What Tully Gets Right About Postpartum Mental Health {And What it Could Have Done Better}

Tully, a newly released film starring Charlize Theron, has generated a lot of buzz and controversy surrounding early motherhood and mental health. The plot centers on third time mom Marlo, and chronicles her story from her 9th month of pregnancy through her early postpartum weeks. Marlo is struggling mightily with adjusting to life with a newborn, special needs child, and a husband who is less than clued-in and helpful. Her wealthy brother offers to hire her a night nanny to relieve some of her burden, as well as allow her to get some crucial sleep at night.

Tully, the nanny, shows up and is every new moms’ dream come true. She cleans the house, cares for the infant, and becomes a confidante and friend to Marlo. With Tully’s help, Marlo seems to be crawling out of the pit of {extreme} postpartum depression. In the film’s climax, which I won’t spoil here, an incident occurs and Tully is no longer able to work for Marlo and her family. This scene reveals the truth that Marlo is suffering from more than just postpartum depression; many experts have written that she actually has postpartum psychosis {although the film never mentions this term}. 

Tully isn’t perfect; there are some legitimate concerns about how the film portrays postpartum mental health. However, it is spurring lots of conversation about the realities of postpartum disorders. By talking frankly about these issues, moms will have better support and understanding from their friends and families. Also, those support people will gain much-needed empathy and will be better equipped to walk alongside a suffering new mom. 

What Tully Gets Right

There is nothing glamorous or “Hollywood” about Tully’s portrayal of pregnancy and early motherhood. Marlo’s postpartum body is raw and real :: stretch marks, engorged and leaky breasts, sore nipples, and dark circles under her tired eyes. Her house is a wreck, she is sleep deprived and the quintessential new mom nightmare happens to her :: she spills a bag of freshly pumped breastmilk. Marlo isn’t bonding with her new baby, and she is struggling to regain an intimate relationship with her husband. While certainly not all women can relate to these trials, many can, and many endure them in isolation and shame. Representation matters in art and media, and by showing the vulnerable, messy side of the postpartum period, many new moms who have never seen “themselves” on screen may feel more empowered to talk about what they are going through. 

I also appreciate the way Tully portrays the unique reality of raising a special needs child, and how that can greatly affect a woman’s mental health. Although he is described by his parents and school personnel as “quirky”, it is obvious that little Jonah has some real sensory issues and disabilities. Marlo’s relationship with Jonah is complicated; she adores and loves him fiercely, but she also is exhausted and frustrated with her role as his mother. As a mom of a child with severe disabilities, I can completely relate to these conflicting forces of motherhood. I’m grateful the filmmakers chose to highlight this particular situation in the raw and honest way that they did. 

What Tully Could Have Done Better

As much as Tully exposes the reality of what the postpartum period can look like, there were some issues that may be cause for reflection and criticism. First, the fact that Tully’s postpartum depression was actually postpartum psychosis should have been explained. While postpartum depression is fairly common {1 in 7 } postpartum psychosis is rare {2 in 1000}. The film certainly should have made it clear that Marlo’s condition is not common and NOT NORMAL. 

The film ends with a resolution to the problem :: Marlo appears to be bonding with her infant, she’s pulled herself together physically, and her husband is becoming more involved and helpful. However, the audience never sees Marlo getting the real HELP that she needs. There is no mention of treatment, or therapy. This sudden change of circumstances is misleading; in reality, it takes a lot of work and usually a longer period of time to truly heal from these issues. 

Tully is a great movie with an entertaining story and surprising plot twist. While not perfect, it certainly raises some uncomfortable truths about motherhood and invites honest conversation about these issues. I truly hope that the message it sends to new moms suffering from postpartum mental health issues is you are not alone and there is hope. 

Have you seen Tully? What are your thoughts on its portrayal of postpartum mental health? 

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One Response to What Tully Gets Right About Postpartum Mental Health {And What it Could Have Done Better}

  1. Ronni Peck May 23, 2018 at 12:41 pm #

    I wrote a response to articles similar to this – most people miss all the other beautiful layers to the movie Tully and instead ONLY focus on the mental health aspect. But there’s so much more to it too! Also, I personally don’t think that Marlo had actual postpartum psychosis and that there’s lots of clues in the movie that point to the fact that she wasn’t experiencing psychosis.

    If anyone is interested in hearing another perspective of the movie, here is my post: https://www.screenwriterswife.com/what-is-tully-about-the-deeper-layers-no-one-is-talking-about.html

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