Bottling sunshine: Canning teaches mom essential coping skills

When canning, I learned which kitchen set-up, tools and gadgets work for me. Streamlining twin care is the same. Like cooking, you need to throw out the things you don’t find useful, make use of what you’ve got — and try not to feel guilty about it.
Freshed canned pickles are just one example of what Rose Leonard and Alana Brownlee are canning. (Raised From The Bed Farms/Facebook)

I learned to can when my mother-in-law was ill. She had a brain tumor. Things were completely out of our hands. Through her illness, surgeries and untimely death, I learned to put up jam as a distraction.

I began with strawberry batches of sticky red stuff. There were errors, broken jars and burns. I eventually figured it out by myself. There's a focus and rhythm that comes with getting the hot liquid summer out of the field and fridge, into the jar and onto a pantry shelf.

Years later, summertime is when I spend time in a careful dance between salsa, jam or pickling solution. There's a slow wait until winter, the time to crack open the bottle and taste that heat and sunshine again.

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My twins were born in June, so I had to skip canning for a summer. We ate the last of the previous year's jars as we struggled with newborns. My boys rarely slept, fed, got sick, or screamed on the same schedule. I couldn't depend on a two-hour nap time window to get anything done. I had no time to sleep or eat between nursing, the boys' illnesses and diaper changes.

Yet I had endless time, while someone nursed or got his diaper changed, to miss my previous existence. My life seemed completely subsumed in baby goo. I daydreamed about stirring jam pots, complicated recipes, setting the table for dinner parties, or drinking a glass of wine in a leisurely way. Hah.

When I returned to canning, I could only manage if someone visited to help with the babies or if everyone was asleep. Both were rare occurrences. I learned innovative ways of getting food production done. I filled up the shelves again, despite (and not because of!) having twins.

Parenting multiples involves a lot of streamlining and deciding what works — and rejecting what doesn't. (Terri Trembath/CBC)
Many parents focus on making it to the next day, the next meal, the next nap time. If you have multiples (twins, triplets, quads or more), this is even more true. When I was pregnant with twins, I read books on how to manage. Some tips were useful. The multiple birth statistics were more daunting:
  • More multiples are born premature.
  • There are many more risks of illness and developmental delays.
  • There's a higher risk of maternal health complications and mortality.
  • There's a higher risk of divorce.
  • There's a higher risk of domestic violence.
  • There's a higher risk of child abuse.

A household under multiple stresses is one that struggles. While I can't pretend that I have it all down, now that my twins are older, I've reflected on what made it easier. Not everyone has multiples, but many have more than one kid. There are tricks to make it more manageable. 

A recent German study talked about how a parent's happiness level actually goes down (by quite a bit) after the birth of a first child. It shouldn't be a surprise; it's a big change. Unless you have a supportive network of family and friends and great medical care, there's often not enough help to make it easier.

I could say that everything "worked" for me and pretend I've set everything to rights again. That our house works like clockwork, with good cheer thrown in. I'd be lying through my teeth. We've had several illnesses, therapies, surgeries, and have no family nearby to help. It's still a work in progress, years later. Instead of faking the cheer, I learned something different.

Strict schedule

As with the canning process, I figured out what maximized our health and well-being. If jars have to boil for 10 minutes, good golly, we will time it. If we can improve our sleep by cutting out salty foods and adhering to a strict schedule like crazy people? Heck, we'll do it.

When canning, I learned which kitchen set-up, tools and gadgets worked for me. Streamlining twin care was the same. Many well-intentioned tips (meant for a singleton parent) failed to help. Like cooking, you need to throw out the things you don't find useful, make use of what you've got — and try not to feel guilty about it.

None of it makes the time fly by or erases the child-care drudgery. I stop the sinking feeling the German study described by focusing on solving problems. I screen out the clueless comments of well-meaning strangers: "Cherish every moment! They get big so quickly!"

I've learned to micro-focus. Who is hitting his brother? How do I get everyone to stop throwing gravel? Other parents would stare, coffee cup in hand, as I grabbed a twin under each arm and marched over to the double stroller after I'd issued three warnings. Throwing gravel? It's not allowed. In a world where it's just me, alone all day long with twins, the rules matter — because an ER trip might be beyond what we could manage. 

Series of steps

Competent canning is a series of steps. The steps vary according to quantities, ingredients and altitude, but it must be right to keep everyone safe. Safety is important while canning and for safe eating afterwards.

Competent parenting is also a series of steps. Everyone personalizes and varies the steps, but if you want healthy, happy and functional children at the end? Some things have to be done right to stay safe while maintaining parental sanity.

It's the dance I recognized from canning — focusing and thinking about the next step. It's a lineup of tasks and a little flexibility to keep it all from crushing us. It's getting to the next meal, snack and nap time in one piece. It's bringing two different balls to the park, so everyone kicks his own.

The preserves I give to others, bottled sunshine, are more valuable than their parts. The chutney I dump into the slow cooker with the roast before I go to bed becomes a hymn to my hard-fought success. I'm not "making it" with a competitive job or even a sunny disposition. However, when somebody wakes up for the third time that night, I smell it: the chutney, fruit, vinegar and spice, working magic with meat. In the early morning, I'm the bleary-eyed one, shredding beef.

As I put it in the refrigerator, I throw a life preserver to later in the day. We'll have shredded meat wraps for dinner, no matter how tired I am in the afternoon. Canning didn't teach me how to cope with twins. I'm not sure anything could … but putting up in this old-fashioned way taught me how to take this journey, step by focused step, along the way.

Joanne Seiff is the author of two books. She writes, designs and teaches in Winnipeg.