Living large

Three bigger-than-average Ottawa families share how they make it all work

The Castonguay family.

Ottawa’s Castonguay Family


When Melissa Ferland’s first child was born, her midwife sat on her bed with Ferland’s husband and they jokingly predicted how the births of the couple’s next four kids would go.

“I told them I hoped they’d be having these children together, because I was not going to have five kids,” Ferland remembers. “As the days passed though, I discovered I really loved being a parent, and we thought we would have four or five kids. In the end we decided to go for the fifth.”

These days, Ferland, 42, who runs a home daycare, and her husband, Liam McCarthy, 45 and a coordinator for negotiations for the PSAC, along with their children, Abigael, 13, Agnes, 11, Emmett, 9, Desmond, 6 and Maeve, 2, are “never bored and always loved.  

“Watching these five different personalities grow is extremely rewarding,” says Ferland. “It’s also a really nice perspective, parenting a teen and a toddler at the same time. I’m able to appreciate that the tantrum phase is actually a really fleeting season; with my first I feared it would last forever.”

Like Ferland, Natalie Castonguay, 38, and her husband, Philip, 39, can attest that there are many pros of having a large family, but the biggest reason is that there is lots of love to go around. “There is always someone there,” Castonguay says. “Whether it’s a hug, help with chores, someone to talk to or play with… the kids (and us) always have someone around.”

Both Castonguay and her husband have parents that came from large families. “My dad has 12 siblings and Phil’s dad has nine,” explains Castonguay, a part-time pediatric emergency registered nurse (her husband is an engineer for National Defence). “We wanted our children (Félix, 9; Céleste, 8; Bruno, 7; Adèle, 6; and Micah, 4) to experience the support and closeness we grew up with.”

Mom of six Melissa Dimock also loves the “hustle and bustle of big families.”

“There’s always someone interested in connecting when you want or need to connect with someone, and many loving hands to catch you if you fall,” says Dimock, a 43-year-old at-home parent and part-time sales associate. “Many hands make light work when it comes to getting stuff done, or helping with younger children.” The wide age spread – Isaac is 17; Solomon, 15; Obediah, 9; Violet, 4; Juniper, 2 and Thora is just over one month old – also means that Dimock and her husband, Alan McKay, 52, as parents, get to connect on different levels with their kids.  “Teens need and want different things than preschoolers,” she says.

Dimock says her family doesn’t feel large, but rather, “just felt right. It would feel much larger if the kids were spaced more closely,” she says.

Just ask Castonguay.

With five children in five years, she and her husband sometimes get asked if they have multiples.

“I usually laugh it off saying, ‘no multiples, just lots of babies, one after the other.’”

According to Statistics Canada, the average size of Canadian households has shrunk in the last 15 years. The average number of people per family in Canada was 2.9 in 2016 – down from three in 2003 – and has remained stable since. This may be one of the reasons why larger families sometimes draw second glances from curious onlookers.

For Ferland, the comments started when they only had three children, but makes it clear that she’s not annoyed at questions or comments on the size of her family – she believes that people are just looking to connect, and that most people are quite well meaning.

“We heard a lot of ‘wow, you have your hands full,’ she says. “I’m always out and about with my daycare kids during the day while my older four are at school, and it always makes me smile when folks comment on my little daycare brood. Having three or four toddlers is like a vacation compared to when my kids are all home.”

Dimock has also heard it all over the years.

“My favourite is when someone assumes [that] I’m ‘religious,’ as though that’s the only reason people have big families,” she says. “We’ve also had people assume we are a blended family.

“What is hurtful is when people feel it’s OK to ask if [the children] were ‘accidents.’ As someone with a long history of fertility issues, I will often say several of them were surprises (because they were, in that we didn’t expect it to happen), but every single one has been hoped for, wanted, and loved,” she says.

When it comes to making it work, all the families agreed that it takes creativity and resourcefulness.

The Castonguays live simply. “Pretty much all clothes [and] footwear are hand-me-downs (adults and kids). We shop sales, eat simple and very seldom out, [and] limit activities to budget friendly ones. We are DIY kind of people,” she says, adding that her husband takes care of their own renovations and repairs. 

Dimock also looks for budget-friendly extracurricular options, and plans their meals carefully. “We’ve become good at stretching meals and making the most out of bulk purchases,” she says.

As for homes, not all larger families live in sprawling houses. Ferland’s family, for example, has a small house in a walkable neighbourhood – important to them, as they only have one car. With five kids and a dog in a small three-bedroom semi-detached home, “it’s tight, but it works just fine,” Ferland says. “My grandmother raised my dad and his 10 siblings in a farmhouse, and they are all close friends as adults. I hope the same for my kids. I would love to have a bigger house with a fourth bedroom, but the walkability of our current neighbourhood and the community our family has developed here currently trump that wish,” she says.

