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A white, two story cottage with grass and a retaining wall in front of it
Bloom Blog

An au pair and a cottage are part of a family's care plan for their son

By Louise Kinross

John Cooper lives with his wife Celia and children James, 11, and Claire, 9, on the edge of their organic farm in Winterville, Georgia. Celia runs the farm and John is a partner in a family investment company, working from an office at the farm. James has an undiagnosed condition and epilepsy and autism. We first interviewed John in 2020. Since then, the family embarked on a new adventure. They built a 1,150-square-foot cottage on their property with an apartment upstairs and a ground floor designed for school and therapy. They also hired Antonia, an au pair from East Germany. We spoke about the rationale and how things worked out.

BLOOM: Why did you consider an au pair?

John Cooper: For years we relied on local caregivers, almost exclusively from the University of Georgia, which is 10 minutes from our house. It has programs like occupational therapy, physiotherapy and speech therapy, and we've had wonderful caregivers from there. But it's a semester by semester schedule. Just as you're getting accustomed to someone and they're doing great, their semester is over or they're graduating.

James was having a rotating cast of folks come through his life. He establishes rapport with people very slowly, but very strongly. Right when they were getting to be buddies, and knowing each other, that person was gone. 

The second thing is that while we don't rely on our au pair for after hours, in case of a crisis where we have to take James to the ER, we liked the idea that another adult could be here to help out with our daughter, Claire. We also thought having an au pair would be fun for Claire. If James isn't doing well and we're caring for him, Claire can go off and do a game or activity with the au pair.

Third, we really liked the idea of a cultural exchange. 

BLOOM: What's the difference in cost when hiring an au pair vs. paying hourly for a support worker?

John Cooper: You're going to spend a little bit less when you pay someone hourly, but not a lot less. During COVID we were spending an incredible amount on caregivers, approaching US$30,000. The agency and weekly au pair fees are around US$22,000 a year, but there are a lot of extraneous costs that add up. There's food and gas in the car and insurance. Total costs for an au pair will exceed US$30,000.

The other huge advantage of having an au pair is that they don't typically take breaks during school holidays. With local caregivers, when you most need them during holidays, they would be gone.

The au pair gets plenty of breaks, but they become more part of the family. They get to know your child much more deeply than if they were just there for work. They also see you at your most vulnerable and at your happiest.

BLOOM: How did you get the idea to build a small home on your property?

John Cooper: We have a modest home on the edge of our farm. James is part of the Hospital Homebound program, receiving school services at home. Before COVID, we set up an in-home school and therapy area for James, but when both kids were at home during the pandemic, we were literally falling over ourselves. There wasn't enough space.

We thought about building a tiny school room. At the same time, Celia's cousin had an au pair to help with their two children, and it was a good experience and they suggested we should consider it. It didn't strike us as something that would be suitable for us, because James has special needs and we don't have a big fancy house.

But then as we were thinking about the school room, we thought we're always going to need a caregiver for James. Maybe the dream is we have a little two-storey cottage and the upstairs would be where the caregiver lives, and the downstairs would be the school area. And maybe the building could be a phenomenal place for James down the road to establish some living independently from us.

At the same time, my brother and I sold a portion of our immigration consulting company and Celia's family came together and decided they wanted to help us fund this, which was generous beyond words. So we had the financial wherewithal to build this cottage. 

BLOOM: Can you describe the inside of the cottage?

John Cooper: Upstairs is an apartment with a private bathroom, a bedroom with a big closet, a full kitchen, and its own laundry. It's got everything you need, and if you're 20-years-old, it's a dream. Downstairs there's a school therapy room and we also added a full bathroom, thinking James might eventually live there when he grew up.

Initially, we were scrambling around, looking at plans on a budget, talking to builders, but feeling we didn't really know what we were doing. 

One of my dear friends growing up is a highly regarded architect in South Carolina and I called him up and explained what we were trying to do. He said 'I know exactly what you need, give me the weekend to sketch something and I'll come back, with no obligation, and you can look at it.' Sure enough, he brought up things we hadn't thought about. We eventually hired him to design it and draw up the plans and help with the whole project.

We were happy we took that step back and planned it all out, planning every foot. We had a big picture, but the architect really helped us put pen to paper to maximize the space. 

BLOOM: What did it cost?

John Cooper: We definitely overshot our original budget, which was US$200,000. Mainly due to things like installing the septic tank, getting gas and power to the house, and we did an ornamental retaining wall. We spent about US$250,000 in the end, but it's a really well built house with good materials that will have many uses over the years.

BLOOM: What were the main challenges of building the cottage?

John Cooper: In most municipalities they're not crazy about having two single family homes on one lot. Many people do that and use one as a short-term rental for Airbnb. So it was a bit of a struggle for us to get the zoning, but we were able to get permission within our more rural land use area.

We also made the argument that this was going to be for a caregiver, and we weren't going to be using it commercially. We argued that our lot was essentially going to be used by one family.

There was a question about whether it had to be connected to our main house, which we didn't want, because we wanted a sense of physical separation. Thankfully, we made an appeal which took some phone calls and talking with the local building department, and we got the approval.

I would recommend to other families that they research the zoning beforehand. 

