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THE HUMAN CONDITION : A New Life Heats Fervor for Order in the Nest

August 02, 1993|MARY ANN HOGAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Mother Bird arrives one morning to build a rickety nest in the plum tree.

I see her from the window as I spray the glass, wipe the walls, scrub the doors, polish the brass (ammonia works great), and scrape the linoleum tiles on the kitchen floor (try a toothbrush).

I am not a neatnik by nature.

I am pregnant. And possessed by the late-stage ritual known as nesting, the obsessive need to clean, organize and rearrange everything in sight, to ready the environment for a new life--whether it's a new baby, new career, new home, new phase.

To the nesting dove outside my window, the world is a giant twig to be pecked into place in a plum tree. To the nesting human, the world is a giant mess. So the nester makes it right.

(Note: Buy eight rolls of paper towels . . . three paint scrapers . . . four pounds mozzarella cheese for stuffed zucchini . . .)

The condition is not only obsessive, it's progressive, particularly with mothers-to-be. The closer the baby gets, the more feverish the nesting fervor. As one mother who raised three children puts it: "You know you're ready when you're down on hands and knees at midnight cleaning the floor vents with Q-Tips."

(Note: Pick up four boxes Q-Tips.)

In quieter moments, I wonder: Where did it come from? Is it something only women do or do men nest too? Is pregnancy nesting related to the clean-fuss-organize frenzy of some people, no matter their gender, who can't start building or writing or moving on to the next stage unless their underwear is folded, their ferns watered, their files in order, their slates literally wiped clean? (Frank Lloyd Wright was apparently a pre-sketch fusser; was he nesting over the birth of a drawing?)

*

The progressive nature of nesting is what concerns me this morning as I measure the driveway to see if it's wide enough for a truck.

"What truck?" my husband asks.

"The truck with the guy coming to jackhammer the concrete in the back yard . . . to make way for the lawn."

The male of the species tries not to register alarm. But one thing is clear: This is not someone who has given much thought to jackhammers and shade-resistant dwarf fescue lawn grass and just how it all might one day help his unborn child get into Harvard.

"Are you OK?" he asks, finally.

I tell him about my friend Jackie, also pregnant, who woke up one morning and remodeled her kitchen. As she describes it: "It's like being on a runaway train. I spent the weekend up on a ladder stenciling dancing chili peppers across the kitchen walls. My husband just rolled his eyes."

The dove in the plum tree. Dancing chili peppers. Jackhammers. Incredulous husbands. It's all starting to make sense.

While our Mother Bird reminds us of our inextricable link to the natural world, there is Father Bird--the one who will never truly understand the wisdom of waddling downstairs at 2 a.m. to check a strange smell that may be coming from the freezer, then spending the next 45 minutes scouring ice trays and repositioning bags of frozen peas.

Jackie reassures me that I'm not losing my grip.

Oh?

Here come the contractors. One to fix the sewer line; one to do the stairwell carpeting; one to rewire the porch lights and hang the dusty chandelier . . .

(Note: Hit the 3-for-1 geranium sale and hang flower baskets on back porch.)

*

The wind is unseasonably high when I hang the geraniums. I worry about the Mother Bird in her rickety nest, the bird-world equivalent of clapboard and cheap aluminum siding.

"Do you think she needs help?" I ask, eyeing the ladder.

"Quit nesting all over the Mother Bird," my husband says. "She knows what she's doing."

He's right. The creatures that don't nest--like horses, cows and rhinos--just don't. Those with relatively helpless young--like mice, dogs, giant pandas, most birds and primates--do.

And they know exactly what they're doing and why. Even the Australian brush turkey, who builds a compost heap around her eggs to incubate them. (Mother Turkey pokes her head into the mound to check the temperature, sort of like Betty Crocker checking the marble fudge cake.)

"A bird isn't going to do too much that doesn't benefit herself or her young," says David Rimlinger, curator of birds at the San Diego Zoo.

No dancing chili peppers on the walls of her nest. Still, in its way, a bird goes into a frenzy. "Once she starts," Rimlinger says, "it's go, go, go , until the nest is complete."

When humans inherited nesting, behaviorists say, we got the go, go, go part, but didn't quite get the specific function part. It's possible, of course, that early humans nested in the corner of the cave, weaving saber-toothed tiger skins into cradle padding, and their ancestors actually built nests in trees.

When did it all become hazardous to people's health, to say nothing of their credit cards? How in the evolutionary scheme of things did we get from twigs to jackhammers?

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