In the final weeks of my pregnancy, I nested hard—I cleaned the house with an enthusiasm I haven't felt since, obsessed over bed linens, scrubbed out the fridge and did every scrap of laundry. It was all very unlike me, to be honest. I felt an intense, almost manic urge to organize the home my spouse and I would soon share with our baby.
It felt like a biological drive: I was sure my newfound love of housework was thanks to hormones, but new research suggests the pressure to nest during pregnancy isn't coming from our bodies, but rather from society.
Dr Arianne Shahvisi, a Senior Lecturer in Medical Ethics & Humanities at Brighton and Sussex Medical School, investigated the current body of research on nesting and concluded that the evidence to suggest it's an evolutionary adaptation is weak. She suggests it's actually an adaptation to a society in which housework is still heavily gendered and a time in life when gender pressures intensify.
Basically, Shahvisi found it's not pregnancy hormones that are compelling us to nest, it's our culture, and she suggests that by buying into the myth of nesting as a physiological process we are setting women up to become the default housecleaner in the family.
There is no housework hormone during pregnancy
"While lots of pregnancy books and websites claim that this has a biological cause, there's no scientific evidence for this claim, and it's much more likely that pregnant women feel an urgent need to clean and tidy because the living space needs to be prepared for their new arrival, and as the pregnancy progresses, time is running out," Shahvisi says in a statement to Motherly.
Shahvisi says it's totally normal and rational for pregnant people to want to clean and prep the house before the baby comes, but she says this should not be explained away with unfounded references to hormones or instinct. "Claiming something is biological when there's no evidence for that is dangerous because it feeds the baseless idea that women are made to perform domestic work, and makes limiting gender roles harder to shift," she tells Motherly.
Debunking the myths that make mom the default housekeeper
As Leah Ruppanner, an Associate Professor in Sociology and Co-Director of The Policy Lab, University of Melbourne, points out for The Conversation, Shahvisi's work is "the latest study to shatter our long-held expectation that women are biologically predisposed to do more care work."
As Motherly previously reported, myths about womens' supposed natural ability to handle household chores better are being debunked, and it is about time. A 2019 study published in PLOS One upended previous research that suggested women are super multitaskers and found that the brains of women and men are equally strained by multitasking—women just multitask more because they feel they have to.
And in research published last year, Ruppanner and her colleagues proved that men are not less attuned to messes or "dirt blind." Ruppaner's research proved that men see messes just as much as women do, but our society just doesn't judge men as harshly for being messy. Women are held to higher standards when it comes to keeping a clean home. Shahvisi's research shines a spotlight on this by showing that nesting isn't a symptom of pregnancy but a symptom of a society in which women are expected to do the lion's share of housework, even during the perinatal period.
"The problem is that society puts a lot of unreasonable pressure on women already to have clean and tidy homes, and with the additional social expectations during pregnancy, this can easily begin to feel unmanageable," says Shahvisi, who encourages couples and co-parents to discuss domestic responsibilities before and during pregnancy so that one individual isn't left doing it all.
"It's important that non-pregnant partners and other family members step up and make sure they're doing their share, so that no one is experiencing an unfair burden. This is particularly true for women with male partners, since the data tells us that men often don't do their share of housework or household management. Households should talk collectively about what's needed ahead of the birth of a child, and make sure that the work is distributed fairly and no-one is under undue pressure," Shahvisi explains.
The data on dads and the division of labor
Shahvisi is not shading men when she references the data, she's simply highlighting the stats and another recently debunked myth: People often think that married moms have a partner who can pick up some of the slack but research shows that moms who are married to men actually spend more time on chores and get less sleep than single moms.
"The idea that a mother does more housework when she has a partner or spouse may sound counterintuitive, but it's the reality in most American households," says demographer Linda Jacobsen, vice president of U.S. Programs at Population Reference Bureau (PRB). "What we don't know is why mothers feel compelled to do more housework when there's a man in the house."
Perhaps the same societal pressures that spur pregnant women to nest and make people judge women more harshly when it comes to cleaning compel married mothers to work even harder than those who are uncoupled—and that's why Shahvisi and other experts urge moms who feel the urge to nest to talk to their partners.
"The pressure of being a good parent and the pressure of having a good, well-run, clean house—that pressure's on women," Claire M. Kamp Dush, Ph.D., an associate professor of human sciences at The Ohio State University and co-author of the New Parents Project previously told Motherly. "Even so when children are first born, [moms are] managing all of this workload."
Kamp Dush recommends mothers-to-be start having conversations with their partner parent about how household responsibilities and care work will be divided. Many dads want to be equal partners and parents, but in a society that gives men a pass on cleaning and paints women as hardwired for housework, it's easy for dads (even those who are very well-meaning) to do less than their partners do.
Gender equality is not a one-way street
As Christin Munsch, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut, recently told USA Today, most millennial men say they're for gender equality, and are in favor of women occupying roles and spaces traditionally thought of as masculine, but they're not as keen to take on roles typically defined as female.
"On some level, they believe that they want to be these good feminist men that share housework and responsibilities," Munsch told USA Today's Adrianna Rodriguez. "But I think when all that is said and done and it comes to practice on the day-to-day basis, there's a reason why it's not implemented."
The reason is our cultural devaluation of care work. Our society stigmatizes care work and isn't incentivizing fathers to be equal partners. We know that most fathers want to take paternity leave but don't because the stigma and financial loss are too great. We need paid parental leave policies that recognize that in dual-parent households either parent should be designated as the "primary caregiver" and a father's parental leave should not come at the expense of his partner's.
A growing body of research proves that when fathers are able to take paternity leave there is a lasting impact on the gender division of labor in the household. A study out of Cornell examined the impact of Quebec's Parental Insurance Plan (a scheme in which fathers get paid leave that can't be transferred to the mother, something that resulted in the normalization of paternity leave in the province). The research shows that having that leave changed the gender dynamics in Quebec families—even long after the leave was over dads were doing about 23% more housework.
"[T]he persistence of the change over time was striking. If you intervene at this critical time, when parents are trying to assign household roles for the first time, you establish more gender-neutral habits. And they stick," the author of the Quebec research, Ankita Patnaik, told the Washington Post.
There is no evidence to support third-trimester nesting as having a biological cause or that women are just hardwired for housework, but there is a ton of evidence to support that societal expectations play a huge factor in the division of housework in heterosexual relationships.
If you are feeling the urge to nest right now mama, please know that like Shahvisi says, that is a totally normal and rational response to pregnancy.
What is not rational is for all the responsibility to be on you, and it is time that our society accepts that. Maybe instead of pushing the narrative of mothers as natural nesters, we should be giving dads the opportunity to nest, too. If you're in nesting mode and feeling overwhelmed talk to your partner about how they can help you now and in the future.