A gallery with a toddler? The fine art of parenting in a Montreal winter

It's cold. You're going stir crazy, and so is your kid. CBC/QWF writer-in-residence Sarah Lolley finds the perfect oasis.

Sarah Lolley discovers the perfect spot for cooped-up parents in an unlikely place

Sarah Lolley and baby Rowan take in art at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. (Kalina Laframboise/CBC)

I was going out of my mind.

It was February, it was bitterly cold, and I was stuck in a third-floor condo with a one-year-old who was literally bouncing off the walls.

We had read all her books. We had played with all her toys. We had pillaged the plastic-container drawer for its mysterious offerings. And I had chased my daughter up and down the hallway in my role of Tickle Monster so many times that I could feel myself losing brain cells.

Every so often, I would catch a glimpse of my haggard reflection in the mirror.

"You have a master's degree in Experimental Medicine," I would remind the exhausted mom I saw. She would nod. Then we would both head off to sing another round of The Wheels on the Bus.

Baby Rowan is on the move, which makes open spaces key to keeping him happy. (Kalina Laframboise/CBC)

But where could we go to blow off steam? Friends' places were out: everyone I knew lived in similarly cramped quarters.

Our local library had a cozy play area we loved, but it also had a self-important monitor whose favourite word, in both French and English, was "SSSSHHHH!!!" And one disastrous trip to the mall made it clear my daughter couldn't handle the amped-up music and lights.

A gallery? With my toddler?

"Have you tried the Musée des Beaux Arts?" asked my stylish friend and fellow mom Jacquie. "It's a great space. And with a membership, you get unlimited access."

A gallery? With my toddler? It seemed ridiculous. But as any new parent can attest, desperation will make us try anything once.

Museums can be a good way for both parents and children to get out during Montreal's cold winters. (Kalina Laframboise/CBC)

So off we went into the howling, frigid world, knotted up in all our winter gear, my daughter kicking her feet against the stroller in cheerful anticipation and me praying to Saint Exodus, patron saint of cooped-up parents, that this would actually work.

I had to try twice to pry the glass gallery door open against the bitter wind but when I finally did, muscling the stroller inside, we were immediately surrounded by calm.

The glass atrium soared above me, lifting my eyes and my spirits. I unzipped my parka and helped my daughter out of her snowsuit. Just shedding our winter clothes in such a vast space was liberating.

"Boobies!" my toddler observed, pointing at a nude.

The special exhibit was crowded with visitors and what I wanted was an open expanse, so I turned the stroller towards the new pavilion that houses some of the permanent collection, entered the elevator and chose a floor at random.

When the elevator doors glided open, we found ourselves alone save for a kindly security guard.

The lighting was bright but soft.

The room was open and calm.

The paintings were up beyond my daughter's reach.

"Okay, kiddo," I told her, unbuckling the straps of the stroller. "Have at it!"

For Sarah Lolley, the museum's low-rise stairs are a winner for her young children. (Kalina Laframboise/CBC)

The toddler appreciates fine art 

Alison giggled with happiness and toddled off, her destination the bench in the middle of the room.

With my daughter occupied, I cast my eyes around. The golden wood floors were devoid of plush toys. The air carried no smell of mashed bananas. Lining the walls was beauty, beauty and yet more beauty.

As Alison circumnavigated the bench, giddy with freedom of movement, I drank in the perfectly composed landscapes, city scenes in vivid colours and thought-provoking portraits.

When the bench had been thoroughly circled, we wandered through the Decorative Arts section, where none of the furniture could be undone with an Allen key, and none of the jewellery was made of macaroni.

Hand in hand, we climbed the low risers of the central staircase, which seemed designed for tiny legs. We even ducked into the special exhibit. "Boobies!" my toddler observed, pointing at a nude.

Sarah Lolley and baby Rowan take in a sculpture at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. (Kalina Laframboise/CBC)

Within an hour, my daughter had spent all her energy. But I was feeling unexpectedly invigorated. The gallery delivered the running space I'd hoped for. But it was also a tonic of serenity and sophistication that I needed more badly than I realized.

As we were leaving, a chic woman with coiffed grey hair saw Alison and clapped her hands together in delight.

"C'est magnifique!" the woman exclaimed. "You know, to see art like this, it's so good for the brain's development!"

"Oh, I agree," I said, tapping my temple. "I don't know what I'd do without it."

Sarah Lolley and baby Rowan take in the space and art at the new pavilion. (Kalina Laframboise/CBC)


Sarah Lolley

2017 CBC/QWF writer-in-residence

Sarah Lolley is a medical writer and essayist who also writes fiction. Her yoga-themed children's picture book, Emily and the Mighty Om, was published in 2014. She has a master's degree in experimental medicine specializing in biomedical ethics from McGill University. Lolley has a passion for cryptic crosswords, and she's a mother of two young children.