As a first-time new mum, I walked out of Tully both shaken and relieved. Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman’s honest story of early motherhood left me feeling anxious for new mums everywhere, and relieved that I, somehow, survived those first few months. Charlize Theron’s depiction of the overwhelmed and lonely Marlo is heartbreaking to watch. And Mackenzie Davis’ titular Tully, an overnight baby nurse whose services are provided to Marlo by her wealthier brother, is optimistic and earnest to a fault.
There’s a reason the movie is getting so much buzz: Tully’s soul-crushing montage of baby care is the most authentic interpretation of it that I’ve seen on film. It’s painful to watch and harrowing to live through. But, while everyone is discussing the movie’s compelling handling of postpartum psychosis and Marlo’s detached relationship with her husband, Drew (Ron Livingston), I can’t stop thinking about Tully and the privilege that she represents.
The truth is, I’ve never seen a night nurse portrayed in a movie. I didn’t even know they existed until well into my second trimester. An unscientific survey of other new mums who work at Refinery29 revealed that they didn’t know this kind of expensive service was an option until they were pregnant, either. So what exactly does a night nurse do, how much do they cost, and why doesn’t anyone talk about them?
A night nurse is a caretaker that shows up in the evenings and takes care of feeding, diapering, cuddling, and any other needs the newborn may have. They bring the baby to and from you in bed if you’re breastfeeding, or give them pumped milk or formula if you really want to experience the luxury of 12 hours of uninterrupted sleep. The night nurse also serves as a teacher to the new parents, and especially the new mum. They help with breastfeeding, bathing, and organising the nursery. Then, like magic, they leave in the morning, entrusting the baby into your well-rested arms. The thought of an experienced nanny who will swoop in to relieve me and my husband of baby duties for the evening sounded too good to be true. Suddenly, it all made sense: This is how celebrities and those with means raise their children, isn't it?
I’m not judging. There are cultures that promote a lie-in, a period of time when family and friends take care of a new mum and baby, allowing her to heal and rest. That’s not an option many women have, but what a difference it could make. Marlo was a whole new woman after just one full night of sleep: “I can see colour again,” she tells Drew. (There’s a reason why sleep deprivation is considered a form of torture by the Geneva Convention.) Later in the movie, Tully tells Marlo that she can’t be a good mother if she doesn’t practice self-care. And that’s what night nurses help provide: self-care for those who can afford it.
Nothing prepared me for those first exciting, but brutal, nights at home with my baby, and I would have given anything for a stretch of sleep longer than three hours. With the help of a night nurse from a slew of available agencies, the price of much-needed sleep can really add up. Families typically hire a night nurse for 10-12 hour shifts, $180 to $300 a night, six days a week, for two to 12 weeks, according to Lindsay Bell, the founder of the New York City-based Bell Family Company, a referral-based agency which pairs nannies and night nurses with families.
From the get-go, Tully acknowledges the class disparities between Marlo and her wealthy brother, Craig (Mark Duplass), who gifts her with Tully’s services as a baby gift. Marlo is hesitant to accept such an extravagant gesture, but sleep deprivation has a way of bringing the desperation out of her. So, we meet Tully.
“A lot of mums are getting more comfortable admitting that they need help,” Bell told Refinery29. Whereas a new mum was previously expected to juggle it all, Bell says it’s becoming more acceptable for women to admit they need help. That extra support “helps the baby thrive, and it helps the mum thrive.”
Sasha, 35, said she used a baby nurse for round-the-clock care with each of her three children. An accepted aid in her immediate circle — her mother and family members have all used one — Sasha says the extra help for two weeks allowed her to recoup her strength after three C-sections while also caring for her older children and adjusting to having a newborn at home. “The reality is that it’s not an inexpensive thing to take on, and some private agencies are more expensive than others,” Sasha said, adding, “But if you’re not in a position to care for yourself, you’re not taking care of anyone else.”
Laura Ganley Enright, 39, who hired a night nurse with both of her children, had the added experience of hiring one in London with her first born and one in the New York City-area for her second. But while most of her parenting peers in London viewed the hiring matter-of-factly, “People [in the U.S.] were like ‘what’s a night nanny?’” Enright told Refinery29, adding, “My sister didn’t have one. Nobody I knew ever had one so I was saying to my husband, ‘no, why would we need one?’” Months later, the night nurse was a “godsend” after her baby developed acid reflux.
