Girl swinging at park

Tessa Kanne swings during "Party in the Park" at Hanscom Park in Omaha on Aug. 4, 2017.

On a recent Thursday evening, I glanced ahead to the weekend events to see what we were up against. It seems, like most families, that those free days fill up at an alarming pace despite our best efforts to carve out "downtime."

That particular weekend appeared to follow the rule rather than be the exception. Friday night, we had a church event that would end hours after bedtime. Saturday was my husband's running club, followed by a birthday party all four of my kids were invited to. Sunday, our elementary school had an awesome event planned for their #bethekindkid challenge at the local children's museum — something that we should have been looking forward to, but it felt like just another end-of-school-year obligation.

I sighed as I closed my calendar and prepared to roll into yet another Monday exhausted from the weekend that preceded it.

Friday went off without a hitch, and our kids even slept in a bit Saturday. We rushed around in the morning — fitting in workouts, putting away the grocery delivery (I don't know how I used to work grocery shopping into our weekends) and running a few errands so we could make it to the birthday party on time. As we hustled out the door, my husband and I were sniping at each other over our differing opinions about what "on time" means. We arrived at the park five minutes late, only to see not a soul we knew there.

I checked the Facebook invite and realized we were not five minutes late, but instead 24 hours early. The party was Sunday, not Saturday, meaning we were double-booked for Sunday afternoon.

I have been struggling with a perpetual juggling act for years: Keeping everyone's schedules in my head and on my phone, and bearing the emotional weight of mothering — if I wasn't doing a task, I was delegating and supervising it. I joked often that eventually the wheels would fall off this wagon, yet I managed to always keep us on track. This afternoon, this date mix-up, was the first time in memory where I hadn't managed to keep juggling. What would happen if I dropped a ball? Could I drop a ball?

I sat down on a bench, looked around at my kids and husband running through the dappled sunlight in the shaded park, and realized the gift we'd been given.

Free time.

Had we been at home with an unscheduled afternoon, my husband and I would have filled it with yard work, cleaning and swapping kid duty. With so many young kids, tag-teaming the to-do list has been our strategy for years. He cuts the grass, I watch the brood. I cook dinner, he minds the kids. We would have been together in our house, but not together. This afternoon — these botched plans — were exactly what we needed.

For three hours, we played as a family. We chased kids and hefted them onto monkey bars. We pushed swings and caught the baby as she came down the slide. We watched our big kids race around the skate park on their scooters, and we played table tennis and checkers. We chatted with other families with the ease of a lazy Saturday afternoon, rather than the social pressure that can come from trying to create small talk at a planned event.

We left when our kids were ready to go — which ended up being in two shifts. I departed first with our daughters, and my husband followed a while later with our sons. We didn't leave when meltdowns occurred, or after the kids had been pushed to their limit and were ready to "hulk out." We spent the entire afternoon on our time, going at our own pace.

My 5-year-old daughter stopped to pick flowers the whole walk home, and I took the time to let her. I told her about the tulip tree that my grandparents had, and how in late spring I could stand on their second-story balcony and be engulfed in the fragrant blooms. "Hurry up, we have somewhere to be," never crossed my lips. It's the mantra that ends up accompanying most of our walks, but I hate hearing how often it comes from my mouth.

We rounded out the evening with our first attempt at ramen bowls, a Minecraft marathon and lengthy bedtime stories with extra snuggles. It turns out the ball — the one I was so terrified of dropping — needed to hit the ground. My juggling act looked good from the outside, but it was drowning us.

With four kids and two working parents, it is unlikely that things will slow down considerably any time in the near future. Plus, much of the stuff that keeps us busy is good stuff: art classes, hiking trips and Lego Club, for starters. Knowing, though, how precious these stolen moments were, I will look for more. I will set aside the things that can wait when the opportunity arises. Maybe I'll make sandwiches for dinner, let the grass get a bit too tall or say no to a party that might be really fun, in favor of stealing just a few moments for us.

I would like to make bold promises that we will slow down, pursue more unscheduled time and pause more often to smell the flowers. I would love to declare a strong takeaway that altered the entire way we do family life. The truth is, though, that I don't know. It's easier said than done. Life moves fast.

But even more than letting go of household duties, I need to let go of the expectation of involvement. It is so easy to get lost in what we think we should be doing. We are bombarded with Facebook invites that fill up a virtual calendar, making it easy to feel pressure to click "yes." Then we are prompted to tag events if we are anywhere in the vicinity and upload our photos with the appropriate hashtag, making participation feel like a requirement some days.

Learning to say no, learning to be OK with missing out, is a process. I am not sure I would have learned this on my own, without dropping the ball and finding out just how freeing that was.

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