Until recently, Dimock and her family were living in approximately 1,000 square feet of living space in Hintonburg.

“It was tight, but somehow we made it work. We were always surprised at how everyone would find their own little private spot to hang out, even in such a tiny space,” she says. “Kids shared rooms and everything was very cozy, but last summer I realized I just couldn’t cope with the logistic challenges of seven people and one bathroom. We have moved out of the city to a larger home in the Kemptville area with more bathrooms – it feels a bit too big after living in smaller quarters for 18 years, but the extra bathrooms and bedrooms have been nice and the kids are adjusting to more space.” Moving further from Ottawa’s core has posed new logistical challenges. When they were in Hintonburg, the older kids got themselves to and from their own activities the majority of the time. “This has changed a bit since moving, but they’re still largely in charge of figuring out their own travel solutions with help from us as needed. They’ve fostered strong streaks of independence,” Dimock says.

Space is also “at a premium” for the Castonguays, who live in a modest three-bedroom house, with the girls sharing one room and the boys sharing another. “They each have a dresser with a ‘special’ drawer,” says Castonguay, and “that drawer contains the items they don’t want to share or souvenirs they don’t want others to touch. That is their space and everyone respects that. Otherwise, when they need time apart from each other, we split them up by areas of the house – bedrooms, living room, kitchen, basement, porch.”

Also surprisingly, none of the families Parenting Times spoke to employ regular outside help for their children.

“We’ve had sitters for the kids fewer than 10 times – ever,” says Dimock. “We do have a couple of wonderful family friends who have helped out in a pinch, when needed. Now that our older kids are of babysitting age themselves, we have far less need of sitters, and they’re happy to watch the siblings so we can get out for a restaurant meal, date, etc.”

As for work, it helps that Dimock has a very understanding employer. For the past 10 years, she counts herself as fortunate enough to work in a local, independent shop that allows her to bring her nurslings to work with her. “This has enabled me to work outside the house easily,” she says. “This childcare flexibility was incredibly important and is deeply appreciated… when I return to work after this baby, she will be coming with me for the first year as well.”

Both Dimock and Ferland have older children who look after the younger ones, and Ferland also has a great community of friends, including cousins in the neighbourhood, who she can rely on in a pinch.

“My teenagers constantly impress me with how good they are with their younger brother and sisters,” Dimock says. “One of them, in particular, gets requested for bedtime duty by his little sisters – they’d often rather have him do bedtime than us parents. I feel having the younger ones constantly underfoot has encouraged them to develop an emotional maturity that not all of their peers have – it’s been wonderful to watch.”

Castonguay’s older children are great at helping out, she says. They enjoy reading books to their younger siblings and helping with homework or chores. “The few times they don’t want to help, we respect that and step in.”

Despite the extra hands, it’s not always easy.

Ferland describes it like this: “My husband recently said it’s like having five porcelain plates in the air at all times. Somebody is going to have a crash landing at any given moment, and we don’t know which, and we’ll have to figure out how to mend and repair the hurt feelings. We are on problem management alert several hours of the day.”

Other challenges unique to large families include transportation – shuttling kids around to their activities and commitments when they far outnumber the parents – and travel.  

“Few hotels will accommodate us, and because our minivan is full of kids, we can’t invite a friend to come along if we are all going out together,” says Ferland. “We can’t really afford to travel with them via plane, so our vacations are limited to spots that are ‘road-trippable.’ We’d love a larger vehicle, but that’s cost prohibitive for us right now.”

Dimock, who drives a Suburban, agrees. “Having a vehicle big enough to fit everyone is an additional expense that often gets forgotten.”

Having a large family means plans need to be made in advance. “Restaurants can’t accommodate us on the fly,” says Castonguay. “We can’t just show up at someone’s house since there are quite a few of us. We don’t get invited over to people’s houses either. Up until recently, I couldn’t take the kids swimming at the city pool since we didn’t meet ratios.”

In the long run, these are all minor inconveniences. The women all agree that the benefits of having a large family far outweigh the costs.

While Dimock’s kids get ample opportunity to practice patience, nurturing, mentoring and asking each other for help, Ferland’s children have all benefitted as well – the kids help each other with everything from school work to confidence, and have even attended the birth of a sibling. Also, the children are good at sharing, and “appear to be developing into thoughtful and empathetic people,” she says.

And that’s what it’s all about.