In A Year Of Upheaval, Anxiety About The Election Can Feel Overwhelming, Especially If You’re Pregnant
As the November election nears, many of my patients who are pregnant, as well as their partners, are struggling with a lot of anxiety. Anxiety during pregnancy, otherwise known as perinatal anxiety, isn’t unusual and is something many face. However this year, the anxiety may come from more than perinatal anxiety. It might be politics.
Perinatal anxiety can look like thoughts that won’t stop or fear-based worries that feel out of control, including continual concerns about miscarriage even though all signs point to a healthy pregnancy or waking up in the middle of the night stressed about work, being able to handle postpartum life, or something going wrong in the delivery like what happened to a friend. With perinatal anxiety, you’re not able to sit with the unknown of pregnancy and instead, go from activity to activity with worry, fear, and anxiousness leading. Perinatal anxiety can also come out in relationships, such as continually planning or running through your to-do list with your partner rather than relaxing together and collaborating on preparing for your new family.
Perinatal anxiety is usually caused by a mix of biology, what is going on in your family before and during pregnancy, and your past and current experiences with conception, pregnancy, and postpartum, as well as your fears about the transition to parenthood or confronting your relationship with yourself, your partner, and your family. Beyond your relationships and experience with maternity, anxiety can also come from what’s happening in the world around you, including politics.
This year in particular, we’re seeing in real time how politics affects our families, our relationships, our communities, and us, as well as experiencing how little control we have other than to vote or advocate. As anger, disbelief, and fear mount, we naturally get anxious. Anxiety is what we reach for when things feel out of control as a protection against fear. And during a year when so much feels unprecedented and out of the ordinary from the COVID-19 pandemic to police brutality to the upcoming election, this anxiety can feel overwhelming, especially if you’ve been pregnant through it.
Because when you’re in the thick of anxiety, particularly when dealing with the day-to-day of pregnancy, it can be hard to see out, I’ve highlighted four reasons why politics can create anxiety during pregnancy and three ways to deal with it:
1. Politics impact us emotionally, both individually and in our relationships.
Politics drive the world we live in and in a sense, most of our experiences are driven by politics. For instance, a family is impacted by the values created together as an individual family, which in itself is a form of politics, as well as the larger policies enacted by the government. When things feel steady politically, we don’t think about politics much. But when things do not, like now, we do.
The tension in our current political climate–safe, relaxed, and progressive versus chaotic, vulnerable, unsafe, and under-protected–impacts our families and us emotionally. Elections can feel bigger because they are out of our personal control, which can be anxiety-producing. If you don’t vote for Trump, it can feel massive and overwhelming for pregnant people and couples to think about him becoming president again. Couples who disagree about politics can also see it come in the middle of their relationship in a way that can feel bigger than the love they have for each other. If there’s a political disagreement, sometimes partners can feel despondent like they don’t know the future of their relationship, family, or baby.
2. Pregnancy can make you acutely aware of what is changing–in your body, your family, and in politics.
When you are pregnant, your body is actively growing and changing. This physical change can make you not only more aware of the transition that’s going to happen within your family, but also more aware of the outside world, which becomes bigger than just you and your partner. With this often comes a hyper-awareness of how this or that candidate or policy will affect your life, the life of your baby, and your family’s life. The realization that your kid will live in the result of the 2020 election–no matter the outcome–can create anxiety, particularly since Biden and Trump seem to represent such starkly different possible realities. You may wonder: “Are we going to have a president who won’t denounce white supremacy? Or who still won’t insist on masks to keep us safe from COVID-19?”
3. Pregnancy means dealing with lots of unknowns and the election can add to this uncertainty.
Beyond the growth of pregnancy, we also deal with a significant amount of the unknown when pregnant. No matter if you’re expecting your first baby or another baby, you’re holding a lot of uncertainty. You’re experiencing what your body is going to do during this pregnancy for the first time, whether it goes smoothly or you need some support or help. In a sense, when pregnant, we trust what’s going to happen (with our body, the pregnancy, the baby, the delivery, and our family) because we choose to. And that’s hard work emotionally. Not knowing can cause great anxiety.
