Martha Holbert loved the brass bed in her Georgetown efficiency where her friends could sit, cozy on the navy blue comforter with the dust ruffle she bought to match. Once she had everybody over for six quiches, served on Lucite plates from the China Closet. That was in the beginning. By December, her Thunderbird needed a $52 fuel pump. She couldn't afford a Thanksgiving turkey. They cut off phone service on New Year's Eve. Four days later, at 24, she moved home to Chevy Chase. "Home is security," she says. "It's waking up and knowing you have nothing to worry about."

Susan Alexander lived with a boyfriend in Gaithersburg and it was, she recalls fondly, "like playing house." When they broke up, she moved into a two-bedroom apartment with a married couple who lived in her complex. Without her boyfriend's car, she had to spend two hours on three buses getting to her job behind the makeup counter at Bloomingdale's, White Flint. A few months later, she moved home to Cabin John. "Sometimes," she says, "somebody will look at you like, 'You're 24 years old and you live at home?' But there's nothing wrong with it. I'm happy."

The name for it is the "refilled nest syndrome," a rediscovered social arrangement. These days increasing numbers of offspring find their first apartment, decorate in cinder block bookshelves, and then -- sometimes faster than the first electric bill -- come back. Parents watch with amazement or dread.

"We had changed his room to a white carpet," recalls Dorothy Grabski, a retired schoolteacher whose then-24-year-old son spent almost a year back at home in Fairfax, Va. "And there was a white bedspread -- which was not exactly something you wanted your son to mess up. He had a dog, which added to the problem. Here he came with this monster. Oh well, we survived."

It is not a tidal wave, but certainly a quiet ripple. In 1970, 15 million sons and daughters, aged 18 and over, lived at home in the United States. In 1980, the figure was 19 million. Some of that can be explained by baby boom children coming of age. But not all. As Steve Rawlings, a family demographer with the U.S. Census Bureau puts it: "We have kind of a gut feeling that something's happening out there. It certainly looks like it's going in that direction."

Both parents and offspring tend to blame the economy; it's hard to make it, many say, when one-bedroom apartments can cost $500 a month and hot dogs $1.99 per pound. For the poor, widowed, sick or newly divorced, the difficulties are understandable. But when it comes to the healthy middle and upper-middle classes, experts are skeptical.

"The children who are doing this today are the grandchildren of the Depression," says Mary Ann Bartusis, an associate professor of psychiatry at the Medical College of Pennsylvania who works with families with full nests. "We don't want our children to suffer like we did. We've raised them to expect external material goods, so it's not surprising they don't have enough money to live in apartments at the level at which we've conditioned them to expect. Our kids aren't willing to sacrifice the way we did."

"I'm prejudiced," says Dorothy Starr, a Washington pyschiatrist who specializes in family therapy. "I think regardless of the economy, if you really want to make it, then you narrow down your wants to what you really can pay for. There are realities out there. You don't have the family credit card when you live away from home. Landlords expect to be paid on time. It's not like repaying loans on your allowance."

And it's not like the '60s. Then the counterculture thrived in communal housing that, for all its discomfort, offered sanctuary for one who felt rejected by society. Now the rebellion is over. The cockroaches have become intolerable. Roommates leave dishes in the sink. "Suddenly," says Starr, "parents don't seem so bad after all. They generally pick up after themselves."

'Everything Was Wrong'

Martha Holbert lives in her parents' two-story brick house, a carefully maintained symbol of her family's entry into affluence. They were among the first blacks to move to Chevy Chase a dozen years ago. On a cold week night before going to see her boyfriend play basketball at George Washington University, Martha Holbert brings in two cups of tea, then settles on the couch for a long talk.

"It was like I was not getting anywhere," she says. "And the most important thing to me is that I love clothes. I absolutely just adore them. I'm right at home at Saks and I just had nothing to wear. I was so frustrated because there I was, my boyfriend's the star basketball player, and here I'm going to go to games in denim jumpers? And I'd gained so much weight. I just hated myself. Just everything you could name was wrong."

She has a pretty, round face, hair smoothed into a variant pageboy, and an elegant way of placing her cup delicately in its saucer. She has been home three weeks.

"The first couple of nights it was real weird," she says. "I'd just lay awake, looking around. The next morning I woke up and said, 'God, where am I?' "

She went to Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, then American University. Her father is a lawyer at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. In college, she was given a Saks Fifth Avenue charge account for her clothes and a Montgomery Ward charge card for her car, but her mother took them away after the Saks bill reached $400 one month. She left AU and finished at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, then returned to Washington in June 1980. She had a job as an $11,500-a-year instruments technician at Georgetown University Hospital and an apartment in the Georgetown Mews at 30th and M streets. There was a boyfriend, too. Her new life was launched.

