AUGUSTA – With just over five months left in her husband’s term, first lady Karen Baldacci gets asked this question a lot these days.

What’s next?

“I don’t know what we’ll be doing next,” she said during a recent interview. “We don’t have a crystal ball.”

Gov. John Baldacci; his wife, Karen; and their son, Jack, who just completed his freshman year at the University of Maine, first settled into the Blaine House in January 2003. They faced a series of transitions back then: Jack was just 12, and Karen was still teaching kindergarten in the Bangor area.

They made a life in Augusta, with Jack going on to graduate from Cony High School and Karen joining several boards related to children’s issues and reading.

Now, in January, as the governor wraps up eight years in office, the family will encounter another major change.

John Baldacci — a Democrat who has spent more than 30 years in one elected position or another — has said he won’t run for office again.

His wife knocked on wood — the mahogany table in the Blaine House family dining room, to be precise — when she said, “No, he’s not going back to Washington.”

Beyond that, he has options.

“What do former governors do?” she said as the family’s springer spaniels, Sam and Mia, played outside in the yard. “Consulting work, policy work, teach?”

The first lady is trying to prepare for the next transition of their lives, which will officially begin Jan. 5, 2011, when the new governor takes the oath of office.

Neither she nor her husband are near retirement age, with Karen at 48, and the governor at 55.

“We’ve talked about it,” she said. “I think he understands it, but until it actually happens and you experience that, it’s a different matter.”

Unlike former Gov. Angus King and his family, the Baldaccis don’t plan to travel the country in a recreational vehicle after he leaves office. But they will likely spend a few weeks in Florida — where Karen Baldacci has family — to give the new governor time to get settled in, she said.

The next transition in their lives will be just as big as, but different from, the great changes they lived through when the family first moved into the Blaine House.

For the first lady in particular, there were major changes on the horizon. Her husband had been a Bangor city councilor, a state senator and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives — none of which required her to play a particularly public role.

“When you become the wife of a governor, it’s different,” she said. “You are no longer able to fade into the background. People notice what you say, what you do, where you go, what you wear.”

Baldacci decided to focus on the possibilities of what she could do while first lady rather than worry about the new expectations placed on the spouse of a governor.

“You can use it as a chance to focus on issues that mean something to you and make a difference,” she said. “It takes four years to figure it out and in the next four years, you really hit your stride.”

To that end, she points to her work on issues involving children as ways she hopes she made a difference in the state.

“Looking back, what is it you feel you’ve done or had a major part of?” she said. “Probably Educare, the national effort to bring a quality early-care and education center to Maine.”

In fact, Baldacci took the unusual step of testifying before the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee last year to ensure that the money needed to make the project move forward would be made available.

The center is scheduled to open in Waterville in September, she said.

It was a natural fit for the first lady, who continues to hold a teaching certificate in Maine and is a registered dietician.

Baldacci is chairwoman of the Children’s Cabinet — a group of representatives from state agencies that serve children, including the departments of Education and Health and Human Services. The incoming administration will need to determine whether to continue the group, just as Baldacci did seven years ago.

“John asked me to attend a meeting to determine why we need this, why is it important,” she said. “It breaks down the silos. There’s more sharing in what needs to be done.”

In the last few years, the group has focused on suicide prevention, dropout rates, child hunger and poverty.

She’s also on the Children’s Growth Council, which focuses on early childhood health and how that relates to the state’s future economic growth.

Baldacci is chairwoman of Maine Reads, which provides a Maine-authored and -illustrated book to all kindergarteners in the state, gives grants to libraries, and organizes the annual Festival of the Book.

On the national level, she is chairwoman of the Leadership to Keep Children Alcohol Free Foundation, which is organized by the National Governors Association.

The NGA meetings are something the governor and first lady attend together.

“I love the networking piece because you can learn what other states are doing,” she said.

When it comes to the Blaine House, Baldacci has focused mostly on improving the grounds, including the construction of a greenhouse, the creation of raised vegetable beds, and herb and cutting gardens.

She said she’ll miss the greenhouse when they move to a house they bought in Holden.

Jack, who’s working a construction job this summer, is staying there now.

The first lady said that while she and the governor often talk about “the year of lasts” — such as the last governors association meeting — Jack has a more optimistic outlook.

“He’ll look at me and say, ‘No, Mom, next year is the year of firsts,’” she said. “We’ll have our first Christmas in the new home.”