Man is of woman born, and her face bends over him in infancy with an expression he can never quite forget. Margaret Fuller, The Dial, IV, July 1843.
(Once again, many apologies for the long break between posts about mothering. There are never enough hours in the day lately!!)
I decided to open with the Margaret Fuller quote because her observation recognizes the very early impact on a baby that a mother has. Its ambiguity encompasses the many facial expressions a baby might see when his/her mother comes into view. Whereas, for example, we can imagine Louisa’s mother looking at her little girl with love in her eyes, we have much more difficulty visualizing Margaret’s face appearing anything but disgusted and resentful towards her baby boy. From what she has told Martin, she was never happy to be a mother and always considered him a wedge between Christopher and her. No matter how Martin was treated at home, even the basic fact that he was not wanted had to have been extremely damaging to his psyche.
We would have to assume that Margaret avoided doing much with her son. Neglect is almost too trite a word for how the absence of a mother’s love should be described. Many studies have been done on the effects of neglect on babies. In most of the classic studies the babies failed to thrive and were generally considered compromised for life. Recently, however, there have been follow-up studies that have found some interesting variations on what neglect can do to babies. One study seems particularly pertinent to what could have happened in Martin’s case. (Again, I want to always make the disclaimer that there is no evidence that anyone from the show might have thought about this. The study I am quoting was only completed within the last year, which means no one on the show would have known about what regions of the brain might have been affected when the show was first written.) What stands out to me is that “the affected brain regions include nerve bundles that support attention, general cognition, and emotion processing…The most affected tracts included nerve circuits involved in general cognitive performance, emotion, maintaining attention and executive function, and sensory processing.” Thus, early childhood neglect by his mother could have led to Martin’s difficulties with emotions, or to being unable to comprehend the importance of affection, and even having the capacity to reach the decision to stop Louisa from leaving at various pivotal moments.
Another thing in the article that is worth noting is their finding that “white matter losses may be reversible. What worked in Romania to improve brain development—moving children into a supportive family environment—might work elsewhere as a remedy for child neglect. ‘This has really important implications,’ says lead author Johanna Bick, a clinical psychologist at the Boston Children’s Hospital: ‘It suggests that the harm that takes place in a family setting may be reversible, too.'”
In the case of Martin Ellingham, perhaps his stays with Joan were just long enough, and loving enough, to have been able to reverse some of the effects of his mother’s dismissal of him.
In addition, research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2012 showed differences between genders in the long-lasting effects of neglect by mothers. While the males had high levels of a stress hormone known as cortisol and low levels of the metabolite of the mood-related neurotransmitter serotonin, this difference was not seen in females. Lead author Gabriella Conti of the University of Chicago suggests that this may be because in the womb, female fetuses are also more resilient than males. (Aside: Of course!)
High levels of stress hormones can increase risk for both mental and physical illnesses, including depression, which also can involve low levels of serotonin.
Martin clearly suffers from depression in S6. According to the study above, this tendency would be quite likely. So now we have several possible causes for Martin to be depressed. He could, as I mentioned in my post of June 30, 2014, be depressed because many parents experience depression following at 3-6 months postpartum; or he might have had high levels of stress hormones due to his mother’s neglect; or he may have Asperger’s which is often linked to depression. This is not to mention feeling like he’s a failure as a husband and discovering his mother’s primary reason for coming to visit him is to snooker him into giving her some money! Thus, he has both physiological and psychological sources for finding himself depressed, and most of them originate in his mother.
The authors conclude: “[T]he lack of a secure attachment relationship in the early years has detrimental consequences for both physical and mental health later in life, with long-lasting effects that vary by sex.” Louisa may have been abandoned at a young age like Martin, but the likelihood is that she had more love from her mother than Martin ever had from his and that, as a female, she is better equipped to manage any stress or neglect.
Another thing that I feel compelled to mention is that Martin could almost be said to be a better “mother” than many of the women in town. As I know I’ve mentioned before, there is rarely a time when JH is nearby that Martin doesn’t touch him in some way. Many studies have demonstrated the key importance of being touched by another human, especially one’s parents. One of these studies notes: “We all need human touch and loving affection at every stage of our lives for healthy emotional and neurobiological development.” Despite his own parental deprivation, Martin provides his son with the very thing he never got. (If we’re very cynical, we might suggest he knows to touch his son because he’s studied human development. I prefer to think he is supposed to be doing it instinctually.)
Ultimately, there is no denying the importance of a mother’s relationship with her child and the amount of harm that arises from a mother’s neglect. We’ve all recognized the wounds Martin has suffered due to his mother’s treatment of him. I have no doubt the writers, et. al. intended us to attribute some of Martin’s behavior and social ineptitude to how he was treated by his mother. This newer research gives us even more reason to associate her with his emotional and physical awkwardness.
Originally posted 2015-02-24 14:37:46.