In 2001, we took our then-toddlers on vacation to Prince Edward Island. In a campsite playground I listened to a young father with a kid about the same age as Emma complain, as we both pushed our kids on swings, what a terrible vacation this was compared to the ones he and his wife had taken pre-kids: no dinners in nice restaurants, no evenings out, just diapers and playgrounds and early bedtimes. And I thought (but didn’t say) “Get over yourself, buddy! What did you think you were signing up for when you had that kid? Of course this vacation is different, but you get to see your kid discover sand and salt water! Different isn’t necessarily bad!”
On the ferry back home a week later, we took the kids to see one of the onboard movies — a new-ish release called Shrek. We were, of course, totally enchanted by the tale of the ogre and the princess who shared true love’s first kiss (though Emma may have been a little too young to fully follow the storyline).
Ever since then, Shrek and Fiona have been living through their happily ever after, and so have we. And so, presumably, has the sullen young father from the playground in PEI.
With this weekend’s new movie release: Shrek Forever After, the fourth in the series, we’re told that Shrek has reached the end of the storyline. As for us, we haven’t reached the end of our story, but with a ten-year-old and a twelve-year-old, we’re probably nearing the end of the years when a new animated movie from Dreamworks or Pixar is a fun event the whole family will want to go to, so it’s an appropriate time for the series to wind up. And as the genius of the Shrek movies has always been jokes and plot lines the adults can enjoy while the kids are laughing at Donkey and Puss in Boots, this movie offers a plot that just about every parent can relate to.
Shrek is now happily married to Fiona and is the father of three cute little ogre triplets. His days have now become a blur of diapers, feedings, home repair and chores. And his roar which once terrified the villagers has become nothing more than a party trick. Shrek feels diminshed and trapped, and wants his old life back — if only for a day.
Since almost every adult who goes to see a Shrek movie is going with their children, I’m pretty sure this hits home with all of us. If you still have kids young enough to enjoy Shrek, then you’ve probably had moments when you want your freedom back, even if your “freedom” didn’t involve anything particularly exotic like being chased by a mob with torches and pitchforks. Just the other day, Jason and I were saying how tired we both are by suppertime at the end of the workweek, and Jason said, “Remember when we were first married, and once in awhile we used to get home from work at the end of the day and …” In unison, in dreamy tones, we both said, “…take a nap?!?!”
That’s not even a euphemism. We were both that nostalgic for the days when, if you were tired, you could just lie down for half an hour and the world wouldn’t fall apart. My pre-kids Ogre Lifestyle was pretty tame — naps, uninterrupted writing time, stuff like that — but I have moments when, like Shrek, I’d sign a contract with a curly-toed weirdo just to get a day of freedom back again.
This new Shrek movie borrows its plot shamelessly from It’s a Wonderful Life (and I don’t say that like it’s a bad thing!) in that Shrek gets to experience what the world would be like if he’d never been born, and of course quickly realizes that once he’s lost wife, kids, and all the domestic things that were tying him down, he’s lost without them. Getting back that life that once seemed so narrow and confining becomes his first priority, and when he eventually does, he has learned how to value it.
It’s trite and predictable and cliche (though there are lots of Shrek-style laughs and great animation along the way) — but I think it’s trite and cliche because it’s true. There are, of course, lots of ways to arrive at your “happily ever after” in life and not all of them involve marriage and children. Mine does, though, and I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say that a life of love, committment, and parenting does involve a loss of freedom. Freedom to take a nap whenever you want. Freedom to plan career, vacation, or even a long weekend based only on your own needs/wants, without taking anyone else into consideration. Freedom to lose it completely and just roar like an ogre without caring who’ll be scared or traumatized.
Do we all have days when we miss those lost freedoms — when we’d sign a contract with Rumplestiltskin just to get back a day of irresponsibility? I don’t know about the rest of you, but Shrek and I definitely do. Fortunately, I don’t have to go through a day of battling witches on broomsticks and fighting with the ogre resistance to learn that trading freedom for “happily ever after” is a trade well worth making. I know a good thing when I’ve got it — but I don’t mind having Shrek remind me of it.