At last we're singing the baby blues
A new movie looks powerfully at postpartum depression. It's the start of a very necessary conversation
Let me begin with a disclaimer. An opinion piece is like a pregnancy: you might have planned it, or maybe conception happened while you lay in your bed on the edge of sleep. Both those things happen. And many others too.
Also, you just don’t know how it’s going to turn out. I’ll avoid giving any spoilers, in the same way one “avoids” cracked nipples or giving birth to a child with colic. Sometimes your baby is Mother Teresa and the devil incarnate in the space of three minutes. It is a changeable and nuanced and complicated experience – not easily “represented” in a single piece of art, cinema or song.
And that is the point of this column.
I recently went to see Tully, a deeply affecting film starring Charlize Theron which, apart from being an exquisitely acted and compelling film, explores the highly prevalent issue of postpartum depression. Or was it about postpartum exhaustion? Or maybe even psychosis? It depends who you ask (or if the thought police are lurking around the corner flat-packing your perceptions and then arresting you for “misrepresentation”).
Playing mainly to rave reviews (87% positive reviews by critics on Rotten Tomatoes and 74% for the audience score), the film was also highly criticised in some quarters for its “representation” of postpartum mental health. For example, on Motherly (an online lifestyle publication about motherhood), a midwife has written a piece in which she says: “As with all mental illness, it’s essential that we do not make any blanket statements” about women who are suffering mentally after giving birth.
I don’t see how writer Diablo Cody made a “blanket statement”. As far as I understand, she made a movie.
In the New York Times, the president of Postpartum Support International said her organisation had been “fielding complaints about the film”, as the “mommy world” was up in arms about the portrayal of perinatal mood disorders and that she could understand why.
In my opinion, this anger is counterproductive. The only reason people are reacting so badly to the “representations” and “portrayals” of perinatal mental health in this movie is because it is a topic so woefully neglected in cinema – and in conversation in real life.Just because it’s one of the only films that “goes there”, is it incumbent upon that film to be the definitive take on the topic? Because Cody is exploring uncharted territory, it doesn’t mean her main character Marlo’s mental makeup carries the weight of that territory in her role.
Imagine if Love Actually was criticised for its portrayal of love. That would be laughable and absurd, simply because there are thousands of movies about love and this is just one of them.
The other interesting thing is that all those criticising the movie’s particular construction of postpartum mental ill-health are also lauding it for at least showing the realities of early motherhood: an experience characterised largely by a lack of sleep, a change in identity, dirty nappies, an absent sex life and, often, a body with new contours.
It’s tough, and some women fall apart and some cope and some have good-hair days interspersed with crawl-to-the-bottom-of-the-bed days. According to psychologist Monica Starkman, writing for Psychology Today, the baby blues are normal and “occur in up to 75% of women during the first or so week after delivery”.
Then there is major depressive disorder brought on by pregnancy and, although the incidence is hard to measure because of how the symptoms overlap with normal post-delivery symptoms, it is far less common than the baby blues and is thought to occur “in one in 10” among new moms. Starkman says it can “last for months or years” without treatment (psychotherapy and/or medication).
Finally, there is postpartum psychosis, which only occurs in “one or two women in 1,000 births”. Starkman says it manifests as “profound confusion and mental clouding”, as well as hallucinations, and concentration or memory problems.
Those are useful distinctions, and as a society we should talk about them more, but Marlo is not a page in a textbook. Neither is she the ultimate embodiment of postpartum depression or the patron saint of weird coping mechanisms.
She is a character in a movie that dares to explore in real terms how pregnancy and birth can make you feel even when it’s ugly and feels insurmountable. So, instead of whipping the film for what it does or doesn’t say, let’s rather celebrate the fact that it is saying anything on the topic at all, and maybe then the entire topic won’t be such a taboo.