When Then Syndrome

Healthy discontent is the prelude to progress. Mahatma Gandhi

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 naïve. 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 life 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 its 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, enjoy the simple things in life, 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 Gandhi 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.

 Photo by Photostock at www.freedigitalphotos.net


  1. says

    It is so funny that this blog came up, at this time. For the past 6 months I have been living the WTS. Walking on its brick path, stepping into its shoes. It has been so hard for me to transition in my move, thinking When we get the yard finished; Then I will be happy. When we get the bedrooms done, Then I will be happy. It is quite a battle to find ‘happy’ in the When & Then; while the work is still in progress. At times I wondered; if happy was even possible. You have given me some hope. To step back at look at the in between, and find the happiness in what we have already accomplished.

    • Allyson Reynolds says

      So hard not to fall into that. We are moving next Tuesday and I’m going to have to force myself mentally every day to choose happiness NOW without waiting to get the house “finished” and how I want it. Thanks for the comment.

  2. says

    I’m a member of the WTS club too Allyson. Thanks for a great reminder to enjoy the journey & learn along the way while reaching toward my goals!

  3. says

    What a great concept of the “when then syndrome.” I am definitely guilty of this. For me, I put off developing consistent good habits for some future magical time when I won’t have so much on my plate. We just moved, and my newest line is “When the apartment is all unpacked, set up, and decorated, then I will start exercising consistently, reading my scriptures daily, and getting to know people in my new neighborhood.” The problem is, as soon as one major project is “done,” another begins. There will never be a time when everything in my life is perfectly peaceful and put together. I should probably just start developing my good habits now, in spite of the craziness of daily life.

    Thanks for the post!

    • Allyson Reynolds says

      What a great insight! Procrastination of good habits would definitely fall under WTS and I’m guilty there too. Thanks for the comment!

  4. says

    Totally guilty! I am actually quite happy with my life but I don’t feel content. The contentedness is what I need to work on. Our house is WAY too small for our family of 7, but with our economy (hardest hit in the nation) I don’t foresee how we will ever get out of it. So I need to make the best of it and learn to be content with my situation! Thanks for this I needed it.

    • Allyson Reynolds says

      Yes, to be content in all situations . . . one of my biggest spiritual goals in life! 5 kids in a smallish house is a tough one, but it’s been done before, right? You can do this.

    • Shawna says

      I can relate to that–my husband and I lived 8 years in a 530 sq ft apt, with first one, then two, then three children as our family grew. We managed 5 people in that small space for a year and a half! (When, thankfully, the Lord told us it was time to MOVE!)

      Everyone wanted to know how we did it, and so I’ll tell you the key was having a professional home organizer come to help us all fit in the space that we had. Granted, that “professional” is also my sister, so luckily we didn’t have to pay for her help, but we did invest some money in the shelving/containers, etc. she recommended. But ultimately, she saved us literally THOUSANDS of dollars by helping us be content in that small space for so many years, and you really can’t put a price tag on the contentment itself.

      So, anyway, not knowing your budget, you might consider hiring professional help as a way of enhancing your life-enjoyment while you’re in your small space. You could also check out books on the topic, but I’ve found that having someone with a keen eye analyze your specific situation/stuff and optimize space-usage is invaluable. Hope that helps!

  5. hosander says

    Needed this today. It’s just hard to feel something limiting you -that you know is temporary- without thinking: “When something changes, then I can be happy”.

  6. Daisy says

    I love you Allison. Your words are always so spot on with what I need to hear and you say it so beautifully. I wish I could be your BFF and just hear you impart your humor and wisdom on my 24/7. Thank you for this post.

    • Allyson Reynolds says

      I love you, too, Daisy! You made my otherwise crappy day yesterday so much better with this nice comment. (Pardon my french, but it was.) And I could use a BFF floating around my house too, so you just come on over!! 😀

  7. sha says

    Oh, I struggle with this too of course! Like many moms, I had to quickly adjust my expectations to preserve my sanity — eg, being fine with a ‘clean enough’ house even if it meant clearing a footpath of toys rather than picking them all up (When the kids are grown Then the house will be clean always- ha!) Recently I’ve discovered a new extension of that coping mechanism, and while it doesn’t apply or work in all circumstances it does help in some. I find something in that gap between here and the horizon to focus on and make me feel better. For example, I’ve been feeling really ill at ease with our hodge-podge of post college and cheap-o and 15-year-old furniture and long for a polished, grown-up home — we are 40 after all! Therefore, I was saying WHEN we move into our next house THEN we will have a put together home. While that may be true, my gap-filler thought changed to “How lucky are my kids that I let them take the cushions off the couch to make a fort — and jump-crash it down!” WHEN we move/kids are older THEN I will just throw that couch out and get another! Use the WHEN/THEN powers for good rather than evil!

    • Allyson Reynolds says

      While I’m happy to say that the house we are moving into will be nice and spacious, my hodge podge furniture somewhat filling it is going to challenge my WTS–big time! It will probably take a year or two until we are truly settled in the house (maybe longer since the basement and backyard are unfinished), but I’m determined to fight my WTS and enjoy my life in our new home irregardless! I’m 40 as well, so I feel your pain about the furniture and LOVE your perspective!!

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