Baby Ruby Is A Postpartum Horror Movie With An Unlikely Hero
Director Bess Wohl explores how something so universal can feel so isolating.
Bess Wohl is a playwright, a mother of three, and the director of Baby Ruby, a new horror movie about the early weeks of motherhood. The movie spoke to me so deeply that when I talk to Wohl over the phone I have this urge to open by telling her, reassuring her, that of course I love my own kids. "Don't get me wrong," I tell her.
“I always feel like I have to say that too, but obviously I love my kids,” Wohl tells me and there it is, our starter moment. The exhale moms give each other, the connection. The invisible nod like, yes, yep. This is the gift we give each other. (Just not, as the film points out, to our mother-in-laws).
I was really scared of my baby, I tell Wohl. Really scared. There was a time in the early weeks of his life when I truly, truly didn’t know how to comfort him. I couldn’t find the special trick for him, the smoothing of his brow or rubbing the back of his neck or patting his back like I had found with his brothers so quickly. He fought me. I couldn’t make him like me, I didn’t know I would have to make him like me. I lived in the prison of his witching hour, his nightly cry I just had to try to live through.
“How can something that is so universal feel so isolating?” Wohl wonders. “It’s just an incredibly isolating experience to be trapped alone with a baby.”
Baby Ruby centers around Jo (Noémie Merlant), a new mom living in a secluded cabin in the woods with her baby and her husband Spencer (Kit Harington). Jo is an influencer, a blogger, someone who curates her own amazing baby shower and extols the virtue of her very French ease in her roles as a woman, as a cook, and eventually, or so she assumed, as a mother.
But then she has the baby, and her signature ease is nowhere to be found. Ruby cries. All the time. Jo never sleeps. And she is frightened of her baby. She’s alone. She’s with her husband, but she’s alone in this fear. Except for Doris (Jayne Atkinson), her mother-in-law, and to my mind, the hero of the film.
So far I’ve seen Doris described as Spencer’s “overbearing mother” in the New York Times, “kindly” in Variety, and the “doting mother-in-law” in the Los Angeles Times. Nowhere do I see her described as “misunderstood.” Or, “Jo’s one true connection to reality as she slips deeper and deeper into what could very well be postpartum psychosis.” Because that was what I saw.
What are Doris’ sins? She drops by unexpectedly. She is too helpful; too present. Too proud of her cookies, which earn her the dreaded eye roll not just from Jo but also from Spencer, her own son, who is taking his new role as gatekeeper of all his mother’s possible missteps very seriously. Even as she tries to find a way to sneak past him to let herself in.
While Jo’s new friend and fellow mom Shelly (Meredith Hagner) blithely tells Jo to “trust your instincts” and her OB-GYN laughs off her terrifying exhaustion by pointing out that no new parents sleep, Doris is the only person in Jo’s life who doesn’t minimize how terrified Jo must be. Terrified not just of something happening to her baby but indeed, terrified of baby Ruby herself.
Doris knows that Jo is living through her very own horror story, a story no one wants to hear.
“The fact that we have to protect the conversation around motherhood so fiercely, my intuition tells me that there’s some kind of terror behind it, everyone’s primal terror of being abandoned by their mothers,” Wohl tells me. “So if [mothers] experience any kind of sadness in their life, or want to talk about motherhood being complicated, it just shuts them down.”
Doris knows this. In fact, Doris is the one, the only one, really, who knows how to save Jo. Who remembers what it was to be a mom of a fitful baby who did not sleep. Who frightened her. Who left her so exhausted, so bone-deep tired that years later she can’t quite forget how it felt. She wants to talk about it, and also to cook, to clean, to watch the baby while Jo has a nap or they both go to dinner. But there is always this invisible hand up in front of her reminding her to remember her place — and her place is a vaguely convenient annoyance, an intrusion to be met with long-suffering sighs of frustration.
“The irony is that Jo is lonely, and Doris is lonely. But they somehow, because of the natural friction between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, it’s impossible for them to see that they really need each other.”
But Doris talks anyway. She is there to tell Jo it’s all bullsh*t. And it’s in the tight little circle of this vulnerable moment where we see: mothers-in-law are also moms. Also women. Also dealing with PTSD from having babies even if those babies grew up to be people you married.
Doris sits at Jo’s bedside and tells her about a moment when Spencer was a baby, when she simply couldn’t handle it anymore. And in her eyes we can see she is back there, trapped by her baby. “I grabbed a knife…” she tells Jo. Quietly. Afraid. But Jo balks and changes the subject — shuts her down.
I think about Jo, about Doris, about me as a new mom. About my baby, round and pink and unknowable. About how I couldn’t reach him and would not, would not, ask for help. Would not have taken help if it had been offered.
I asked Wohl about Jo’s response to Doris. Why she couldn’t hear her, why she balked. “The irony is that Jo is lonely, and Doris is lonely. But they somehow, because of the natural friction between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, it’s impossible for them to see that they really need each other.”
And that’s the true horror story of motherhood. It’s so goddamn lonely. And we sort of tell ourselves that’s just the way it is, everyone is supposed to be tired and lonely and unhappy and no one else can help us, except they can. There’s no shame in it. There’s no shame in just letting all of that built-in angst go and letting someone like Doris help you. There’s no shame in remembering that she was once you and that you will someday be her. And none of us picked these weird roles but we are just trying to figure out how to be allowed to love our kids. Then love the people our kids pick.
There’s no shame in any of it. The loneliness, the resentment, the horror of motherhood. The only shame is that wall we put up to keep each other out. Yank it down.
Baby Ruby is available on Apple TV+ and Amazon Prime.