Empty Nesters Find New Beginning in Provence

by Susan Crandell

One couple parlayed their love of France into a small business, running retreats in a picturesque corner of the French Alps.

Barbara and Doug’s Lesson: Getting away from the familiar references of home can encourage creative thinking, giving you a fresh perspective on life.

Empty Nest

Barbara and Doug Babkirk were having dinner one night six years ago at their Tudor-style house tucked into the woods in Cumberland, Maine. They were both 48, and Kate, their only child and the linchpin of their lives, had just left for college in Connecticut. She was thriving, but their lives were sputtering. “We were sitting at the table, both feeling a little weepy,” Doug remembers.” I said, ‘Okay, Barbara, we need to get a grip.’”

Barbara knew he was right. “It was very sad when Katie left. My work as a career counselor is very satisfying, and Doug loves his job as an associate dean at U. Maine, but you spend so much energy anticipating a child’s needs, and when you don’t have to do that on a daily basis, it creates a very big hole in your life.” They both realized they needed a new project to energize them.

The French Connection

“You speak French; we both love France and wish we could spend more time there. Why don’t you do a women’s retreat in Provence?” Doug said. Once he’d voiced the idea, Barbara knew it was a natural. “Doug’s mother’s family is French, and I grew up in a Franco-American household, majored in French at college.” But the touchstone was a trip to France they’d made in 1976, when Doug was in grad school. “I’ll never forget getting off the plane,” he says. “We both started crying, there was such a sense of coming home.” Eleven years later, when Kate was seven, Doug took a sabbatical and the family returned to France. “We ended up in Biot, a little village in the south,” Barbara says. “We became fast friends with the owners of the house we rented, and Biot became in our hearts our second home.” The rose-colored villa their friends owned near this 12th-century village on the Côte d’Azur would be perfect for the retreat.

Suddenly, their life was upsizing, not downsizing, as they spread notebooks and brochures across the dining room table. Excitement rose as they brainstormed together, and the idea turned into reality with amazing ease. “We had a ball,” Doug says. “Both of us love to create things.” Barbara would lead the weeklong workshop, helping women determine new directions for their lives, and Doug, who loved to cook, would prepare the meals. The planning went smoothly for these college sweethearts, who sound like twins when they talk about the retreat, echoing not just ideas, but the very phrases they use. “We’ve always served as each other’s mentor/teacher/guide/partner,” Doug says. “Probably why we’ve been together over 30 years.”

They printed up a brochure, Barbara sent it to a couple of colleagues, and—riding the wave of American interest in all things Provençal—nine women signed on for the first retreat in 1998. One woman was about to leave her job, another had divorced and was moving cross-country, a third just needed quiet time to listen to herself. In the mornings, Barbara led workshops on making life changes. “We discussed fears and stereotypes, developed intentions for the week.” In the afternoons, Barbara took the women on sightseeing tours to the local markets, artisan villages, and Mediterranean seacoast towns. Meanwhile, Doug was visiting the market, buying fresh meats and produce for dinner that day. “He’d never cooked for nine people before, and the villa didn’t have enough dinnerware for this crowd. “I felt like Lucille Ball in the chocolate factory episode, trying to keep everything going, washing plates between courses.” At the end of the week, they were exhausted, but they’d learned two important things: The program was a winner, but nine’s too many.

They could have found a cozy B&B in Maine to host the retreat, with a lot less wear and tear. But Barbara and Doug both feel the French connection works not just for them, but for their clients as well. “The Mediterranean culture has a deliberateness that encourages being in the moment,” Barbara says, “and the sensual beauty of the environment elicits an openness that moves the women to insights and ideas.” “The women are totally out of context here—new language, new environment, new people,” Doug adds. “Instead of closing and withdrawing, they open up.”

The Babkirks have conducted retreats annually since 1998, limiting the participants to four or five. Barbara runs the show, an arrangement that is more than fine with her husband: “I’m pretty comfortable with my feminine side. And when I serve the meals, I love to see the reaction of women who aren’t used to being nurtured by a man.” Since that first, oversubscribed session, things have gotten easier.

A Sideline Business -- For the Moment

At the moment, Doug and Barbara are content to continue working at their day jobs. But they anticipate another season of change when Doug becomes eligible for retirement in four years. “We’ve talked about living in France for the spring and fall,” he says. “We’d sell our house of 23 years, find something much simpler, like a condo.” Barbara would do two retreats a year, and offer individual sabbaticals, too.

Doug is part of a circle of men who have gotten together twice a month for 18 years to talk about their experiences. “There were originally nine of us, but as some couples have divorced and other have moved away, we’re now down to four. We talk about job loss, relationships, our kids leaving home, always looking under the story for the spiritual and emotional level.” Given the power of that experience, he’s considered doing a retreat for men. “Men are good at connecting around an activity,” he says, so he’s outlined a program in Provence where they’d swap expertise. “For example, one member of my men’s group is a potter; he could teach in the area where the impressionists hung out. Another is a lawyer; he could talk about dealing with conflict in creative ways.” One thing’s sure: If the men’s workshop does come to fruition, running it won’t be a simple role swap. “Barbara has made it clear she doesn’t want to cook.”

In an organic and almost painless way, this empty-nest remedy has blossomed into a plan for the coming decades of their lives. Barbara says she never suffered reinvention angst. “Once we figured out how we’d pull this off, it felt so right. In fact, the biggest lesson for me every year is to surrender to the moment. I think, I’ve got everything planned so well, and then it doesn’t happen as planned. You have to roll with it.”

Many businesses are launched by dreams of wealth, but there’s no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow in Provence, and that’s just fine with the Babkirks. “The first year, I made a decent amount of money, with nine women,” Barbara says. “Earlier in life earning money was a high priority, but the retreat has come at a time in my life when it’s fine if I don’t make a lot.”

Barbara originally billed the retreat for women at midlife, and most of the participants are in their forties and fifties. “There seems to be a stirring in the second half of life,” she says. “You may not have the whole picture in your mind, but you have a sense that there’s something out there.” Self-examination can be hard sledding, as you come to grips with dreams that aren’t to be. “Maybe you’re not going to be a ballerina, or have the children you thought you’d have. There’s grieving, but there can be reimagining, too.” The women on the retreats are willing to dig in and explore the tough stuff; they’ve taken the first step by signing up. “I often hear women say, ‘Jobs have always fallen into my lap. Now they aren’t anymore.’ They need to figure out a new way of doing their life.” One woman developed a retirement time line and plan; another committed to taking time for herself while caring for ill parents; a third decided to launch a new career. “It’s not looking outside yourself and asking, ‘Where can I fit?’ It’s looking inside and determining who you are.”

Which is exactly how the Provence retreats came about.

Susan Crandell, the former editor of More magazine, is the author of “Thinking About Tomorrow: Reinventing Yourself at Midlife.”

 

Republished with permission of Hachette Book Group. Copyright © 2007 Susan Crandell. All rights reserved.


by Susan Crandell | Friday, April 10, 2009 | Career Change, Retiring Abroad

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