"It was great," she recalls. "The phone could ring late, and your parents wouldn't get mad. You could do just what you wanted to do. Not like being here and having to go and say, 'Well-Dad-I'm-going-to-the-basketball-game-I-have-mother's-car-because-my-car's-broken-I'll-be-real-careful-'cause-it's-icy-outside-and-I'll-try-to-be-home-before-1.' I just didn't even have to deal with it. I could wear what I wanted to wear. My mother was always saying, 'Do you have on a slip? Do you have on a bra? Your hair doesn't look right.' That kind of thing. There was absolutely nothing to worry about. And if you felt like lying in bed all day long, you weren't going to catch hell."

Usually she got up at 6 a.m. and walked to the hospital by 7. "Then I changed, I always wore scrub attire, and after that I went through the operating room to see if everything was equipped, wheeled the patients around and got equipment. Then at 3 o'clock I'd leave and I'd go home and get on the phone and maybe some friends would drop by or maybe we'd go to Mazza Gallerie, or maybe we'd eat at a Chinese food restaurant. The Vietnamese restaurant on the corner, that was one of my favorite ones. They had some kind of crab meat soup that I liked. Crab meat and asparagus soup, I think that's what it was. It always smelled so good in the summer."

But the bills piled up. She moved to a cheaper apartment on Connecticut Avenue, and in September 1981 quit her job. "I didn't want to work Saturdays," she says flatly. She then did temporary hospital work, but quit that in November to look for a full-time job. After a month, she found work as a medical secretary. But the bills got worse. She and her boyfriend, George Washington basketball player Penny Elliott, weren't getting along. By Thanksgiving she was broke, with nothing in her apartment but Saltine crackers. She and Penny went to her parents' house for dinner.

"My father took out the slide projector, and my mother had turkey and dressing and everything and it was just a very nice evening," she says. "They were very, very kind. And then we left. I had been trying to work temporary, two shifts, Thanskgiving and the day after, and when I got back to the apartment that night, I had been canceled. And I had planned that money in my mind."

On Monday, Jan. 4, she was home. "I was delighted to have her back," says Gloria Holbert. "I hope she stays until she marries. We were always close. We shopped together, she always admired my taste in clothes. And now we can do that again."

She is asked about her daughter's interest in fine things and clothing. "Oh, she was always thrifty," she responds. "It's the economy that has her strung out."

"Now my mother and I go shopping every weekend," says her daughter. "One weekend we went to Mazza Gallerie, one weekend we went to White Flint, and once we spent the whole day at Lord & Taylor and Saks. And I went to a baby shower and she bought the gift and picked it out and charged it, and that was $35 off my back. You realize why a lot of people say a girl's best friend is her mother."

The Money Taboo

Part of the problem is that the middle class keeps money as secret as sex. "It's a taboo," says Edward Krehmeyer, director of Family Financial Counseling in Chicago. "Most people don't want their children or anybody else to know what they're earning. So many children don't learn through their parents how to handle money."

A complicating factor is higher education. This generation of young adults has the luxury of extended adolescence via graduate school; a law student may begin at 22 and finish at 25. For three rigorous years, the debate of comfort versus freedom is moot.

It's often less easy for parents. "God, I'm caught with a 19-year-old right now," says Harold Lief, a University of Pennsylvania psychology professor and a former director of the school's division of Family Study. "I know what parents go through. They're torn between their nurture needs and the need to see them independent. They feel guilty as hell if they push them out -- and guilty if they let them stay."

There may be larger problems. One survey, taken three years ago by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, found that 18- to 30-year-olds are the unhappiest group of Americans. Oddly, this is the generation generally thought to have had more freedom than any other. But freedom brings the problem of choice; an intersection of too many roads can be blinding.

Some family specialists say there are distinct subgroups among "nesters" who move back with parents. Dorothy Starr, the Washington psychiatrist, splits them in two. There are the '60s leftovers who ran away from home and are now back, often unemployed. Their problems, she feels, are complex and serious. "The group you're talking about," she says, "is a nice normal group who might have decided that bread is better buttered at home than it is elsewhere. They might have matured enough. I have a notion that you have to be able to get along with your parents before you can get along with the rest of the world."

Ties That Bind

Susan Alexander's house in Cabin John, Md., looks like a small ski lodge, built on an acre of oak that is trafficked by rabbits and squirrels. Outside it is white stucco with dark wood; inside there is a llama fur rug on one wall and a Psychology Today magazine on the stereo table.

Mother and daughter have morning coffee in the kitchen. Jo Alexander, 54, has a thick, black braid that falls halfway down her back. Her daughter's hair is reddish-brown, in a blown-dry Farrah style. The makeup on her full face is much heavier than her mother's, with shadow just below each brow.

"I don't think it's only economics," says Jo Alexander, mulling over why her daughter has returned. "I think it's coming back to close family ties. I think if Sue really wanted to be independent, she has enough flair and creativeness to live on her own."

"It might have a little to do with it," says her daughter.

"You don't agree," says her mother.

"I won't admit it," sighs the daughter.

