My First 100 Years

The meme is going around again: You are an egg in your mother’s ovaries, and she is a fetus curled in your grandmother’s uterus. The drawing is based on a longstanding scientific belief that human females were born with all the egg cells they would ever have, which made for a matryoshka scenario, three generations nested within another.

Going by this meme, and subtracting for the 20 gestational weeks it apparently takes for a fetus to develop egg cells, I am actually 99 this year. I feel great.

The meme suggests a number of things, as memes do—in this case, not just the capacity of women to bear life, but their near-parthenogenic primacy, as well as a comforting notion of ancestral co-existence, and the startling idea that we have “existed” decades longer than what it says on our birthday cakes. The meme has power, as memes often do. My mother, who was 43 when I was born, died more than a dozen years ago, and I never really knew her mother. I would like to have them with me now, or be able to believe that I was present to my foremother in some significant way.

But as with many memes, this one uses half-truths and scientific fallacies.

As far back as 2004, for example, research indicated women might be able to make new eggs as they age. In 2012 Jonathan Tilly, Director of the Vincent Center for Reproductive Biology at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, co-published a study that showed stem cells in the ovaries could make new egg cells. National Geographic said Tilly believed it made evolutionary-biological sense that women would make new eggs. “‘There’s no fathomable reason,’ he said, why a woman would have evolved to carry stale eggs around for decades before attempting to get pregnant while men evolved to have fresh sperm always available.” There is a chance some of us were never carried—in the sense that the meme makes concrete—in our grandmothers’ bodies.

Of course, where there is rhetorical/visual/emotional power, there is internet squabbling, often more telling than the meme itself. If our lives started when our mothers were in utero, what are the implications for both sides of the abortion debate?

That is, memey motherhood can cut both ways. One writer, perhaps blaming Jazz-Age flappers for their unmatronly lifestyles, asks, “Do the ills of modern society–ADHD, diabetes, cancer and autism etc–point back to the health, dietary changes and new habits that were formed two generations before us?”

Then you get men who are uncomfortable with the privileging of matriarchy but who failed science. “Are we in our fathers before we’re in our mothers?” one asks, unaware sperm are recycled every few weeks. “So this means our fathers carried us before our mothers. Also, our mothers only carried us only for about 9 months while our fathers carried us for years.”

His respondent gets to the heart of the matter.

“If you consider ‘we’/’us’ as the combination of both the genetic information of your father and that of your mother. Then your (our) father never ‘carried’ us. Your origin from within your father, a spermatozoa, only survives in the male body for a number of months if not ejaculated. An ovum lives from birth until a female goes into menopause. The combination of those two which resulted in you doesn’t leave your mothers body until birth. You were never you inside your father, nor were you you inside your mother before conception. Also, the amount of you that you were you, inside your mother, is negligible. Considering that your question doesn’t really make any sense…”

Nor were you you: A refutation of the drawing, with its arrow pointing deep into nesting dolls.

Memes often affect, because they can be poetry—symbolic thinking, the birth of the mythic. But as with any relational meaning, theirs can come apart fast. (Is the mind a river? Or like plumbing? Hardware, software? Wetware?)

What does the idea of the relative permanence of the human egg mean in relation to replenishable sperm? Are sperm’s producers easily replaceable too, even expendable? A genetic product, packaged and delivered to market like sardines in oil? Or are men vitality embodied, aswim in the currents of sex and time? If you choose that image, do you think it gives men leave from domesticity, for which the patient egg is more suited, since sperm are the Lost Boys?

The quality of our poetry matters.

Is a spermatozoa an arrow into the fortress? (Connotations, connotations.) Or is the relation something more complicated, like a schoolteacher to a professor? Slime mold to a fallen log? Love letter into its envelope, as Sexton says?

Evolutionary biologists must see things as being written in the code, especially once all the eggs have been shed, their hosts dead and gonadic turbidity fallen still. But beyond data, what remains is still the mystery: How lifeguard and swimmer came to be in that sea, who saved whom, and what further responsibilities they incurred. It makes it very hard not to invent.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.