What’s up with the act of mothering in Doc Martin? In general, the town of Portwenn is filled with mothers who are rather shaky in terms of their parenting skills, or who are gone for one reason or another. Starting with the 6th episode of Season 1, the role of mothering is introduced. In this example, there is a highly anxious single mother (Mrs. Cronk) who panics under the stress of her son Peter being seriously ill. As a result, we must consider who should perform the duties of the mother. Louisa is a highly concerned and responsible teacher who both advises and takes on the care of her student Peter, and we are led to wonder what is the proper position of a teacher in the life of a student. In the case of the biological mother being incapable of handling an emergency, what part should the teacher play in the care of the child? At the hospital, Louisa is mistaken for the mother at one point; however, Peter’s mother greatly appreciates her help and her involvement is never questioned. Still, the circumstance of being a single mother continues to be at stake and in season 2, episode 2, Louisa is once again called on to step in as a surrogate mother in this family because Mrs. Cronk has an injury. Many teachers take a special interest in their students and are willing to take on certain extra obligations to help out a family in need, but that does complicate the matter of mothering, and the concern of who’s the person in charge. I’m impressed that the writers of the series address this topic.

Then in the first episode of season 2, mothering is again at issue. We already know that Martin has chosen to become a GP in Portwenn partly because his Aunt Joan lives there and he has fond childhood recollections of spending summers there with her. Joan has not had children of her own and Martin became a surrogate child to her. We don’t learn until later in season 2 how important Joan was in Martin’s early life. Joan continues to perform the role of mother for Martin once he returns to Portwenn: she often brings him homemade dishes, she checks on him fairly frequently, she hugs him and celebrates with him on happy occasions or commiserates with him on sad ones. She understands him, but she can also be disappointed in him. She’s the one who provides an engagement ring for Louisa and, despite having misgivings about Martin and Louisa being a good match, she supports their relationship one hundred percent. Her disapproval of Edith predisposes us to question whether there’s any chance of Martin resuming a relationship with her. She is the one warm and loving woman in his life.

In another case we witness a more routine interaction between a mother and son. In episode 1 of season 2 we are confronted with the difficult decision a son has to make about his mother being admitted to a senior citizen’s facility. Danny lives in London while his mother lives alone in Portwenn and he’s convinced she’s having memory problems. The son has his mother’s best interests at heart, nevertheless, she is very resistant to moving from her home. As in this case, the tensions that arise between a mother and a child over the best place to be cared for is quite common these days and it’s fascinating to see that it’s no different in England than it is in the US and possibly most places in the world. Our careers take us away from where our parents live, and trying to do the best for them means finding caregivers or facilities to care for them, but who makes that decision and when it should be made is always problematic. Since this show tends to remain on the light side, this mother opts for staying at the facility even though her condition is successfully resolved.

A couple of episodes later, the mothering responsibilities are really challenged by the efforts of a troubled father who wants to be both father and mother to his grown boys. The boys cover for their father when necessary, but their father’s mental status requires them to avoid social contact and even neglect their own health.

There are scant good examples of mothers in this show. Both Martin and Louisa have disturbing mothers — Martin’s mother can send shivers up one’s spine and Louisa’s is so unreliable and irresponsible that she cannot be trusted. In episode 6 of season 2, Martin’s mother tells him clearly and unemotionally how little she wanted him and how much he was to blame for draining the love in her marriage. By the end of season 5, we have learned that Martin was both neglected and essentially abused as a child, having been locked in various places and beaten with a belt on occasion. We also know that he was sent away to school at a young age and preferred being at school to being at home. Louisa’s mother abandoned her family when Louisa was very young and is much more concerned about her own interests than those of Louisa. Al’s mother died when he was young, but there is a question of whether she had an affair before Al was conceived that haunts Al. Of course Mrs. Flint abandoned her family, which led to her husband’s deranged mental state. Pauline’s mother is very critical of Pauline and makes comments about Pauline that show her disappointment in her daughter. There is also one very young mother with a baby who is so inexperienced that we worry that her son is doomed to have a serious mishap at some point. Then there’s the school cook, Allison, whose daughter Delph is acting very hyper. She has been giving the young girl diet pills and now wants meds to calm her down. Several other mothers come to see the doctor with various behavior complaints, most of which are primarily due to questionable parenting abilities, and in episode 8 of season 4 the music teacher tells her daughter that her performance is not strong enough so she will be leading the dancers herself.

What should we make of this? Are we supposed to generally view mothers as lacking in maternal instincts and ability? Perhaps Louisa simply stands in contrast to these other mothers in her role as substitute mother when she’s headmistress of the school and biological mother when she has her own baby. Certainly she is much better at rational thinking than the others. Joan, too, has been a much better mother figure to Martin than his own mother. I would also argue that Joan and Louisa have some of the same personality traits and are supposed to be viewed as the best models for proper mothering. They are kind, generous, caring, thoughtful, yet also independent, no nonsense, self-sufficient women. If the contrast is the goal, I think it is effectively achieved.

Originally posted 2013-08-09 20:23:13.

3 thoughts on “Mothering

  1. Amy

    Although Eleanor and Margaret are certainly nightmare mothers, there certain are a number who are really well-meaning and overwhelmed.. Maybe the message is more that it’s very hard to be a mother (as it is). The one compliment Martin pays to Louisa (once after the incident with the awful parents in S3 and once with Dr T) that seems to really matter aside from those about her beauty is that she would be/is a good mother. Maybe the writers are telling us that being a mother is hard and that when it is done well, it can make all the difference in the world.

    And maybe it’s not just mothers. There are lots of overwhelmed, well-meaning fathers as well: Bert, the father of Melanie, the girl who stalked Martin, the father of the girl who faints on the field (sorry, names escape me), Roger Fenn. So many times these parents are stressed by work and doing their best to raise their children. I don’t think we are supposed to think they’re bad parents—just good people struggling to do what they can in a tough world.

    Speaking of Roger Fenn, I sure wish they’d kept him around as a character. He was such a good character for Martin to interact with. For whatever reason, he seemed to genuinely like and respect Roger.

  2. Post author

    I don’t know if they were going for any particular message about mothers. I just thought they presented them as not especially competent or caring for the most part.

    I did write a post on fathers and sons so that they were not left out. Did you read that?

    I miss Roger Fenn too. He was one of the few men who could speak truth to Martin and was almost a friend. Based on what Jeff Rawle acted in following his stint in DM, he may have been unable to continue in this role.

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