Two years ago, Yorba Linda's Carl and Barbara waved goodby to the last of their three children as she drove off toward a life of her own.
For the first time in 27 years, they had their home--and their lives--to themselves. It seemed strange at first, but after a while they got used to the freedom, the privacy, the extra spending money.
But last November, they said hello again as their daughter, Stephanie, 24, moved back into her old room.
"What happened with us is a pretty minor thing compared to what a lot of other people I know have gone through," Barbara says. "We have a neighbor across the street whose whole family moved back in, and they're practically supporting them. We have other friends whose daughter has moved back twice with her husband and child.
"We are luckier than some because Stephanie is a responsible member of society," Barbara says. "She didn't come back saying, 'Here I am; take care of me.' She is not taking advantage of us, and we are not paying her bills. A lot of kids who move back aren't like that."
Stephanie is what the experts call a "boomerang child," a young adult who tried and failed to make it on her own. For Stephanie, moving back home is a brief setback; she's working, saving money and expects to move out again in a few months. Other young adults boomerang back home again and again, and some of them eventually stop trying to make it on their own.
According to the Census Bureau, 22 million young adults are dependent on their parents for housing. In 1984, 52% of 22- to 24-year-olds lived with their parents. And in their 1987 book, "Boomerang Kids," Seattle psychotherapists Jean Davies Okimoto and Phyllis Jackson Stegall say those numbers represent a 50% increase in adult children living at home since 1970. Some of those are boomerang children; others don't qualify for that nickname because they've never left.
Barbara can vouch for those numbers without even leaving her block. "We have lived here for 17 years and know most of our neighbors," she says. "Out of the 17 houses on the street, nine are original owners, and out of those nine, six have had children move back at one time or another.
"We always hoped our children wouldn't have to come back," Barbara says. "But they're welcome, if they need to, within reason.
"The question is not, 'Do you help?' It's, 'How much do you help?' Self-esteem is very important, and if you help too much you may well end up with a couch potato who may never be self-sufficient."
Barbara says she has seen that happen to some of her friends and neighbors. "Too many parents do too much for their kids. Then all of a sudden, this kid's an adult, and he doesn't know what to do because he always had things given to him.
"One of my neighbors whose kids moved back called me up the other day and asked if I had any of the Sara Lee coupons that were in the paper. I said I did, but aren't those things awfully expensive? She said, 'Yes, but (her son) just loves them.' And her other son won't eat any other kind of bacon but Oscar Mayer. Now who caused that? The parents."
So far, Stephanie's two brothers, ages 27 and 29, have been able to make it by themselves. Each of the three siblings has a small, independent business. Stephanie, a dressmaker, waited until she was in good financial shape before she left the nest.
"I thought I had everything together," she says. "My business was going very well, I had a good deal on rent and two girls I felt I could live with. But after I moved out, my business just dropped in half. From there it just kind of snowballed. If you're running tight anyway and you're thrown a curve, it takes you a long time to recover. It's tough out there, to be honest.
"I've finally gotten to the point where I'm telling myself I'm not a failure," Stephanie says. "For a long time I thought I was. I tried to avoid moving back, not that I didn't feel my parents would let me, but I just wanted to feel like I'd made it on my own. My parents have been really cool about it. But every day something comes up that I think, if I didn't live here this wouldn't be happening.
"My dad worries about me if I'm out somewhere, but he'll always be like that; it doesn't bother me anymore. And my mom's a real three-meals-a-day kind of gal. She's always asking, 'Will you be home for dinner?'
"I have a friend who's 31 who had to move back, and it's much more tough for her than for me. Her parents were fine about her moving back in, but they put a lot of restrictions on her," Stephanie says.
"And I've got other friends who need to move back home, but their parents won't let them. I understand much more about the whole homeless thing now, especially for people who are raising families and don't have anybody to rely on."
One of Stephanie's financial burdens is a $300 monthly car payment. "I'm going to sell the car and get something I can afford," she says. "But in Orange County you've got to have good transportation. That doesn't mean it has to be a new car, though.