With Her Retirement, GPS Co-Founder Annette Cycon Reflects On Her Career

“Speaking the truth is a revolutionary act.” is a phrase that Annette Cycon, co-founder of both MotherWoman and GPS Group Peer Support (GPS), has been saying and promoting for decades.

“When people speak the truth of what they are living, both they, and the people around them, are changed. All it takes is one person to be brave enough to speak their truth and a ripple effect of change starts to happen,” said Cycon.

Annette Cycon was that person.

Although she was a social worker, a child and family therapist and had all her ducks in a row, when she became a mom herself, she was stunned by the reality of motherhood.

“The dominant message was, and still is, that motherhood is wonderful, instinctual, fulfilling and the best time in your life. I loved my daughters with all my heart, but it was not all wonderful, instinctual, fulfilling or the best time in my life,” said Cycon. “It was hard, intense, at times frightening and overwhelming. Since all the media and hype about motherhood was coated in butterflies and bliss, I figured there had to be something wrong with ME.”

But Cycon was not one to shy away from hard things.

She is a daughter of Polish immigrants who barely survived WWII. Her mother was a partisan, who, as a young girl, carried bombs in her backpack past Nazi soldiers. Her grandmother and father escaped a train heading to Auschwitz. Annette was raised in the U.S. to work hard, love hard, and be brave. As a young woman herself, Annette sailed on Tall Ships and inter-island cargo boats for three years, through storms at sea, climbing aloft, changing sails and working her way up from cook to deckhand to first mate.

So, when the experience of motherhood brought her to her knees, she spoke up about it. And when she did, she discovered that she was not alone. In fact, every woman she spoke to reflected the same feelings of anxiety, overwhelm, loss of self, rage, grief, shame, and guilt that she did.

“It was obvious to me that the root of the problem is that, as a society, we are surrounded by messages about motherhood that are unrealistic and unjust. The myth of the “Good Mother” that she is an endless well of giving, patience, calm, love and perfection, is impossible to attain,” said Cycon. “Rather than challenging the system, we take the blame onto ourselves. That’s not right. Raising the next generation is hard enough without laying blame onto mothers who are doing the best they can under impossible circumstances.”

In 1999 she formed MotherWoman, a grassroots organization bringing mothers together to break through these barriers and speak the truth about the reality of motherhood. In 2004 MotherWoman became a non-profit and with her then co-leader, Gabrielli LaChiara, led groups, workshops and retreats for moms all over Western Massachusetts and around Boston.

“It was a movement that took off like wildfire because at that time no one was talking about the paradox that we can love our children while at the same time feel miserable, desperate and alone. Mothers felt heard, validated, empowered and healed from the debilitating messaging that silences us,” said Cycon.

Several years later, in Providence, Rhode Island, Liz Friedman was also speaking the truth of her personal experience of motherhood to build awareness and affect social policy. When she moved to Western MA and met Cycon that’s when the revolution really took off.

Together they led MotherWoman, starting with the Postpartum Support Initiative, which catapulted the mission of MotherWoman nationwide. Friedman and Cycon were, and still are, a force to be reckoned with. For 10 years they developed and led training for community leaders, mental health and medical professionals, and anyone who supported families, educating and bringing awareness to the crisis of postpartum emotional challenges like postpartum depression, anxiety, and psychosis. They were also the first to advocate about the critical social justice and policy issues that negatively impact maternal mental health, such as the lack of paid maternity leave, sick leave, and childcare, which affect low income mothers disproportionately, as well as the reality of systemic racism which contributes to increased mental health complications and maternal mortality for mothers of color.

Cycon and Friedman grew together and over time became leaders in understanding and discussing maternal mental health from a public health and social and racial justice lens. They donned their suits and spoke truth to power in places of influence such as Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and the Massachusetts State House. They partnered with the Massachusetts Child Psychiatry Access Program for Moms (MCPAP for Moms) building community partnerships across disciplines to provide support at every point of entry for every mom across the state of Massachusetts.

They were invited to present their work at national conferences and won awards for Best Practice and Innovation from the American Public Health Association, the American Maternal Child Health Programs, Partners in Perinatal Health and other national associations. They published articles on their work and formed research partnerships with universities and medical institutions.

Former Massachusetts State Rep. Ellen Story, upon learning about this crisis from Cycon and Friedman, formed the Massachusetts Governor’s Commission on Postpartum Depression, which became a model for other states.

Never losing sight of the need for direct support to moms, they began the first support group specifically for moms at risk for, or experiencing, perinatal emotional complications in all of Western Massachusetts, New York, and Vermont. This group ran non-stop for 10 years and was the catalyst for training support group facilitators in other communities, states, and countries. Thus their hallmark Group Facilitator Training was born.

