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This August, Mike and Debbie Brown's only child, Michael, will travel 800 miles away to attend Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas.

From the time a baby bird hatches until the time it leaves the nest, the parents' job is to teach it how to survive in the wild. Still, even after young birds first hop out of their tree, some protective parents will stay nearby and continue to provide care.

After all, a parent's sense of purpose is matched only by their nurturing instinct — a phenomenon that both transcends species and helped coin the expression "empty nest syndrome," which describes the sadness human parents experience after a child leaves home.

Every year, tens of millions of graduating high school seniors enroll in college. According to a study conducted between 2012 and 2014, 58 percent of those students will attend a school less than 100 miles from home. Eleven percent will travel more than 500 miles away for school — thus compounding that psychic struggle faced by moms and dads.

To better understand this emotional process, Chatter spoke with three local families in the process of sending their firstborns to an out-of-state school this August.

Regardless of their upbringings, number of children or the number of miles their college-bound is moving, these parents agree: That moment your child first spreads his or her wings and flies is bittersweet.

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Mike and Debbie Brown pose with their son, Michael, who will be leaving for college in the fall.

The Process of Letting Go

Growing up, says Debbie Brown, her son Michael's favorite film was An Extremely Goofy Movie, a cartoon in which Goofy's son Max leaves for college.

"He used to watch it over and over and he'd say, 'Mama, when I go to college will you come with me?'" she remembers.

Now 18 years old, Michael is set to attend Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas, this August, taking him 800 miles away from the Browns' lakefront home in Chattanooga.

"He's been the center of our universe," Debbie says of her only child. Her husband Mike agrees.

"We've just been trying to keep up with Michael Brown. Our lives are about to be pretty boring," he says.

Between school plays, flying lessons and tennis matches, Michael has kept his parents' lives interesting, if not hectic at times. They never missed a tennis match. They even accompanied their son to Florida when he trained there.

Debbie and Mike are not ready to imagine what the weight of their son's absence this fall might feel like. In fact, their summer mantra seems to be, "We promised ourselves not to cry." So they try to keep the conservation lighthearted. When asked what they'll miss most about their son living at home, instead, they teasingly list the things they won't.

"I won't miss all the laundry," Debbie says.

Mike says he won't miss having to wake everybody in the morning.

"My nickname is 'Tictoc.' When [my] watch goes off in the morning, the world starts. It's like being a warden at prison!" he jokes.

Debbie admits, "I think we're in denial." Though, she says she has tried to plan for life as an empty-nester.

Last year, she took up tennis.

"We joke that tennis is cheaper than therapy,'" says Debbie.

"I'm sure we'll spend a tremendous amount of time in Texas," her husband adds. Texas Christian, he says, has a great athletics program, and the Browns have always loved watching sports together. "Football, basketball, tennis — you name it. Our work schedule is extremely accommodating. So those first eight home football games Count on me to be there in the fall."

But before the Browns start planning those visits, Michael must make it through another whirlwind summer, which includes a mission trip to Cuba and, of course, college orientation, which his parents plan to attend, too.

"Debbie and I will have three days to just explore and do whatever," Mike says, adding, "There happens to be a really nice house for sale in Fort Worth.

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Beth and Maggie Dowling hold items that Maggie will be using to decorate her dorm room.

The Little Things

Maggie Dowling, 18, is always the first person up in the morning. Her parents, Beth and Brian, and her brother Jack, 15, have grown accustomed to hearing her routine: the creak of her bedroom door; the hiss of the shower; the whir of the hairdryer.

"You'll miss that hairdryer first thing in the morning!" Maggie jokes to her mom.

This August, Maggie is moving to Atlanta to attend Georgia Institute of Technology.

And how is her mother handling the impending departure of her firstborn?

"Depends on what day you ask me," Beth says with a forced laugh.

On this particular day, she decides she is feeling mostly excited for Maggie.

"I wouldn't want it any other way. But at the same time, it's going to be different," Beth says.

The two are seated in the family room, across from one another in overstuffed armchairs. Beth hugs a pillow in her lap. Maggie stretches her bare legs out before her. On the wall hangs a portrait of Maggie and Jack as small children.