This typical sense of the unknown during pregnancy can feel overwhelming when looking at the uncertainty of an election. I think many of us watched the first presidential debate with a sense of shock. It felt like a completely different look for politics and was unsettling. When our climate is fear-based or fraught with uncertainty, this can really heighten a pregnant individual or couple’s anxiety and consideration of the unknown. For example, if you both vote for Biden and Trump wins, you’ll have to figure out how to encounter family that voted differently, all with a new baby. You’ll also have to deal with the unknown of what life for your family will look like with four more years of Trump or his policies, including, for instance, environmental policies that continue to be under-met.
4. Most parents worry about their child’s (or children’s) future, but when we throw in the political future, it can seem untenable.
We start to think ahead to our kid’s future during pregnancy–where they’ll grow up, where they’ll go to daycare or preschool, how they’ll live, etc. Our country is in a massive transition currently and this can make a pregnant person or couple worry about what the world will look like in one, five, or ten years for their kid. When so much is up in the air, we can get stuck in fearing the future and this can come up as anxiety. We worry that the future won’t be the same (or will be) or it won’t get better. Just taking this baby to delivery is stressful enough without thinking: Will I be able to stay in NYC? Will my kid be safe? Will I be safe? Will the anti-racism movement be able to make policy changes? Will rights be the same if I have a girl and Amy Coney Barrett gets appointed to the Supreme Court?
In some respects, this is how it always is during the transition of leaders–we don’t know what the next layout will be. But this year, when you don’t know where politics is headed or if you worry it’ll be more restrictive, there’s a real fear that whoever has leadership will impact your family’s future.
What Can You Do?
1. Slow down, recognize how the larger political climate is affecting you emotionally, and let yourself feel these feelings before you figure out what you need.
When I say slow down, I mean really pause to unpack how reading that article, that Reddit feed, that Twitter thread, or that Facebook post made you feel. What did it bring up? How is it activating or increasing your anxiety? Don’t get lost in the emotional process, but know that it’s normal to feel anxious right now as a person who is pregnant. It’s also important when you slow down to also make space for other emotions that the anxiety may be overriding such as anger, sadness, past trauma, shame, grief, etc. These emotions may not be as easily recognizable as anxiety, but they deserve the same attention, space, and grounding.
As you discover what feelings are coming up, then you can figure out what your needs are during both this election and during pregnancy. This is the control you have. You may need to talk, lean on the people you trust, like a friend who will keep you grounded, or recognize that you do have power in how you approach your own personal health, your relationships, your job, etc.
2. For couples, hold each other in processing, even in disagreement.
In therapy with couples who are expecting, I often tell them to hold each other in processing the political climate by asking each other questions about what they’re seeing and how they’re feeling about the election, while letting the other partner have a chance to talk. It’s key to be curious about how it’s affecting each other rather than moving immediately to action or debate. Really see a partner’s fear or anxiety and give them some space to be heard.
Even if you agree, politics can be a fraught topic in relationships and it can be easy to get mean. For couples that tend to see these discussions go off the rails, they may want to approach this a bit more formally. Plan a time you want to talk and lay out explicitly that you want to listen rather than win everyone over. Say, “I want to explain how I see it. We need to disagree in order to figure out how to hold each other in this rather than tear each other down.” Even if you still disagree, you can do so in a fuller, more considered way rather than taking shots. And this can also be a good way to learn how to disagree in preparation for when you have a baby and need to process complicated co-parenting decisions together.
3. Talk about it in therapy in order to not let the anxiety lead.
Anxiety affects how we lead in other parts of our lives, but once we know where it comes from, then we can process it, give it space, and not allow it to lead. Anxiety is a poor leader and when it leads, we tend to make rushed, hurried, or fearful choices that sometimes we regret. It’s not always easy to pinpoint what is triggering anxiety, which is when therapy can step in, including about politics. After the 2016 election, I helped so many patients through grief, anxiety, and anger related to the election outcome.
Not knowing and learning how to not know are a big part of therapy. And with the uncertainty of the election, mirroring the many unknowns during pregnancy, therapy can be a place where we can slow down and unpack the anxiety, as well as what it might mean for your and your new family’s future. We can ground it in the many complexities of our world, political climate, and your own historical and current experiences. Then, you can see what moves you want to make that are not led by anxiety, but based on what is best for your own growth as a future parent.