Jo Alexander takes care with her words. "It's a mixed emotion," she says. "I really love having her around. She's a lot of fun, she likes to cook, she brings things home, there's always activity around her. The minuses are that the old parent-child relationship has not grown. I'd like to have an adult relationship with her, but when they're living at home, it's much harder to let go."

Susan listens, chin in her hand. She can't stay at the kitchen table, but she can't leave the room, either. She gets up to eat an orange over the sink, then returns. She talks about living alone in California.

"I'm used to a lot of affection," she says. "When you walk in the door and there's nothing but paintings on the wall, and nobody there except the radio . . . "

"The radio doesn't cook dinner," says her mother.

"MOMMMMMM!" says her daughter.

Away from home, Susan Alexander is as nonplussed as her mother. She talks over a long lunch at a Mexican restaurant in Bethesda, just across the street from where she works, at a hairdresser's called "Shear Delight." She is a warm person who likes a good party. She laughs a lot during light moments at lunch, although in between the conversation picks its way through ex-boyfriends and a long story about a bounced check.

"Sometimes I look at a lot of girls my age," she says, "and they've got college educations and they've got good jobs and they make a lot of money and they can afford their own places and I feel like, 'How come I can't do that?' But I can't sit behind a desk, and I can't write. I like doing what I'm doing. I love cutting hair."

She went to Walt Whitman High School, then spent two years at Montgomery College where she says she "just played." She dropped out and went to beauty school in San Francisco. In one month, she says she spent $1,000 "just going out." She hocked her Minolta camera for $30, then used the money to go out again. She returned to Cabin John, lived at home and finished school. She worked part time at a beauty salon and then got a $125-a-week job behind the makeup counter at Bloomingdale's. She moved out in February 1980 because her parents didn't like her boyfriend at the time. After the split and the brief period living with the married couple, she wanted out.

"I asked my parents if I could come back home, to try to save up some money," she says, "and then try it again. But it's been almost two years, and I'm still living at home, and I haven't saved any money." She now makes anywhere from $125 to $300 per week at Shear Delight, depending on business. She pays $100 a month rent and repairs on her parents' car, which they let her use. She spends $150 "every couple of months" on clothes, and about $40 per week on lunch.

It wasn't easy asking to come back. "You don't want to admit that you failed," she says. "But then you have to look at it from the point of view that you haven't failed, because you're trying the best you know how. You think."

Now she goes with her friend Linda, who works with her, and Linda's husband, Terry, to Bish Thompson's in Bethesda and sometimes to the Far Inn on Connecticut Avenue. There's a bar downstairs. She likes Southern Comfort almost any way -- in a sour, on the rocks, in a gimlet. "You sit in there for a couple of hours," she says, "and you listen to the show, and you have two or three drinks, and it runs you $10, $15 sometimes. It gets expensive."

She and her mother sometimes argue about her friends and late hours. "She gets upset because she doesn't understand," Susan says. "You know, she's been married to the same guy all her life. She says, 'You could call,' and I say, 'I don't want to call you at 3 o'clock in the morning and tell you I'm not coming home. I'll wake you up.' Then she says, 'You could tell me before you leave,' and I'll go, 'Well, I don't know whether I'm going to spend the night out or not. It's usually up in the air.' "

("I don't like that at all," Jo Alexander says. "I reconcile it by looking around at the whole society. You have to be practical. But she knows we don't approve. I feel there should be more commitment.")

Her daughter mentions some other problems. "On Saturday," she says, "I was really depressed. For no reason at all. I was really busy. I did about six people and I had to fix my sister's hair, and I put a color on her hair, and she didn't like it, so I had to change it. I was in a really bad mood. I had to go in the back and sit down to calm my nerves. But when I look back at it, there was nothing to be depressed about. I had a good day. I think we eat so much over there, and sometimes when you sit around and eat a lot, if there's nothing to do, you get depressed because you're eating so much. They'll all go somewhere and have drinks and they'll go up to Charlestown to the racetrack or to Atlantic City. And I can't go, I can't afford it, I know I can't afford it. Maybe that's what depresses me. I can't keep up with them."

Advice and Dreams

Martha Holbert is now a secretary at a downtown law firm. So far, she says, she thinks things at home might work out. "Just about the best thing," she says, "is that I can go out and buy clothes knowing that the real small things, like toilet paper and toothpaste, are taken care of." Now there is someone to talk to when she comes home from work, and someone to advise her as well.

"You know, your mother's opinion," she says. "Like helping you get dressed. You know -- 'Put on a slip.' "

Susan Alexander's dream is to move out, soon or in a couple of years. She has her eye on some apartments on River Road, in the Kenwood or the Irene. She wants a one-bedroom place, a car, the kind of clothes she really likes and money to entertain. Just by herself. "I don't want to have to live with a guy or something to be able to do that," she says.

She doesn't see financial struggles as character-building. "Why should I sacrifice for that?" she says. "Why should I downgrade myself? . . . It makes you miserable."