The nesting instinct

clean house clip artI’m wondering whether there’s some evolutionary or hormonal factor that drives women (I don’t know about men) to clean every inch of their new home when they move house. The thought came into my head when I reread a letter to my parents written when we were moving from our first apartment in Cupertino, CA to a tract house in the same neighborhood.

Feb. 2, 1970
… I cleaned the apartment, then of course rushed back here to try to get a bit more cleaning up and unpacking done. The previous owner was a pretty sloppy housekeeper – still, I guess everyone complains about the other woman’s methods. Anyway, most of the house is now more or less presentable …

Looking for information on the topic, I found lots of material on what is called the “nesting instinct,” the urge most pregnant women have in their third trimester to scrub floors, sort sock drawers, or perform other cleaning and organizing tasks. It appears to be triggered by an increase in the body’s estradiol, the major female sex hormone, and is “an adaptive behaviour stemming from humans’ evolutionary past.”

Or, as webmd.com puts it: “Just as birds are hardwired to build nests for protecting their young, we humans are primed to create a safe environment for our new offspring.”

I wasn’t pregnant in 1970, so I looked up sites with information on spring cleaning. I found checklists, some tentative discussion of the custom’s origin in ancient traditions and religious practices, as well as practical reasons for the task, especially in places of cold winters and times of sooty wood- and coal-burning heating facilities. And on sites about moving into a house, there were checklist after checklist, all of them assuming that the previous owner/tenant is by definition a germ-carrying slob, and that the new occupant is motivated to clean every inch of the place.  A few examples:

From Angie’s List:

  • “Previous residents surely cleaned the bathroom, but there is no harm in scrubbing away your own way as this room can be one of the more germ-filled places in the house.”
  • “The insides of all cabinets and drawers were most likely ignored by the previous tenants or homeowners.”
  • “Dust the top of the doors and disinfect all doorknobs.”

From Bed Bath & Beyond:

  • “Your dream home sure looked spotless during the open house. But gird yourself: No matter how clean the place seemed, it’s likely there are some dirty surprises in store for move-in day.”

[This site pays particular attention to chandelier light fixtures, crown moldings, ceiling fans, doors & knobs, refrigerator vent, dishwasher, furnace, ductwork, washer & dryer]

From The Spruce:

  • “You should always do a thorough clean before your stuff arrives.”
  • “The kitchen is probably the first place to start. Not only because it tends to be where icky sticky things collect, but also because you’ll want to get rid of the former tenant’s cooking smells.”

[Detailed instructions for fridge, stove, cabinets, counters, sink, walls, floors]

While not as freaked out about other people’s germs as manufacturers of cleaning products might wish, I’ve done a reasonably thorough cleaning of every house I’ve moved into. (Except the last; it was newly built, so apart from a little carpenter’s dust, it was pristine.) I’ve done my share of spring cleaning too, and found a kind of primal satisfaction in touching every surface of my home with a cleaning cloth. I’m wondering now whether there might be a hormonal component to the spring cleaning urge. It seems like a good excuse. I grow old. My estrogen levels have decreased. In recent years, I’ve found myself gearing up for spring cleaning and abandoning the task halfway through the pantry shelves. Maybe this spring I’ll actually finish the job. Or not.

4 Responses to “The nesting instinct”

  • Alice Richards:

    I agree that hormones play a role in “nest building “, but birds abandon their nests after use, leaving nests as
    they exist.

    I find I have felt the urge to clean house after returning from being away for over a week.
    I also feel an urge to clean,sort out or “renew” in the Spring of the year.

  • Joan Hansen:

    And my son and I will soon be cleaning behind the shed and in the shed and taking a load to the dump. I don’t know when or if the house will get a thorough going over. I am old now and out of hormones.

  • wendy:

    Well researched and humorous. I agree that the urge to clean seems to be weakening as hormones wane.

  • Judith Pogue:

    This really made me chuckle! Thanks, Maureen. Right now my “senior” hormones are driving me to clean out the clutter by going through cupboards, closets and the garage to rid those places of items long left unused and unloved.

    Judi

Leave a Reply

Subscribe