When September gives way to October each year, tears roll down parents’ cheeks like autumn leaves falling on a woodland floor as their sons and daughters take a final look around the bedroom they’ve lived in all their life.
The bundle of joy those parents brought home 18 years ago is all grown up, off to university, on the threshold of making their own way in the world…often far away from the home they grew up in and the friends they used to play with on the street outside.
Of course, there’s some anxiety in the hearts of those sons and daughters, but it’s mostly well camouflaged. And the heady sensation of embarking on a new adventure and the excitement of the unknown journey ahead helps counteract whatever anxiety they might feel.
Parents know this is all part of their babies growing up. But knowing that’s the way of the world doesn’t make the transition any easier.
The childish laughter that used to reverberate around your house will do so no more.
The baby whose tiny hands grasped your finger tightly as you held them in your arms is captured for all time in memories and photographs, but those young people will never be those babies again.
You’d gladly put up with that messy teenage bedroom you’ve been complaining about for years if only they’d stay in it a little bit longer.
Too quickly, it’s time to give your baby that last hug…for a while, at least. You breathe in deeply, trying to recreate memories of smelling their freshly-washed baby hair as they guzzled their night-time milk in your arms a lifetime ago.
And then your baby is gone.
They’ll be back…don’t worry about that. And they’ll still love you as much as they ever did. But at that moment a freshly-minted adult steps into the world through the waterfall of your tears.
Probably the definitive song about what that feels like for a parent is Abba’s “Slipping Through My Fingers”.
Abba’s Benny Andersson is a very talented lyricist…all the more so when you remember he writes songs in English, which isn’t even his first language. Of course, Bjorn Ulvaeus writes lovely music too. And his gentle and tender melody definitely draws every ounce of melancholy out of Benny Andersson’s lyrics in “Slipping Through My Fingers”.
Abba are possibly better known for their upbeat songs… “Dancing Queen”… “SOS”… “Voulez-vous”… “Gimme, Gimme, Gimme”…
Their spangly, sequinned 1970s outfits suggest more of a Studio 54 vibe than a sombre one, although Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus have written some wonderfully melancholic and poignant songs too.
In fact, I’d argue their more thoughtful songs, destined for an audience far away from the dance floor, is by far their best creative work. “The Winner Takes It All” is a masterpiece. “The Day Before You Came” is one of the most haunting songs in the Abba catalogue…or in fact just about anybody’s catalogue. “My Love, My Life” has me in tears every time I listen to it.
And of course “Slipping Through My Fingers”, where Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus encapsulate the feelings of parents everywhere waving their babies off into the world beyond the home they grew up in…
Schoolbag in hand, she leaves home in the early morning
Waving goodbye with an absent-minded smile
I watch her go with a surge of that well-known sadness
And I have to sit down for a while
Benny Andersson wrote those lyrics about his daughter going to school for the first time, aged 7, but they’re no less applicable to a parent seeing their child set off to university for the first time.
I especially like the line “with a surge of that well-known sadness”. This is a day we parents have known was coming for a long time. Ever since GCSEs and A Levels heaved into sight, we’ve been expecting it, whilst secretly hoping this day would never come.
Since we proof-read their university applications nearly a year ago, we’ve known the writing was on the wall.
We want to support our children to make their own choices in life, but when we realised all the universities they applied to were far away from home, that “well-known sadness” started to prey on our minds.
As we supported our children through the ups and downs of that last year at school, we did our very best to put sad thoughts of what life might be like after our children have flown the nest out of our minds.
But late at night, on our own, in the darkness of our bedrooms, we can’t help reflect on how much we’ve enjoyed having that young adult around the house these last 18 years.
Lying there in the dark, on our own, we feel a sense of pride in the fine, upstanding person our babies have become, mixed with dread for the moment when they get their last hug as our baby and, in their next breath, become a grown-up before our very eyes...
The feeling that I’m losing her forever
And without really entering her world
I’m glad whenever I can share her laughter
That funny little girl
Benny Andersson’s metaphor of “Slipping Through My Fingers” is lovely.
As parents we’re doing our best to hold on to our memories, our experiences and our babies…but gradually our babies slip away…leaving behind only our memories of the times we shared.
The last grain of sand has fallen through to the bottom half of the hourglass, but this isn’t an hourglass we can turn over and start again. That phase of our lives…and our baby’s lives…is over.
We can turn over the hourglass next in line, which governs the next phase of our young adult’s life and try our very best to help them navigate to wherever their place is in the world is destined to be.
But we can never go back to the hourglass which measured our darling child’s progress through the first 18 years of life, no matter how much we wish we could…
Slipping through my fingers all the time
I try to capture every minute
The feeling in it
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
Slipping through my fingers all the time
And that’s the key…she keeps on growing…
This won’t be the last big transformation you see in your little baby. It’s just the first of many.
They go on their way, swathed in your prayers for happiness and good fortune. We hope they meet someone kind and special and that they get to spend the rest of their lives with someone who loves them as much as we do.
We wish them all the love in the world. A fairy-tale life. We hope they’re blessed with children of their own, so they can experience for themselves all the joys we’ve been privileged to experience with them in our lives for the last 18 years.
And, slightly selfishly, we hope for grandchildren so we can replay in our minds the memories of when the new parent in front of us, holding a precious tiny bundle in their arms, was a precious tiny bundle themselves.
It might be the circle of life, but the truth is that life slips through the fingers of us all every day.
Hold your little ones close for as long as you can and enjoy every moment. But the day will come when you know the right thing to do is to let their childhood slip through your fingers too, and let them become the adult they were always destined to be.
There aren’t many things in the world greater than the love a parent has for their child.
But one of them is having enough love in your heart to let your precious baby go when that last grain of sand drops through into the bottom of the hourglass of their childhood.
Nothing you’ve ever done will take more love than that.
The young adult standing in front of you deserves every bit of love you have to give them. And that includes you loving them enough to…one day very soon…let them go…
Here’s Abba with “Slipping Through My Fingers”…one of the finest songs in the extensive catalogue of Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus. For extra poignancy, the lead vocal is sung by Agnetha Faltskog, the mother of that 7 year-old daughter who inspired Benny Andersson to write this most beautiful of Abba songs in the first place…
If you’ve read this far, thank you for spending a few moments in the company of one of my favourite songs. The video is below, but if you prefer listening to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s track here… https://open.spotify.com/track/4OkSYRRFb3UMXtTj1SnBOR