Soaring Syndrome: Three Keys to an Empty Nest


In just four months time, our home will transition from a place marked by 22 years of the active, daily parenting of our children, to a place just for us. We are embarking on the “empty nest” phase – or as I prefer to reframe it – a time of Soaring Syndrome. Our youngest son heads off to college in August, so we’ll have two college kids: a freshman in Salt Lake City, and a senior in Pittsburgh. To think about it another way, we will have kids who live, full time, thousands of miles away.

Thousands of miles away.

And we are here. Just us!

I hold firm that the term “empty nest” sells us all short. After all, what does it even mean? Does the process of kids going off to college mean our lives have gaping holes, just because our children aren’t physically nearby? Of course not. And if we are raising them with the idea they should stay – or that we’re somehow empty without them in our home – aren’t we missing the whole point of raising strong, resilient and fabulous humans?  We raise them to soar! To fly. Hence, Soaring Syndrome. 

Still, I’ll freely admit that we give everything to these souls. Off they go, and only then do we realize that we were successful. There’s a bit of an ironic sting to the whole thing. 

First Glimpses of Soaring Syndrome

For the last few years, I’ve been a mom with a son doing exactly what he should be doing in college – moving ever more firmly into the full sense of independence that will define his adult life. He’s almost 22 now and, if I take a look at the calendar, will be home during 2024 for approximately 7-10 days. That’s not a complaint, it’s actually a sign of our parenting being so successful. 

He has great friends, a wonderful girlfriend, and stellar academics. He also has the coolest part-time job ever, and a full-time summer internship in the city he now calls home. My son leads a full life. He’s living in Amsterdam for 5 weeks this Spring and taking every opportunity in life that I could ever want or hope for him.  We text or chat here and there, and when we do it brings me an insane, immense sense of joy to hear all that he’s doing. I almost get more joy when he shoots a quick text asking for a tiny piece of advice.

But – damn. I miss that kid. 

Baby Steps to Soaring Syndrome 

All this time, however, his younger brother has still been living at home. Living life as a highschooler, beginning to spread his – all the earlier, independent personality – wings. But he was here. He was home. We are close and share a strong bond, which has definitely helped ease the sting of his brother flying off “the nest” so beautifully. Soaring, just as I hoped. 

Our success rate in equipping our kids to dream big and stretch out far must be admirable – because we’ve done it again! Pittsburgh is far. Utah is crazy far. And again, I’m joyously happy for my son. This is an ideal situation for my boy and his excitement is palpable. We’re already making so many plans for visits. 

But damn. It’s far. 

Shift in Identity 

I won’t lie that this transition to both boys being away feels stranger and bigger than when our oldest went off to school three years ago. It’s not because I’ll miss my younger son any more than I’ve missed my oldest. I think it’s just the intrinsic nature of now having to fully embrace a shift in identity

People often equate the term ‘Mom’ as ‘doing for,’ ‘being needed’ or ‘taking a hands on role’. I’ve worked hard to let some of that go throughout my kids’ high school years. Now, the band aid is fully ripped off with both of them gone – for them, and for me. I am here for them, of course, but it’s on them. 

And, while I made the conscious choice a number of years back to find my own passions and protect my own hobbies alongside of the need to be 1000% “on” as Mom, in the back of my mind, there was always a kid coming home. The identity of being “needed” here at home, grounded in this place, and the activity of caring for and planning life with my son(s) has still been ever-present. 

Now, the real release comes, and I find myself holding onto three keys as I enter the era defined by Soaring Syndrome: 

1. Shed the Fear of Separation

We are ALWAYS Mom and always needed. My oldest does pop in for random input here and there, and I am as secure in our relationship now, and in the future, as I was before. The same will hold true for my younger son. It’s just different, and their need for me will morph into new phases as life progresses. I owe it to my sons to release the fear of separation. It’s my job to let go of any insecurities I may have about how our relationships could shift.

This is the time to hold onto your seat, Mom, as this journey takes a lot of faith and trust – mostly in yourself! But have faith in the job you did as a parent, from the first day to today. This is their time to test the waters fully, and our time to simply bite our tongue and watch. That said, it’s also my job to communicate openly with my sons if I need to talk with them – and to listen to their needs as well. 

2. Feel All the Feels

Yes it’s cliche, but it is also powerful. It is important to recognize any challenging emotions of fear, grief, anger, sadness and allow them to move through you in this moment. Watch the home movies. Pour over photos and memory boxes. Laugh at stories, and cry a little when you walk past their empty bedrooms. Give a curse when you find the last of your missing cups and silverware under the bed! This is a huge shift. Just because they aren’t here, doesn’t mean we won’t worry about them, don’t miss them, and won’t have times when we wish they would call.

Feel these feelings and stare them down, straight in the face. By addressing your feelings, you separate them from who you are as an individual, making them lose some of their power. That is how they are released over time. It also is a way to honor yourself and the incredible role you have held all these years. You ARE Mom, and you’ve done and achieved great things during this time! 

3. Grab Life and Sing 

We’re now at the point in life when there are unlimited choices at our feet, and we have more time to embrace them. Since we’ve marinated over time, we know what we want! Shirley MacLaine said, “I think of life itself now as a wonderful play that I’ve written for myself, and so my purpose is to have the utmost fun playing my part.” Shout it out, Moms! “I’m in Act Two of my play, and I am owning my part!” Define what you want. Embrace the free, open time you have. Step into YOUR next phase – just like your kids are stepping into theirs. 

You can ALL walk a new, joyous and exciting paths TOGETHER – EVEN IF they physically occur miles apart.

We Really Did It

In all this, we can appreciate the great joy that we really have been successful as parents. As a result of these 22 years, my boys know that I do and will always have their back – and they have mine. I’ve always been in this for the long haul, and I firmly believe that some of the best times and memories are still to come.  

Will watching my youngest literally get on a plane to fly to Utah be hard? Yes Ma’am. Does not having my oldest home all year feel odd? It sure does.

But here’s to you, my sons. I’ve loved you heaps for all these years, and I’ll love you forever. So let’s do this next phase, guys. Let’s own it. Even if we are physically apart, we’ll always be together. xo

NOTE:   This phase has been documented and researched by many as a time that can cause depression in some people. Do not try to suppress or numb these painful feelings, as it can make them feel worse. However, if these feelings are starting to affect your normal activities and ability to take care of yourself, it may be a sign that you need to seek professional help. It’s important to speak with your healthcare provider if you’re consistently experiencing symptoms of depression.
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Hi All, I’m Rebecca! I’ve worked in marketing strategy in the healthcare and wellness industry since college and my MBA for 20+ years (yikes!!). I’m blessed to have combined my geeky professional self with my passions: awareness of and mental health supports for disenfranchised populations and communities. I volunteer in educating the greater community about the real experiences of those in (and out of) recovery from the disease of addiction. I was so honored to give a TED talk in 2019 about removing stigma and shame by simply shifting the language we use, as this is near and dear me. Yet, at the end of the day, my family is everything in my world. I live with my husband Mike and two teenage sons in Lee, along with a crazy cattle dog (Maggie), cat (Leia), fish, 100 snails and soon to be chickens. While a Jersey shore girl at heart, living in MA and NH since the late 90s has fully converted me to a New England sports fan and avid skier, hiker and kayaker. I guess I’m a perfectly imperfect, harmonious, and happy runner, who cares deeply for humans, and Mother Nature. Follow me on Instagram @mommabear5786 to see what life in a house of boys, recovery, loud music, a bit of attitude, and nature looks like!


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