Blackish Cloud of Depression

In October 2017, the maternal mental health world was atwitter with news that the TV sitcom, Blackish, was going to tackle postpartum depression in its storyline.  I, just like everyone else, was curious to see how it would be treated; however, I had not been watching the series.  Like the anal-retentive reader that I am, I knew I wouldn’t be able to watch except from the beginning, to get a full sense of the story, the setting, the characters.

I started binge-watching this winter during one of the multi-week stretches of snowstorms and flu-like symptoms.  I loved getting to know the Johnsons, seeing their story unfold.  As soon as Rainbow told Dre she was pregnant, though, I waited anxiously for the signs.  They didn’t come until the last episode of season three: Sprinkles.  A headache brought Bow into the doctor’s office and the train of preeclampsia rushed from the station.

As she lay on the operating table waiting for the anesthesia to kick in, Rainbow delivered the opening address of postpartum depression.  She may not have known it at the time, but she outlined many of the contributing factors of postpartum depression.

“This wasn’t supposed to happen like this.”

Unrealistic or unmet expectations

 

“I’m really good at this stuff. I’m a baby maker.”

High standards.  Betrayal or failure of body.

“This is not normal.

Doesn’t meet the ideal.

“I’m really scared.

Fear.  Anxiety.

What if something goes wrong?”

Ruminating.  Irrational fears or worries.

While her blood pressure began to decrease immediately following the baby’s delivery, Rainbow couldn’t hold her baby.  He’s whisked away to NICU while she’s anchored to the operating table.  Go with him, she pleaded with Dre; someone needs to be with our baby.

Dre had his own emotional trauma surrounding the birth.  The doctor intimated that their first priority in cases such as Bow’s is to save the mother, introducing the concept of maternal or fetal mortality.  Trying to anchor his wife in this unexpected development was complicated tenfold by the possibility of losing one or both of his loved ones.  Even when the baby was successfully delivered, he confessed to his father that he’s afraid to love him in the event that something horrible happens to him.

Sprinkles isn’t even the postpartum episode.  But even if I didn’t have the spoilers I did, the writers did a phenomenal job foreshadowing the struggles to come.  As was my own experience with postpartum depression, a perfect storm of conditions converged and they’re laid out in a nuanced and real, respectful manner.

I’d had a long day yesterday and needed to decompress at the end of it.  I knew I was staying up far too late for my level of exhaustion, but needed to unwind.  As I sat there, solitary, sobbing, as the rest of my family slept, I thought, well that didn’t work.  But then, I remembered the date:  May 2, World Maternal Mental Health Day.  How very fitting that I finally happened upon the postpartum part of the Blackish story on this of all days.  This story stirred the very raw emotions of my own experience because it was so eloquently treated – and the story is just beginning.

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IMDb

What Tully is Really About

When I saw the first trailer for Tully a few months ago, I was excited.  A full-length feature film that portrayed the real story of new motherhood?  The heartache, the frustration, the despair?  I was ready to book my mom’s night out right then.

 

What Tully is not about – or only part of the picture

 

But something stayed my hand from hitting the share button.  Even in a thirty second promo, her night nurse seemed too good to be true.  How could she possibly say the right thing at the exact right time every single time?  And do it all with the Zen voice of a life coach?  Or not even.  Like a lover trying to woo Charlize Theron’s character, Marlo.  I wasn’t sure what, but something was off.

A few days later, a fellow maternal mental health advocate sounded the alarm.  Read Graeme Seabrook’s take here.  More problems arose as the days went on, though.  Apparently, Tully is not just a flawed character; she does not exist at all.  She is entirely a creation of Marlo’s mind.  No wonder she was too good to be true.

In the film, Marlo apparently does receive a diagnosis of postpartum depression.  The plot does admit that her behavior and experience are not ‘normal’.  She does suffer from a condition of mental illness – except postpartum depression is not what it is.  Marlo suffers from postpartum psychosis.

As explained in a recent HuffPost article on the subject:

Postpartum depression is characterized by feelings of anger, irritability, guilt, shame, hopelessness, and sadness, but delusions, strange beliefs and hallucinations are symptoms more in line with a diagnosis of postpartum psychosis, as are cases of infanticide, according to Postpartum Support International (PSI).

The fact that the extreme separate reality Marlo has created is attributed to postpartum depression is dangerous.  If we take this film at face value, which many viewers will if they have no experience with maternal mental health, two things may happen.  One, women who do not have hallucinations will not seek help because they don’t feel they’re that bad.  Two, women who do not have hallucinations but suffer from debilitating depression (or anxiety or OCD) will be seen as mothers who will harm their children.  Women are already afraid to seek out the help they so desperately need when suffering from maternal mental health issues.  If they also have to fear being deemed unfit to care for their children, they will even less likely to obtain and benefit from treatment.

Society already sees every mother with postpartum depression as one with those who desperately drown their children.  As recently as this January, police were called to a California emergency room when a mother requested help for postpartum mental health concerns.  There is enough stigma to fight without movies like Tully perpetuating myths and muddying the water advocates fight daily to clear.

A star-powered film in mainstream cinema has tremendous potential to slay such myths and spread awareness.  What a squandered opportunity.  Many mental health advocates are asking, why didn’t they ask us?  If only Jason Reitman or Diablo Cody had consulted professionals and organizations for the full picture.  But honestly, I don’t think the Hollywood players working on this film are concerned with the women who will come to this movie looking for a funny cathartic look at their real life, but instead get sneak-attack triggered by the surprise turn of events.  They are more concerned with plot; with a compelling, unexpected story.  They are dealing with fictional characters, after all.  Except that they have failed to take into account the devastating effect their largest imaginary character will have on their very real viewers.

Even writers of fiction must research their topic, their time period.  Even in fiction, world-building must be believable.  Egregious errors ruin the integrity of the world, the characters, the entire experience.  Not only did those responsible for Tully fail sufferers and survivors of maternal mental illness, but the standards of good writing as well.

From the moment this film was named, it took power away from mothers – the very first being Marlo.  It’s not her story.  It becomes the story of her illness.  Maternal mental illness does overshadow the mother in its darkest depths.  But it does not define the woman.  The most compelling part of the story should be the journey out of those depths.  A mother’s eventual triumph, not her despair.  Tully totally misses that.

 


Another great discussion of the film from Motherly here

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