume you are needed. No one is going to ask you to clean the bottles or put in a load of laundry or shop for essential groceries. Offer anyway and don’t take no for an answer. Don’t wait to be asked to bring dinner over or to pick up older children from school. If you see a mom struggling to do even basic childcare or is extraordinarily exhausted, offer to mind the baby for a while.
Be the voice of reason. Parents suffering with postpartum illness may be cycling through some harsh self-talk. Tell Mom what she is doing well and let her know it gets easier.
Be Direct. Periodically check in on new moms by asking frankly, “Are you having any trouble bonding with the baby? Are you experiencing any depression or anxiety that you find worrisome? Do you have scary thoughts or fear of being left alone with the baby?”
Be Observant. Mental illness often comes with visible symptomology. Being uncharacteristically confused or disorganized to an extreme level could be cause for concern. If a new mom appears manic, complains of insomnia or is sleeping excessively, get involved to support and find help. Excessive crying, deep sadness and anxiety for an extensive period could also be signs of postpartum illness.
Stop Pretending. Moms everywhere need to speak their truth, and let others know they suffered in the past or are struggling in the present. Absolutely no one is helped by the silence. Maintaining our facticious new parent perfection only increases shame in ourselves and resistance to getting help for others. So if you want to be supportive, be honest.
Get Help. If you or someone you know doesn’t seem alright before or after having a baby, don’t wait to get help. Early detection and treatment can shorten the illness and minimize the severity.
For more information about postpartum illness review these resources:
Catherine Pearlman, PhD is a licensed clinical social worker and the author of Ignore It!: How Selectively Looking the Other Way Can Decrease Behavioral Problems and Increase Parenting Satisfaction.