The Dowlings have lived in this home for 19 years, which makes preparing for Maggie's move an especially complex process. There is a lifetime's worth of memories to sort through.

When asked what she will miss the most, Maggie says, "This neighborhood."

When Maggie and Jack were in grade school, says Beth, the Dowlings' front yard was home base for all the neighborhood children. They would perform plays or organize lemonade stands.

"Or we'd try to make food and sell it to our neighbors," Maggie says.

"I'd come home and say, 'You did what?! You went door to door asking for money?!'" says Beth, adding that some of her fondest memories come from the years her father lived with them.

Beth's father had been a professional baseball player but was wheelchair-bound when he moved in.

"It was cool how much he still did for us," says Maggie.

Every afternoon, he would wait on the front porch to greet his grandchildren as they got off the school bus. In the evening, the three would sit on the back screened-in porch, tossing a baseball back and forth while spelling quiz words to each other.

"Of course, I think of the holidays. Halloween was a big time. The kids would decorate everything. And do you remember our Easter egg hunts?" Beth asks Maggie.

But it is the little things Beth anticipates missing the most. The drive to Signal Mountain High School; turning onto Sam Powell Trail and seeing her daughter's car parked in the senior lot. Or after dinner, listening to Maggie and Brian talk about music or current events.

And of course — perhaps most of all — Beth will miss those morning sounds.

"There will be such a void where I once heard her moving around," says Beth. "For me, I think that will be the hardest part. Walking past her bedroom that first time, seeing the clothes all gone, the closet door shut."

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Haley and Judith Mull sit with the family dog, Clover.

The Pragmatic Parent

Judith Mull says she is not a helicopter parent.

"Just a hugely protective parent," she says.

Judith and her husband Mike adopted all three of their children from China. There is Jonas, 13, Chandler, 15, and Haley, 18 — who is leaving for Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, in August.

For as long as Judith can remember, she has been trying to steer her headstrong daughter in the right direction. Literally, at times.

"When she was a baby, she would crawl toward the computer cords. You couldn't dissuade her. I'd pick her up, and she'd still be crawling. I'd move her across the room and she'd crawl right back," says Judith.

Fast-forward to Haley's junior year at Girls Preparatory School when, one afternoon, she walked downstairs and handed her mother a spreadsheet of the 29 colleges she wished to visit, from Los Angeles to New York.

"I said, 'Narrow it down,'" Judith remembers.

"You said no to Rutgers," Haley is quick to remind her mother.

"New York is a mean city. She's 4 foot 10! Safety is my concern. She probably would have done fine, but the thought put me over the edge," says Judith, who refers to their secluded neighborhood on the outskirts of Chattanooga as "Mayberry."

Now that Haley is about to be on her own, Judith worries that perhaps she has been too protective as a parent.

"We do everything for them. We get good at it. Their butts never hit the ground. They never skin a knee," Judith says.

To ease her anxiety, over the past year, Judith has begun teaching Haley self-sufficiency: How to do laundry; how to use an ATM; how to budget money; how to cook.

Haley playfully concedes to her mother.

"Yeah, I don't know how to [be an] adult very well. I still have trouble closing certain types of blinds," Haley says as she crosses the family kitchen and pulls a tub of hummus from the refrigerator — hummus that she made herself.

One of the reasons Haley says she chose Miami University was because none of her friends did.

"I want to meet new people. I like the idea of reinventing myself. I'm excited to go on an adventure and do things alone," Haley says.

Her mother laughs nervously. "She's killing me is what she's doing!" Judith says. "I've just gotten used to the headcount. When your kids are young, you're always looking around thinking one, two, three, one, two, three."

That will be a difficult habit to break, she says. But this was always the goal: "To raise good, independent people," says Judith. "She's more ready to go than I am to let her go." Her pragmatism suddenly wavers. Her eyes turn red. Haley chomps another pita chip as the tears begin to flow from her mother's eyes.

"It's just that she was supposed to take me with her," Judith says.

Photo Gallery

Empty Nest Syndrome

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