September 21, 2009 12:00 PM

“The bad economy just really caught everybody,” says Will Eichelberger. So when he and wife Teresa’s grown children ran into financial trouble, “we told them they could move home.” The result: one really full house.

But hardly the only one. “The recession often makes people make decisions that they would not have made in better times,” says Stephanie Coontz, director of the Research Council on Contemporary Families. Even before the peak of the recession she saw a substantial increase in relatives cohabiting. These reunions can be loving. But, adds Coontz, “people not feeling like they have enough space, either physical or emotional,” can also strain family ties. Will, whose household jumped from 3 people to 12, jokes that the 13th family member (their terrier mix Scoot) “is probably the only one who’s sane.”

The Eichelbergers


Married for 10 years, Teresa and Will Eichelberger were thisclose to becoming empty-nesters. The Dayton couple, each of whom was married before, were sharing a three-bedroom home with Teresa’s son Jason, 20, a college student; her two older kids had moved out years before and Will’s two teenage girls lived mainly with their mom. But then Teresa’s daughter Angela Penny, 26, hit hard times when her fiancé Larry Eikenbery was laid off from a restaurant job last October.

“They were in debt up to their ears,” says Will, 44. “There was no way for them to be out on their own. We told them they could move home.” They did, along with Angela’s 7-year-old boy from a prior relationship and the couple’s sons, ages 1 and 2. “The intention was getting them back on their feet,” says Teresa, 45. “But with the way the economy was going, we thought this might be a more permanent thing, so we looked for a bigger place.”

Good call. In May Teresa’s son Eric, 22, his wife, Jessica, their newborn, and Jessica’s 2-year-old son from an earlier relationship also moved in with Will and Teresa—who moved into a four-bedroom house and converted a utility closet, the basement and the porch into three more bedrooms.

With 12 at home (4 in diapers, if you’ve lost count), the Eichelbergers sometimes feel like they are running an inn. Will handles most of the cooking, and dinner is a three-hour affair. “Mealtime is hectic,” Teresa says. “We eat in shifts.” They happily add more shifts when Will’s daughters or Larry’s other three sons come to visit. An imposition? “You don’t get a lot of privacy,” says Will. “And you don’t have a lot of space.” But there are upsides to this full house. “It’s good to have my grandbabies,” says Teresa. Plus Eric, who still has his job removing trees from power lines, and Angela, who works at a restaurant, are able to contribute to household expenses—crucial since Will was recently laid off from his job delivering newspapers. Teresa still drives a middle-of-the-night paper route and comes home at dawn to face the waking multitudes. “For Christmas,” she jokes, “they’re going to get me a doormat that says, ‘Welcome to the jungle.'”

The Brusses


Each time Jeanne Bruss goes to her divorced moms support group, the other women ask the same question: “Is he still in the house?” Yes, she explains with a polite, patient smile, her ex-husband still lives with her.

After seven years of marriage, Jeanne, 36, filed for divorce from John, 61. “It’s complicated,” says Jeanne, an accountant, when asked why the parents of 4-year-old twins split up. “We were living in different worlds. The decision wasn’t easy.”

It got tougher: A month later John lost his electrical engineering job. Although Jeanne won possession of their 2,400-sq.-foot Chula Vista, Calif., home, “I didn’t feel it was fair to set him out on the street.” Instead John moved into the guest room and they continue to share house payments. Their divorce was finalized on July 25, and they now have separate bank accounts and designated shelves in the fridge (turkey and broccoli on his; plantains and peanuts on hers). “We thought it best for me to start acting like a single mom,” Jeanne says. So far single life doesn’t include dating. And John, who used to indulge his wife’s love of romantic comedies, says that now “that doesn’t work for me.” But they still share the couch to watch Jeopardy! and tuck in their children together. “The divorce,” says John, “is invisible for the kids. If I do get a job, things will change.”

The Calvins


When Bryan and Victoria Calvin were dating, she was living with her mother, Carolyn Reese, in Little Elm, Texas. If Bryan visited overnight, Victoria insisted he sleep on the floor of her bedroom in deference to her mom. In May of last year they got engaged and finally got their own apartment. But shortly after the wedding, Victoria, 28, was laid off from her human resources job. “That was a big hit because she was the primary earner,” says Bryan, 27, a Ph.D. student at the University of North Texas. Carolyn, 60, invited them to move into her three-bedroom house with her, but Victoria was deflated, saying, “I felt like a failure.” Bryan was more pragmatic, even if he didn’t jump at the offer. “I liked having our own space,” he says. But he found that living with his new mother-in-law was “a real blessing.” With the money they are saving in rent, Victoria is going back to grad school. And in February the couple are expecting a baby. When they shared the news with Carolyn she was naturally overjoyed. But, recalls Bryan: “She said, ‘There’s plenty of room, but I’m not an auto-matic babysitter!'”

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