Google “invisible workload,” and 3,420,000 results come up. On the very first page, you’ll find articles with titles like The Invisible Workload of Motherhood is Killing Me and Gender Gap: The Invisible Workload That Drags Women Down. About a year ago, a comic called You Should’ve Asked broke down another term for invisible workload — the mental load — and made the rounds on social media. And now there’s Tully, a film that shows this side of motherhood and all of the burdens you don’t often see on the big screen.
Written by Diablo Cody and directed by Jason Reitman, reuniting for the third time after 2007’s Juno and 2011’s Young Adult, Tully brings to unvarnished life that being a mom isn’t always magical. It’s not always beautiful and serene and fulfilling like the movies make it out to be. As Charlize Theron’s Marlo experiences after having her third child, it’s frustrating and isolating and, more often than not, too much.
Because it’s not just taking care of this new baby that falls on Marlo. It’s keeping everything going. It’s cleaning the house and taking the kids to school. It’s having to find a one-to-one aide for her “quirky” son Jonah because his kindergarten teacher can’t sufficiently handle his atypical behavior and his private school will not provide an aide for him. It’s worrying that her eight-year-old daughter Sarah is learning too early to be hard on herself and not being sure what to do about it, because it never gets easier for girls. It’s keeping everything inside when her husband, Drew (Ron Livingston), makes a blithe comment about coming home from a hard day at work to frozen pizza for dinner and screens at the table because he can’t see that his wife is exhausted. That this is all she can manage.
When Marlo’s brother (Mark Duplass) offers to pay for a night nanny (Mackenzie Davis) to help her get through the first few weeks with an infant, Marlo’s instinct is an automatic “no.” “What kind of person lets a stranger bond with her newborn baby?” she asks, when really she’s probably thinking, What kind of mother am I if I admit I need someone to help me? What will people think of me? And it’s only when she’s too tired to care anymore, when she’s beyond her wit’s end, that she finally gives Tully a call and finds that maybe she can breathe again. Or, more importantly, sleep.
There’s a myth of motherhood that it’s like a superpower, that once you have that baby in your arms, you can do anything and everything that comes your way and glow like a goddess while you do it. Critics have been throwing words like “fearless” around when describing Theron’s performance in Tully, because of the extra 50 pounds she carries, the lack of makeup on her face and the unflattering portrait of motherhood she paints. But that’s kind of a backhanded compliment, isn’t it? “Fearless.” They only say “fearless” when they mean “ugly,” and it’s only ugly because it’s honest.
Cody has always been uniquely suited to illustrate the paradoxes that women contain, that what you see on the outside just barely conceals what they feel and are on the inside. The much-maligned but actually brilliant Jennifer’s Body does this with navigating the minefield that is female friendships, Juno with coming of age, Young Adult with refusing to, and now Tully with what a perfect mom looks like. Cody, a mother of two herself, clearly channeled into her screenplay not just everything that scared her about motherhood but also everything about her new life with kids that made her miss the woman she was before she had children — another unspoken taboo. You’re not supposed to look back and miss your freedom. You’re not supposed to be selfish.
But, as Tully teaches Marlo, there’s a difference between being selfish and practicing self-care. Marlo takes care of everybody, but no one takes care of Marlo, and the weight of everything she carries threatens to break her every day. You see this in the frank depiction of Marlo giving birth and then in the montage of Marlo taking care of baby Mia alone night after night. She never smiles. She never looks at her baby or her family with love until much later in the movie, when she has finally taken steps to start caring for herself first. That moment when she can finally look at Mia without days and weeks and years of exhaustion weighing her down passes unremarked, and it’s not until later that you realize how quietly heartbreaking it is.
Really, this whole movie is heartbreaking. And, for someone who’s thinking pretty seriously about starting a family soon, not a little terrifying. But I think that’s a good thing. Film and TV have a tendency to make transitory periods of life look seamless and miraculous, and it’s something akin to culture shock when you actually go through those periods and they’re nothing like you thought they would be. It’s not really “brave” or “fearless” for Cody and Reitman and Theron to give us a version of reality that we’re afraid to admit might come true; like I’ve said three or four times now, it’s just honest.
I’m grateful for that honesty. If those articles I linked above tell me anything, it’s that we need it pretty desperately, and we’re not getting it from the media we consume. Maybe some new moms will see Tully and realize that they can and should ask for help, that they deserve it. Maybe some dads — old and new — will see it and realize they can and should do more, without being asked. Maybe a few adult children will see it, reevaluate their childhood memories, and appreciate their parents in ways they didn’t before.
And maybe some women will stop being so hard on themselves. Or at least they’ll get the idea that they should give themselves a break.
It’s not much, but it’s a start.