The Nesting Instinct: Fact, fiction, or just a bunch of crazy cleaning?

By Karrie McAllister

Yesterday morning I woke up early. I then proceeded to do the laundry, clean the kitchen, rearrange my daughter’s room, and vacuum under all of the beds. I also cleaned my desk (an immeasurable task in itself) and cleaned the fishbowl.
And then I sat down to lunch.
Now that I’ve officially reached the point in my pregnancy when I am wearing exclusively slip on shoes, it appears I’ve also conveniently reached the point when I am painfully contorting my oversized body to put Mrs. Cleaver’s house to shame.
Officially, it’s called “nesting.” Unofficially, I call it “going meshuga.”
The “nesting instinct” is the term used to describe women in the latter months of pregnancy when they have the uncontrollable urge to clean and organize like the Queen of England was coming over for tea. It is defined as a sudden burst of energy that comes out of nowhere and causes women who are normally exhausted from carrying around a few extra dozen pounds to turn into Mrs. Clean. Maybe it’s just rumor, but women have been known to scrub their entire house, top to bottom, with a toothbrush. Others take on full-blown nursery renovations and complete them in record speed.
It’s not only humans that go through this mad dash of preparation just before birth. Birds obviously have their own nesting rituals, mainly building nests, before laying their eggs. And some studies have shown that all primates have these same urges in the last months of pregnancy, which I believe only further justifies the fact that I myself have been “going ape” of late.
They say it’s all done to get ready for the big day, to ensure that you and your other family members are well taken care of after the birth of the new child, when instinctively the mother knows that her time will be completely consumed. They also say the nesting instinct is caused by hormonal fluctuations and surging emotions. (Any woman will tell you this can NOT be true, that we as a gender never, ever have emotional swings, and that we are perfectly stable all the time and if anyone wants to challenge this, well, step into the ring, buddy!)
But going through this instinct for the third time myself, I’m pretty sure the nesting is just a good case of motherly intuition. Call it physical, call it emotional, call it whatever you want. It boils down to a mother’s sixth sense; the same one that knows when a child needs to wear a coat and hat and when the kids is eating his beans or is just hiding them in his napkin. Same thing. We just know best.
We mothers know that once the new baby comes, life will change. We know that laundry will pile higher than Mount Everest and that there will be many nights of eating cereal for dinner. We know that closets that are overstuffed to the point of being harmful will somehow drop the bottom of the priority list, only ahead of our own personal fashion and beauty sense.
And so it is with excited heart that we plan and organize and get ready for baby. Bursts of energy like this are not to be ignored—in fact, I don’t think it’s physically possible for us to overlook the urge to scrub our bathtubs. It’s healthy, it makes us happy, and frankly, our bathtubs can probably use it, too.
Unfortunately, the nesting instinct is mainly a maternal one and doesn’t extend to the paternal part of the family, who usually is equally exhausted near the time of the baby’s birth. His tiredness doesn’t come from the sleepless nights and constant neediness of the baby, but rather from the mile-long honey-do list that the mother wrote out for him inbetween loads of laundry and scrubbing the bathtub.


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