moms in movies

The Most ‘Real’ Scene in Tully Isn’t About Horrific Motherhood

Charlize Theron. Photo: Focus Features

NEW MOM explores the brilliant, terrible, wonderful, confusing realities of first-time motherhood. It’s for anybody who wants to be a new mom, is a new mom, was a new mom, or wants really good reasons to never be a new mom. Below, a movie provoking strong reactions from all kinds of moms, including new ones.

Like almost everything related to motherhood, Tully — starring Charlize Theron, written by Diablo Cody — is proving divisive. Some have hailed the film for its “real” depiction of what being a mother is like. Others have declared that the film falls short, while still more are concerned with Tully’s treatment of maternal mental illness.

But even the most critical reactions to Tully seem to agree on one thing: This is a movie that showcases aspects of motherhood — the physical discomfort and challenges, the anger and the sadness — we don’t talk much about. According to Entertainment Weekly, “there’s something almost transgressive in speaking up and admitting that motherhood is hard and occasionally unrewarding when everyone is quick to point out what a ‘blessing’ it is.” Theron’s weight gain, Slate’s review notes, “is just the beginning of the film’s mission to expose the less-than-enchanting facets of motherhood.”

In the film, Charlize Theron plays Marlo, a burnt-out suburban mother whose rich brother gifts her a night nanny named Tully. When her new help arrives, Marlo’s unstylish house is messy and crowded. Pregnancy and breastfeeding have been depicted as physically uncomfortable. Her newborn wakes up crying, often in the middle of the night, requiring food and a diaper change. Marlo, until she perks up a bit thanks to Tully’s help, is visibly exhausted, shuffling around with bags under her eyes and the depression-cardigans that indicate their wearer wants to disappear.

But at this point, I have to ask: Just how unexpected is it to see details of brand-new parenthood? Take a look around and I guarantee you’ll find plenty of women “getting real” about motherhood. We might have complicated feelings about what we share, we might not all join in on the sharing, but trust me — “real” motherhood is out there, with all its poop and cracked nipples and day-care-cost worries. Motherhood is complex, it’s not the same for anyone, and it’s probably not going to be what you expect. Plenty of people are talking about it and depicting it in popular culture.

The reason, I think, we insist on this imaginary silence is that no one seems to be listening in a meaningful way. Pregnancy and birth are often painful and result in complications — and yet postnatal care is woefully understudied. Paid parental leave is associated with better health outcomes for families — and yet our country does not have a federal paid-parental-leave policy. For women of color, “real” motherhood includes very real risks. For all parents, child care means spending a lot and encountering child-care workers who need to be paid more — and yet we don’t have universal subsidized child care.

Just how many gnarly depictions of motherhood are necessary for anything to change? If our laws and policies reflected the challenges of parenthood, perhaps we wouldn’t feel such pangs upon seeing a counter soaked in breast milk. In the theater where I watched Tully, when Marlo’s Medela bag toppled, women gasped into the darkness.

I saw Tully with a friend whose daughter is just a few months older than my son. As we were leaving, she turned to me and murmured, “Did we see it too soon?” The movie, she said, gave her flashbacks and made her think twice about having a second kid. I laughed; we parted ways, texting each other on the way home about certain scenes — that spilled bag of pumped breast milk, yelling during a child’s outburst, a tiny foot kicking the back of your seat in the car. No matter how many personal essays you’ve read on the internet, no matter how many flustered moms you’ve seen in commercials for cleaning products, no matter how many of the spectacular literary works about motherhood you’ve consumed, these visceral aspects of motherhood are still nice to see.

But even nicer still, to my mind, were the parts of Tully that are harder to put into words. While I could describe in detail how being sleep deprived felt like walking around with my head chopped off, I’d be much less likely to start a conversation with how much I love hugging my son. I hate hugs: They’re a deplorable part of modern life, made worse by somehow invading the professional sphere and after-hours drinks with colleagues. But hugging my son feels like coming home, like shrugging on a garment that fits just right.

In Tully, Marlo attempts to calm her kindergartner Jonah by brushing his body — she can’t afford therapy anymore, she explains later, so she went on YouTube to learn the method. The scene is physical and intimate; the colors are soft and light, and the camera catches a rare smile from Marlo. Toward the end of the movie, Jonah asks his mother if the brushing does anything. She tells him she’s really not sure. He likes being by her, though, he says, and they hug. That’s it.

The Most ‘Real’ Scene in Tully Isn’t Sad or Horrifying