We are at that point in the year where kids are getting out of school for the summer, which means graduations from high schools and colleges are imminent. It’s natural to look at this as an exciting time in the lives of those youngsters, with their whole lives ahead of them and all that. By contrast, parents often look at these rites of passage with a decidedly more dowcast point of view, wondering where all the time went. You might understand if more than a few of those parents wistfully cue up ABBA’s “Slipping Through My Fingers” while their tears drop on the pages of the scrapbooks they are perusing.
“Slipping Through My Fingers” appears on ABBA’s 1981 album The Visitors, which would be prove to be their studio swan song. The two couples that made up the quartet had separated, and the domestic strife came out in the songwriting of Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus. Ulvaeus’ inspiration for the lyrics to this particular track was his then seven-year-old daughter by fellow ABBA member Agnetha Faltskog, who would provide the impassioned lead vocal. Said Ulvaeus, “Every parent knows that feeling, even if you were with them every waking hour you’d still feel that you were missing something.”
With Benny Andersson writing a typically heartrending melody and Faltskog lending lived-in wonder and pain to the protagonist watching her child seemingly inches and miles away from her all at once, “Slipping Through My Fingers” honestly earns an emotional response from the listener even if they’re not yet parents themselves. After all, regret at chances missed to spend unbothered time with the ones we love the most is a universal emotion.
The setting is a morning breakfast table, and in real time the song takes place in no more than a few moments during the most mundane of events: a quick family breakfast before a child rushes off to school. Yet in those few moments, a torrent of emotions rolls over the mother, running the gamut from overwhelming love to nearly bottomless sorrow at the thought of one day being separated from this “funny little girl,” sorrow so potent it literally knocks her off her feet: “I watch her go with a surge of that well-known sadness/ And I have to sit down for a while.”
The song hints at how children remain a mystery to even the most devoted parents: “The feeling that I’m losing her forever/ And without really entering her world.” Mom is almost unreasonably hard on herself, ruing that she can’t be mindful even of the tiniest moments: “Barely awake, I let precious time go by/ Then when she’s gone, there’s that odd melancholy feeling/ And a sense of guilt I can’t deny.” It’s an honest assessment of how child-rearing can be a painful emotional experience even in the best of circumstances.
In the chorus, the melody trips along with the grace of a schoolgirl playing hopscotch, as the mother acknowledges that her child is becoming less dependent on her all the time: “Slipping through my fingers all the time/ Do I really see what’s in her mind?/ Each time I think I’m close to knowing/She keeps on growing.” All that’s left for her to do is hope for a magical injunction against inevitable fate: “Sometimes I wish that I could freeze the picture/ And save it from the funny tricks of time.”
Those “funny tricks of time” can sometimes surprise you in a good way; the recent news that ABBA will be releasing new music certainly qualifies. But in the case of a parent watching a child grow, there usually isn’t anything funny about it. “Slipping Through My Fingers” can at least give you solace while you’re grasping at empty air for a child growing beyond your reach.