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Tully, #RealMom (Pseudo-spoilers Inside)

*Credit for the #realmom hashtag goes to my friend and colleague Corey Hickner-Johnson, who was the first person I know to use it.

My husband and I watched Tully (dir. Jason Reitman, 2018) this weekend. When the trailer was first released, I was very excited to watch the film. But then as I read about people’s concerns regarding it, I became hesitant: I knew that having a second baby would be a big transition, and I didn’t want to watch something that would make me feel more anxious or down about the difficulties of parenting multiple children. I ended up watching the film sooner than I anticipated, and I’m really glad I did: it was a realistic portrayal of what #momlife looks like—not the glamour-washed Instamom feeds I’m used to seeing, but a raw, messy, and wonderful picture of motherhood. We witness her exhaustion, her frustration, her postpartum body (leaking, out of shape, and still a turn-on to her husband)—and her intense love for her children and husband. I think that was my biggest takeaway from the film: you CAN be frazzled, overtired, impatient, discontent with your work-life balance, sexually unsatisfied, AND STILL love your life, your husband, and your children. It’s not either/or, despite what most films and TV shows suggest.

[Spoiler alert, sort of] Now, I should say that I personally (and honestly, quite surprisingly) have not experienced postpartum depression, the subject this film takes on. So, while I didn’t find this film triggering, other moms who have experienced postpartum depression might. I will say, in response to the film’s critics, that I agree that the movie handles too lightly the severity of Marlo’s (Charlize Theron’s character’s) mental illness. She doesn’t have postpartum depression; she has postpartum psychosis, a much more severe form of the illness. Portraying Marlo as a sort of “supermom”—a role-playing vixen and mom extraordinaire who manically makes perfect cupcakes and deep-cleans the house in the wee hours of the night—as a result of her postpartum psychosis is problematic to me. And while everyone realizes in the end that her supermom persona was a mask for chronic exhaustion (and postpartum psychosis), the topic isn’t sufficiently addressed. I don’t think it’s ever even named. The most we get is an allusion from her husband to Marlo’s experience with “something” following the birth of her son.

Another weird thing about this film is that Jonah, Marlo and Drew’s (Drew is played by Jack Berger…I mean, Ron Livingston) son, is labeled as “quirky” throughout the film, “dismissed” (read: expelled) from his fancy private school for his odd behavior, and administered special sensory treatments, and yet while it’s pretty clear that he has Asperger’s, given his sensory sensitivities and his extreme need for a prescribed routine (he has a meltdown when his mom wants to park in a different lot at school), everyone acts clueless about his behavior. Marlo even gets irate when someone calls Jonah “quirky” for the millionth time, but then she says: “Say what you mean—you think he’s retarded!” He clearly doesn’t have an intellectual disability, so this moment in the movie is odd. What’s more troubling to me is that no one is naming these conditions… it seems like the perfect opportunity to combat the taboos of postpartum mental illness and autism-spectrum disorders, but instead the taboos are further reified by making them conditions-which-shall-not-be-named.

The redeeming aspect of the film for me, again, was the message that it’s okay to have terrible days (or months or years) and not be a bad mom or partner, and it’s possible to go through these dark times and still love your life. At the end of the movie, from her hospital bed Marlo says, “I love us,” to which her husband responds, “I love us too.” As the film reminds us, happiness does not always, or at least not only, exist in the moments of perfection, of ease and enjoyment. It can also be found when you’re at your wits’ end, sleepless and overworked and physically uncomfortable but completely in love with the human(s) you’ve created and the partner you’ve chosen.

Have you watched Tully? What did you think about it?