'When my mum was diagnosed with cancer, I made it about me. Now I understand why.'

When my mother told me she had bowel cancer, I burst into tears. For a moment, I broke down with sadness and anticipated grief. As my mother has always done (and will likely always do) when I’m upset, she comforted me. She told me it would all be alright and in many ways she was lucky to have a diagnosis and a clear treatment plan. 

They had caught it early she told me; she was lucky. Feeling soothed, we chatted a bit more about what would happen next and then hung up so she could call my sisters and have the same conversation with them.

Afterwards it dawned on me, that my mother, even when she had just received a diagnosis of cancer and should be concerned with herself, still mothered me first. It made me realise that for most of us, we never stop wanting to shield our children from the bad stuff of life. 

Watch: The facts, on bowel cancer. Story continues after video.

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That night as I read books to my own children, I realised that I too, would always mother them first. I’m not sure how much of this comes from social conditioning, the constant messages that motherhood is our primary responsibility and identity, a role that perhaps we can’t shake off even when our children are grown. Is it that I feel pressured to always put them first? Or is it driven by my own instincts of wanting to protect and look after my children and reduce any distress in their lives? Either way, as I look into the future, I know that I too will downplay my own needs and suffering at times to ease things for my children. I too will ensure their comfort first.


In many ways I already do this, downplaying the back injury I have that makes it hard to play and pick up my children. I find work around solutions so I can still play with them the way they need. I take deep breaths and push past the exhaustion to be the patient and centred parent they need instead of the sleeping person I need.

I have recently wondered to what extent we grow out of the self-centredness that embodies young childhood. The egocentric stage before we realise that other people have their own wants and desires and we don’t rule the world. We grow out of it with our friends, because otherwise they don’t want to play with us. We grow out of with teachers and later work colleagues and the random other people we encounter every day as we realise their indifference to us.

But I suspect some of us never fully grow out of it with our parents. Many parents (not all of course) will always indulge our self-centredness, they may even enjoy to some extent the return to that child-parent dynamic. And when we become parents, our own parents continue to listen to our complaints and gripes. Perhaps they gently say “yes you were sometimes like that too.” Our parents continue to allow us to be self-centred in a way no-one else, even our partners, does.

It is embarrassing to admit, that it wasn’t until the day of my mother’s surgery, that I realised my father was uncharacteristically stressed and anxious. Of course, I knew that he was worried about mum and hoped that everything would go well. But wrapped up in my own concern for my mother, it hadn’t fully dawned on me, that this was his wife of nearly 40 years. When I sat with him the night of mum’s surgery, as he prepared to spend a night alone, I asked him when the last time they spent a night apart was? “Oh, maybe ten years ago” came the response. (It turned out to be four years when I confirmed with Mum.)


We each hold a multitude of identities and personalities that we switch between throughout the day. We shift between a multitude of identities; mother, boss, student, errand runner, the embodiment of PMS, daughter, son. They shuffle and vie for dominance in our limited brain capacity. We don’t notice how easily we move between these identities, each pushing itself to the fore depending on our needs and the contexts we find ourselves in. Boss mode coming out at work when we need to be a leader. 

Mother mode kicking in when we’re with our kids, but let’s be honest this personality never fully shuts off, constantly working in the background on the never ending to do list and bubbling into consciousness when we’re trying to do something else.

But our child personality, mostly outgrown and abandoned, can still emerge when we’re with our parents, whether it’s falling into the easy routine of being waited upon for a meal, talking about ourselves or complaining about the world. Child mode comes with its own special indulgence that some of us have never fully let go of.

Image: Supplied


Of course, family dynamics are complex and complicated, from traumatic childhood to parentification and glass children, this is certainly not the case for everyone. But for some of us, we too easily slip into this dynamic even when the attention should be squarely on our parents. It’s a difficult shift for some of us, as our parents age, to realise that the time will come when we’ll have to look after them and provide that comfort for them. For myself, I hope I can be a source of comfort to my parents, to help them and ease things for them instead of them feeling they need to look after me. 

Breanna Wright is a behavioural psychologist who specialises in understanding why people behave the way they do and unpacking what drives our behaviour. She is also a mother of two pretty wonderful children. She resides in Melbourne with her husband and children and drinks copious amounts of tea during Melbourne’s long winters.

Feature Image: Supplied

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