Our cottage did cost more and took longer than we expected but that's pretty typical. Some of it was our doing because we wanted to take our time to get it right, and the project grew in scope as we thought about future uses for James.

BLOOM: When did your first au pair arrive and how did you find her?

John Cooper: Her name is Antonia, and she came last August from East Germany. We used the oldest company in the United States called Au Pair in America. There is a similar company in Canada. You sign up as the host family and you write a letter to prospective candidates that gives a sense of who your family is and send pictures. 

It's fairly easy to place an au pair in a neurotypical family, but it's more challenging to find a match when your child has special needs. There are lots of candidates to look at, but a smaller group agree to work with a child with disabilities. Keep in mind, too, that many of the prospective au pairs will have some limited experience working with children with disabilities, while others just express a willingness to provide care.

After you sign up and get approved, someone comes to your house and checks that you have a private room and at least a shared bathroom and that it meets their standards. Then you can look at the videos and essays that candidates have sent for host families and set up Skype or What's App calls. Eventually, of course, you introduce your children as well.

It's a bit like a dating app and I promise you I've never felt so self-conscious about how our house looked. We decided to just put ourselves out there to say this is who we are.

We saw Antonia and she seemed perfect, so I messaged her and we did a video call with the whole family. Antonia had a little experience working with a child with autism. She was great in our call and ready to take on the job, so we made our match. She went to the U.S. Consulate in Germany to get her Visa approved and the au-pair agency made all the travel plans. In August I picked her up at the airport and showed her the new cottage and settled her in. Celia did pretty intensive training with Antonia for about two weeks, and then she was on her own.

BLOOM: What were her general duties and hours?

John Cooper: The maximum hours allowed are 45 hours per week. Antonia spends about 70 per cent of her time with James and about 30 per cent with Claire. She works primarily from 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. She picks up James from his ABA therapy clinic at noon and takes him on outings every afternoon in the community. She'll give him a snack and take him to the restroom. She sometimes picks up Claire from school and takes her to after-school activities.

Antonia also takes James to his horse riding on Wednesday mornings. They went last week and the staff there were raving about Antonia and how good she is with James. So she's established a rapport not only with James, but with his teachers and therapists.

Antonia has one weekend off a month, and a day and a half off each week. She also has two weeks' paid vacation.

On thing I should mention is that having an au pair is a bit like having a teenage cousin move in with you. She's 19, and she's incredibly mature and an adult in many ways. But in other ways I feel there's still some parenting that goes on, and I feel responsible for her wellbeing. You want her to be safe, and to have a good experience.

Antonia always steps up to the plate and does what's required of her, but if she's out driving at a late hour I worry about her. It's like having any other human being who moves in and tries to become part of the family. We all have our good days and our bad days and we may get snippy on some days and have wonderful times on others.

My advice to others looking for an au pair is to make sure you have the right match. Don't rush in the process. Also, don't think you have to have a fancy house. You need space in the house for them, but you don't need to be somebody of great means, beyond the ability to cover the annual expenses. 

BLOOM: What kind of relationship did Antonia develop with James?

John Cooper: She's very steady, very stable, very patient and developed a very good relationship with him. She's a very low-key personality. I was talking to her this past weekend about what she thinks is the most important trait for an au pair, as we will be looking for someone to replace her when she leaves in August. She said patience. 

Caring for James is difficult. He's mobile and really active throughout the day and very opinionated on what he's going to do and what's next in the order of the schedule. You have to have tremendous patience and that is her greatest attribute. She's very observant of him too. She obviously really cares about him. It took a while for James to warm up. James is not a run up and give you a hug kind of guy. It was a slow warming up, and suddenly a couple of months down the road a strong rapport is built and he's counting on you to be there. 

BLOOM: You mentioned that this had been a difficult year because James developed some new seizures.

John Cooper: Yes, these were myoclonic jerks that were very pronounced, where he would go flying out of his chair onto the floor. He was having 12 to 15 a day. He was losing some skills, which was really heartbreaking and frustrating for him and us. He was put on a new medication and it worked like magic and they stopped. But then about 30 days later they started creeping back. We've adjusted the meds and he's better now, but I'm still holding my breath a bit. 

BLOOM: Would you say that you have more mental space as a result of having an au pair? Or are you still just trying to cope with everything on your plate?

John Cooper: This has been a really hard year. We had this dream that we would get an au pair and suddenly we'd be taking more vacations and sleeping in more, and it hasn't exactly transpired that way. But there are huge benefits.

For example, my wife Celia had her very elderly grandmother pass away in Nova Scotia. She was really close with her and the whole family was getting together. Before having an au pair, it wouldn't have been feasible for Celia to make that trip, because one person couldn't stay home with James alone. But because Antonia was here, Celia was able to go. So having an au pair doesn't swing the door wide open, but it cracks the door open for things that you otherwise couldn't do.

John Cooper would be happy to share details on their experiences with hiring an au pair, as well as the actual plans of their cottage, or to answer any questions another family may have. You can e-mail him at this interview? Sign up for our monthly BLOOM e-letter, follow @LouiseKinross on Twitter, or watch our A Family Like Mine video series. Photo below of James and Antonia.