I’ll be happy when . . .

In less than three weeks, my family will be moving into the home that will serve as our final resting place. (That is, at least until our youngest child leaves home, and barring a variety of unfortunate and unlikely events that would completely alter the direction of our life.)

We’ve been waiting for and thinking about this day for a LONG time. We married as undergrads and spent the first ten years of marriage and parenthood scraping our way through post graduate training, after which we spent four years in a very expensive city that ultimately didn’t feel right to us, followed by renting for two years in our current city until we got more familiar with the area (and made up for the loss of buying high and selling low in the afore mentioned Very Expensive City). It’s been a long journey.

So now that I finally get to settle down in a home for real, I can’t help but ask myself the question: Now will I be satisfied? Now will I feel complete?

Of course, I am not that naîve. I understand perfectly well on an intellectual level that life is more about the journey than the destination. Nevertheless, I have spent an unfortunate number of years feeling like I was waiting for my real life to begin. Waiting to settle down. Waiting to be done reaching and struggling. (As if that’s ever going to happen . . .

It’s all part of having WTS, otherwise known as When Then Syndrome.

Are you a sufferer? You may be and not even know it. This syndrome is characterized by a recurrent thinking pattern that includes “When. . .Then . . .” statements and produces feelings of chronic dissatisfaction as well as the inability to find joy in daily, itty bitty increments of progress. (No, WTS isn’t really a classified syndrome, but if it were I would be it’s poster child.)

I will give myself a little credit and say I have improved over the years, but I still find myself thinking things like, “WHEN my youngest child goes to school, THEN life will get easier.” “WHEN my oldest child learns to drive, THEN I’ll have time to work on my home.” And the flavor of the year, “WHEN we finally settle down for real, THEN I will feel a deep sense of satisfaction and complete and utter happiness.”

While there may be some nuggets of truth in there, the problem with “When . . .Then . . .” statements is that not only do they focus on the end result instead of the process, they often focus on events so far in the future they prevent us from enjoying the fruits of our daily progress. (Which is kind of the whole purpose of reaching to begin with, right? To progress little by little toward a goal.

Yes, there are milestones and markers that can bring a sense of accomplishment and closure to this journey of motherhood (like a baby learning to sleep through the night, or the last child going off to kindergarten, or an older child suddenly “getting it” and taking responsibility for their life), but at some point, those who suffer from WTS have got to realize that the joy really is in the journey.

Sometimes I like to ask myself, what if we had had the opportunity straight out of college to settle into our forever house? What would we have missed out on? Most likely learning how to work hard, save, budget, and delay gratification. And then there are all the people we grew to love in the various places we lived. It has certainly been a journey, and as hard as it has been at times, I wouldn’t trade the things I gained along the way for anything. It is much the same in mothering.

Wanting more for yourself and your children is always a good thing. Whether you need to improve your financial situation, or the atmosphere in your home, or work on your own personal stuff, as Ghandi said, healthy discontent is the prelude to progress. But it’s that healthy part that trips many of us up. Are we always focusing on what we still lack, or are we focusing on the valuable things we are learning in this lifelong journey of motherhood?

A wise friend recently shared this paradigm shifting thought with me about where to turn my focus when I want to evaluate my progress. He said that each of us has a horizon we are trying to get to, but no matter how hard we try, the horizon will always be out of our reach. (There really is no such thing as done, is there?) If we focus too much on the immeasurable gap between us and the ever expanding horizon (When Then Syndrome), we may be left feeling discouraged, frustrated, and hopeless. On the other hand, if we focus on the gap between where we are and where we began, we are more likely to come away feeling capable, encouraged and motivated. The trick is to focus on how far we’ve come and what we’ve learned in the process.

So whether you are trying to lose the last ten pounds (I’m on year 4 of that goal), teach your children how to earn and save money (still working on that one), or organize your paperwork (WHEN I move into this house . . . tee hee), try to remember that WHEN you get there is not nearly as important as everything you and your children are learning and becoming along the way. THEN you will have a sense of real progress.

QUESTION: What’s on your horizon? Are you enjoying the journey or simply waiting to get to your destination?

CHALLENGE: Try banishing “When . . . Then. . .” statements from your internal dialogue and focus instead on everything you’re learning and becoming along the way.

One comment

  1. Martin

    The late, great David Foster Wallace once offered the following vignette at a university commencement:

    One day, two young fish were out for a swim in their pond when they came across another, older fish. “Morning, boys!” called the older fish, “How’s the water?”

    After the older fish swam away, one of the young fish turned to the other and said, “What the heck is ‘water?’”

    Bravo, Allyson. It’s all about the journey. As Wallace advised those new grads that day, we all need to keep reminding ourselves, “This is water. This is water.”

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