The night nurse helped out four nights a week for three months, and not only allowed Enright the sleep and rest she so desperately needed, but was also “a wealth of knowledge, had a ton of experience, and was very supportive of the whole situation.” The self-care and support the night nanny afforded also alleviated Enright’s symptoms of postpartum depression after her first born. “I was getting zero sleep, and that contributes to depression, and it’s a vicious cycle. Once you get sleep and can think more clearly you can bond with the baby,” she says.
Spotting symptoms of PPD and postpartum psychosis is an important part of a night nurse’s job, according to Josephine Chrouch, the director of Lullaby Services, a nanny agency that also serves the greater New York area. In those cases, the caretaker will notify the partner or family members right away and will never push for the mother to hold the baby if she doesn’t want to. Chrouch recalls a case of a mother with postpartum psychosis who began to break things in the home. The situation got so out of hand that the caretaker was worried for her own safety. The experience motivated Chrouch to do her own diligent research into the condition, information that she now passes on to all the nannies in her employment.
Of her clients, Chrouch says new mums often have a sense of guilt when hiring a night nurse, or any help in general. That has led some to cut the services short.
Tully is not without its controversy. Screenwriter Cody has come under fire from mums for the way she portrays postpartum psychosis, a rare and temporary condition that demands immediate treatment for the mother to avoid an associated high risk of suicide and infanticide. Critics pointed out that the film never shows Marlo in treatment, and doesn’t even allude to her receiving the medical care she so desperately needs. But that was not by accident.
When confronted with the criticism by the New York Times, Cody defended her decision, saying the lack of treatment reflects the reality for so many women suffering from PPD or postpartum psychosis. “My heart goes out to anyone who’s dealt with this, honestly. Because it’s so ignored,” she said. “Sometimes what you're desperate is for someone to say: ‘Hey, I actually see what’s going on here. This is serious, we need to deal with it and there’s a name for it,’” Cody added. She also communicated that Marlo doesn’t get help “because the film is meant to be uncomfortable.”
Celebrities and the wealthy are able to hire a night nurse for a couple of months, a full year — or even longer, but most never acknowledge the army of caretakers they employ for their children. (The Kardashians have actively chosen to hide their nannies on KUWTK.) But, stars, they are not like us. The luxury of hiring a night nurse, an au pair, a trainer, and housekeeper means a woman gets proper rest and relaxation, giving her the opportunity to concentrate on herself while her newborn is well cared for. It’s much easier to practice self-care and tear yourself away for a long hike when you’re not living on a two-hour schedule around a baby’s needs. This is not a reality lived by most American women.
While discussing the high cost of the service, Bell says her agency is “seeing the trend where it’s not just these super high-end affluent families, but families who are just two working people who just need a night off here and there” who are hiring a night nurse.
It’s not just a class issue, either. While Tully is a white woman, in reality, many night nurses and childcare providers are women of colour. A 2012 domestic workers survey found that 54%of domestic workers were women of colour and immigrants; only 46% of them were white. The numbers are representative of a societal construct that gives white women work-life-balance and expects them to “have it all” while outsourcing childcare and domestic work to marginalised women of colour.
Without spoiling the plot, there’s a narrative reason why Tully is a young, white woman in the film. But can you name one other movie that features a night nurse, even in the background? I couldn’t think of one. While movies like The Help, The Nanny Diaries, and Corrina, Corinna touch on the nanny and family experience, the relationship a family, and a mother in particular, has with a night nurse is completely different. In addition to guiding the new parents, she also serves as a maternal figure of sorts to the new mother.
It’s fascinating that the same people who most likely rely on this service when they have a baby are also writing, starring in, and directing the movies that shape our cultural conversations. Yet most of them have stayed mum about the women, and women of colour, raising the children of those with means. Hollywood has essentially erased them. (I refuse to take into account the movies about maniacal and violent childcare workers like The Hand That Rocks The Cradle.) To their credit, some celebrities, like Jessica Alba, Emily Blunt, Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel have publicly thanked their celebrity nanny, Connie Simpson. Still, those are few and far in between.
It’s telling that it took Cody, a woman and mother of three, to tell this raw story of motherhood, struggle, and sacrifice without shaming or painting Marlo as a bad mum because she relied on the help of someone else during those first few months with her baby. We have enough of that in real life. I’m ready for the rest of Hollywood to follow suit and bring more stories of the women who shoulder the burden of our childcare out of the shadows.
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