Dear Mrs. Riches:
My middle son is graduating in a few weeks and plans to move back home. He is following in the footsteps of Son No. 1, who graduated two years ago and who still lives with us. Both sons are employed in good starter jobs that have them progressing on a career path. Our third child and only daughter now very matter-of-factly sees it as part of her life plan to live with us following her college graduation in a few years.

Mrs. Riches, I love my children, but I am in need of a break. I looked forward to the time when my husband and I could putz around the house and lament how quiet it was. But now, I am doing all the same things I have for years -- cooking, cleaning, and laundry for five -- and with no end in sight. By the way, it's not just my children doing this; my friends are in similar situations. Is this just the new economic reality or do I still have some hope of retirement?
-- One Tired Bird

Dear Tired Bird:
A Realtor might optimistically describe your nest as "cozy" -- but it sounds like you (or at least your style) are feeling nothing but cramped. And that's what I would use as your guiding principle in figuring out how to resolve this situation. Why? Because there's no right or wrong answer to how long families should live under the same roof. In many cultures around the world, extended family networks reside together throughout life. In the dominant U.S. culture, however, independence is valued so highly that a transition to separate residences is accorded higher priority.

So there is a cultural component and, yes, probably an economic one. Unlike previous generations, today's young graduates can't necessarily expect to do better than their parents, especially right out of the starting gate. Branching out on their own may mean living in a less desirable area, in a smaller house, and definitely missing out on the perks like cooking and cleaning offered courtesy of Mom. These comforts of home can seem very enticing compared to a futon in a tiny, shared apartment and lugging your own dirty clothes to the self-service laundry.

But I would look for explanations closer to home, too. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Is it possible that you haven't conveyed your expectations to your children? They may have no idea that you were looking forward to an empty nest since, being your kids (even adult ones), they have always assumed that your sun rises and sets according to their needs.
  • Have you established boundaries regarding your time? Make more time for yourself by giving up many of your caretaking responsibilities. Adult children don't need Mom to do their laundry for them, but they'll take it if you're offering. Stop offering.
  • Have you told them how they can contribute to the household? Whether it's by paying rent, assuming household chores, or simply taking care of their own needs, think about ways they can assume more responsibility so that you have less on your plate. If they fail to pitch in, you may decide it's time for them to experience the real world!
  • Do you want to establish a time limit for how long each of the children can expect to live at home post-graduation? You may find that, once you have some firmer boundaries in place, you'll feel less desperate to have them out. But if you still relish the idea of a house in which you and your husband are alone, then communicate the limit to your kids. It doesn't have to be a cold proclamation; you can say, "Dad and I are happy to have each of you live with us for two years following your graduation. We think that's a reasonable amount of time for you to save up enough money to live on your own." 

Setting expectations and boundaries is hard for some folks. (I've even known some parents who've sold "the nest" out from under their aging brood and gotten a condo just for two, rather than having to nudge their kids to fly free.) But ultimately, you need to treat your children like the adults they've become by talking with them honestly and respectfully. Decide what arrangement works best for you and your husband and go for it.

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This article was originally published April 27, 2007. It has been updated by Dayana Yochim. The Fool has a disclosure policy.