Since 2008 Cycon and Friedman have trained thousands of community leaders, professionals and peers in the structured group model that they developed, across Massachusetts, New Jersey, California, Maine, Washington, California, Montana, Kansas, Arizona, and Nevada. All over the country women were bringing their unique, trauma-informed, empowering and healing group model to mothers in their communities. It was a spectacular time of collaboration, growth and joy.

A highlight of Cycon’s career was meeting with leaders of indigenous women’s health organizations in Guatemala, talking about maternal mental health, trauma, cultural stigma, and teaching them group facilitation.

“Witnessing indigenous community health workers speaking so freely about these realities which are considered taboo and being inspired to create spaces where they could share this liberation with other women was amazing,” Cycon recalled. “Also listening to them translate the group model not only into Spanish but into the local indigenous idioms blew my mind.”

These experiences made it clear to her that the MotherWoman (later GPS) group model’s emphasis on creating courageous spaces where women could share their truths openly was culturally universal, and could be adapted culturally and linguistically. She later presented this work at the Global Health and Innovation Conference at Yale University.

The phenomenal impact of their work prompted a pivotal realization for Cycon and Friedman: this incredible support group model that they had developed and trained over 10 years healed and empowered, not only group members, but the facilitators themselves and their communities. The revolutionary ripple effect of their early vision was too small.

“We had to expand.” said Cycon. “More people beyond those who identified as “mothers” and “women” had to have access to the empowering and healing group experiences we were offering. Men, women, BIPOC, LGBTQIA+ people, youth, people in recovery, first generation college students, people healing from childhood trauma, currently or formerly incarcerated and unhoused people, people newly arrived to the United States, foster and adoptive parents, and others dealing with myriad other challenges all deserve courageous, judgment-free spaces led by members of their own community where they can be heard, valued and grow. So we decided to open up our mission to everybody.”

Thus, GPS was born in 2017 and incorporated in 2018. Cycon and Friedman became business partners.

“It was an incredibly dynamic, creative and powerful time to see the expansion of our vision,” Cycon recalled. “To witness the GPS model create spaces of inclusivity, mutual respect, where each individual was given precious space to speak their truth, to be truly heard and witnessed, and see the transformation not only in the speaker but in the listeners as well. To teach community leaders that creating these kinds of spaces was within their reach and that they could bring GPS back to their communities was extraordinarily gratifying and rewarding.”

So once again, Cycon and Friedman were on the move across the country.

In 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic upended life as we know it, the organization faced an existential crisis when their groups and training could no longer meet in person. Determined to continue serving communities — now facing even greater mental health needs — GPS pivoted to online operations. Cycon admits she was concerned that the lack of in-person interaction would hamper the effectiveness of the GPS experience. But her fear proved to be unfounded.

They started running online GPS support groups within a week of the imposed quarantine and people came from all over the country and abroad seeking support for the fear and chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I spoke to more people in those early months than ever before and it helped me personally get through that really hard time,” Cycon said. “I could see the fruits of our many years of creative labor make a difference in hundreds of people facing an unprecedented global crisis. It gave me hope and renewed sense of purpose.”

Moving all programming online has worked to GPS’s advantage. For starters, online facilitator training has allowed for the training of more facilitators because more attendees can be accommodated online rather than in-person, and the ability to hire remote staff has allowed GPS to assemble a more diverse training team of people from across the country.

“We’re able to hire some of the most brilliant minds from around the country to be co-trainers,” said Cycon. “We do everything online because people can attend from China, Serbia, Ghana, Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, Bolivia, Afghanistan, the Middle East, Poland — and they do. It’s brilliant.”

Just as important, the ability to attend GPS support groups remotely makes them infinitely more accessible to those who need them. “A postpartum parent doesn’t need to get out of bed to attend a group or bundle up a child in January and drive a half hour to attend. A person in early recovery living alone in rural Montana can receive the lifeline of a GPS support group where there are no other resources,” Cycon said.

It’s just increased our ability to expand access across the board,” said Cycon. “GPS is about breaking down barriers to mental health care, especially for those people who would never go to a traditional mental health clinic, or where there are no resources, so that everyone can get the support they deserve, in their own language, community, and with people they trust.”

Cycon, of course, loves that. She also loves knowing that the work GPS is doing now is supporting the health and wellbeing of future generations. In March 2022, Cycon and her husband went to the border of Poland to provide support for Ukrainian refugees displaced by the invasion of Russia. She held babies while mothers found food, bought clothes for elderly, toys and underwear for children and raised enough money to provide shelter and food and support for 100 Roma mothers and children.

“That’s at the heart of this life work for me — knowing that when we support a parent, we’re supporting their children and their grandchildren. When we’re helping someone recover from addiction we’re improving their lives and the lives of the people that they love and who love them,” Cycon said. “When we offer a place where war trauma survivors can connect with each other, we’re helping them to plant their feet in new ground for future generations. Just like my parents did for me. The work we do today will have an impact on people whose names we will never know. This is what has gotten me up every morning for the past 25 years.”