Eric Tracey fled the nest when he was 18 -- moving out of his parent's home to start college. He even took a job as a summer school resident assistant, "so I didn't have to come back and live at home," he says.
Through his early 20s, he roomed with his buddies in different apartments, splitting the cost of living four ways. But last February, nearly eight years after moving out, his relationship with a live-in girlfriend ended. Eric needed an affordable place to stay while putting himself through graduate school on his salary as a special education teacher.
So at age 26, he joined millions of other "boomerang" offspring, showing up at his parents' house with his belongings packed in his car, and nestling in back home.
"I brought my stuff upstairs and realized I haven't cleaned my room in eight years," Eric deadpans.
U.S. Census Bureau numbers suggest that "boomeranging" is not a new trend; it's a way of life.
In 2003, about 13.5 percent of young males ages 25 to 34 lived at home, according to the census. That's about the same percentage as in 1983. (The Census doesn't differentiate between boomerang kids and those who never left home.) For women in the same age group, about 7 percent lived at home in 2003.
The percentage hasn't fluctuated by more than a few points since the 1960 census.
"This is the new normal," says Linda Perlman Gordon, a family therapist from Chevy Chase, Md., and co-author of the book "Mom, Can I Move Back in with You?: A Survival Guide for Parents of Twentysomethings." Sixty-six percent of new college graduates expect to move back home, she says.
Parents aren't surprised, either, to see their adult kid pull into the driveway in a car crammed with everything the kid owns. In a 2004 survey conducted by Harris Interactive, 40 percent of baby boomers said they either had an adult child move back, or expected to have one.
Money Is Key
Migrations back to the nest are frequently tied to economics -- life alone is expensive.
After leaving college with an average of $20,000 in student loans, a young graduate's employment prospects are often low-paying, entry-level jobs or resume-building internships, Gordon says.
Money was key in Eric Tracey's decision to move back home. When he decided to enroll in graduate school to earn a master's degree in special education, "I just wasn't going to be able to pay for living by myself in an apartment," the Rhode Island resident said. "I'm going to spend the money on school. Who needs more loans? I'd rather pay for school right off the bat."
The adjustment has gone reasonably well, he says. "My parents are pretty cool. I don't have to check in with them. They don't worry about what time I go out or when I come in."
Eric gets up early for his teaching job. He has learned to be quiet so he doesn't wake anyone.
"When I come back after school, I have to do my work. But Mom and Dad want to talk to me, the TV's going, there's stuff happening in the kitchen. The only adjustment has been getting over the noises and getting used to the family interaction again.
"I can't sneak up to my room because the computer resources I need are in one area of the house. But I know I'm welcome here, so that's helpful. I know with some people that might not happen."
His parents, Doreen, 49, and Kevin, 51, enjoy having their son around. Doreen says, "I'm happy to have him here, definitely. He's company. He keeps us company."
She cooks more with Eric home, and spends more time -- and money -- at the grocery store.
"We go through a lot of milk now. Before, I was buying a quart of milk a week, which sometimes lasted two weeks. Now we're up to two gallons a week! It's so weird."
Her son "cuts the lawn, goes to the dump, does stuff around the house," she says.
"He doesn't do housework, believe me. But he does the outside stuff. I never have to ask him to do anything." Meanwhile, Eric is getting excellent grades in school. "Better than he ever got before. So it's working for him."
Not every trip back to the nest goes as well.
Tips to Smooth the Move
"This is a perfect time to do the last part of parenting," she advises. "You're not the boss, you're the coach." Act as a sounding board for your adult child; help him or her see different perspectives before they make their own decisions.
Have clear expectations from the beginning of the move. Will you charge rent? Will chores be shared? Not every parent collects rent, Gordon says. "Is your kid doing an unpaid internship? Where would that kid get the money for rent?"
Eric's parents don't charge for anything, he says. But he pays the cable bill because he needs broadband Internet for his job and for school. And he bought himself a big new bed, "because the twin size is not going to cut it."
Gordon advises parents: Don't fall back into your old habits when a child moves home. You don't have to be responsible anymore for making sure your offspring has a hot, nutritious meal every night.
It's OK if you're the parent to set boundaries -- it's your house. If you want a propertywide ban on hip-hop after 10 p.m., then make it so.
Um …: and what about sex?
"That's an easy one," Gordon says. "You have every right to have your child respect your value system. If you're uncomfortable or you have younger kids still at home, your adult child usually will understand. If you're comfortable because your child is in a committed relationship, then that's your business."
Eric Tracey has weighed the trade-off between money and his dating life. "I find myself leaning more toward the financial end of it," he says. "I like living here, but at the same time I do want to get more independent. Obviously, I can't have a girlfriend over, so that's hurting the relationship aspect of life."
"If I do meet anyone, as soon as they say they have a place of their own, I say, 'Whew -- crossed that hurdle.' "
There have been no intrafamily blowups since Eric moved home, but sometimes he longs for his own place. "Anytime I come home and I'm trying to get work done and the TV is blasting, I think, 'I have just one more year, and I can get out and do my own thing.' "
For his parents, a kid in the nest hasn't hurt their social life one bit. "Sometimes we're in later than him," Doreen says with a laugh. "We've already been empty nesters. Now we're going back the other way. I was ready for grandchildren, but instead I got my son back."