Mother's Day is upon us and you haven't bought a gift yet?! Me neither!!! Not for my mom. Not for my mother-in-law. Nor have I yet bought a gift for myself from my sons—ages 2 and 4—who will want to have bought me a gift come Sunday morning, when they lurch in with the bowl of Superman Life Cereal and the buttercups from the back yard.
I am a bookish mom. My credo has always been: If you can't learn to do it from a book, it's not worth doing at all. And having raised bookish boys (or, rather, one bookish boy and one tiny Visigoth), the best place for me to shop for my own Mother's Day gift seemed to be the local Barnes & Noble, where I quickly counted four tables teeming with books "Just for Mom." So, to help me help you choose the very best of this Mother's Day bounty, I pretended to be an exhausted and overextended mom and picked a few. My unscientific conclusions follow:
Disclaimer:I do not claim to speak for all moms. No doubt that for every worn-out mother of small children who shudders at the notion of a book about how to start your own dude ranch, there are seven others who desperately crave such a thing. If my efforts to steer you through the highs and lows of the Just for Mom section lead your mother or partner to burst into tears on Sunday, I apologize. I haven't had a proper night's sleep in four years.
Upon quick inspection, here's how the Mother's Day books shake out: There are stacks of books that urge Mom to do something else, and stacks of books that urge Mom to be something else. One way or another, it seems, the entire object is to keelhaul her out of her own momness and shoehorn her into something else. (By way of contrast, the table of Father's Day books, for you way-in-advance shoppers, features many, many books about golf.)
Let's start with the books that are bad for Mom. In decreasing order, let me suggest that no mom alive, whatever species, whatever phylum, wants any of the following:
Diet books: Please. "Happy Mother's Day. You're fat." Why it is that books like this are billed as Mother's Day fare is beyond me. Ditto for the makeover books and the You-dress-like-Gollum books. New dads, a warning: Buying the book about how your ravaged and sleep-deprived partner might regain the scorching body of her youth for her first-ever Mother's Day is the worst idea you've ever had. Go with the stretchy pants or the hedge clippers instead.
Organization books:"Happy Mother's Day! Your house is a landfill." Don't get me wrong. I love the feng shui, declutter, and time-management books as much as the next mom. But I don't want to own one, unless it is preprogrammed to declutter my residence itself or to disintegrate the moment it reverts from thoughtful gift to maddening clutter. On the one day a year we set aside to celebrate our moms, demanding that they get off their duffs and start creating a workable home filing system is the wrong impulse.
How-to books: Caveat: If your mom is a rabid crocheter, beader, scrapbooker, or felter, these books may be perfect. But before buying any, ask yourself this: "Has my mom put away the mittens and the winter boots that have overrun the front hall closet yet?" If the answer is no, you may not want to buy her a book suggesting that if only she were a bit more competent (see item above), she would have ample time to take up Wagashi, the Japanese art of hat-making.
Microscopic books: For some unknown reason, publishers believe that what moms really want for Mother's Day are books that measure a single square inch with fonts the size of dust motes. Books like the itsy-bitsy In Praise of Moms or the mini version of It's a Mom Thing seem like a great idea. They are, after all, on the Just for Mom table. They have the word mom in the title. But know this about the teeny books: If your mom spends the better part of her days sorting through microscopic socks and well-nigh-on-invisible Lego pieces, the last thing she really wants to do at the end of the day is crawl into a great big bubble bath and squint at a "gift" the size of a tortilla chip. Go the other way: Give her an enormous book. A Shakespeare concordance or a King James Bible. Something improbably permanent in a universe teeming with tiny plastic things that cannot be found when needed and are invariably underfoot when not.
Books about other people's cute kids: Again, this may be a matter of personal taste. Clearly somebody is buying these. But all the many, many books that celebrate motherhood with cute pictures of other people's babies strike me as strange. Because every mother worth her salt thinks her kids are far cuter than those in Motherhood Is Not for Sissies, or the funny little moppets in the Baby-gami wraps. Same goes for books full of cute sayings from other people's children: I love the idea behind Why We Love Moms. Little ones do say the darndest things. But since we all secretly believe that our own kids are even handsomer and say even cuter things, the only purpose of such books is to highlight the fact that our own extremely cute and witty children actually need a haircut.
Homework books: The Barnes & Noble tables groan under piles of journals and scrapbooks that one is meant to give one's mom to fill out, perhaps once she's finished putting the boots and mittens away. One example is Motherhood: A Guided Journal (it comes with a 60-minute CD of inspiring music). But there are dozens more out there. Pass on these, even though the thought is a nice one. The last thing Mom needs on Mother's Day is homework. After all, she already has yours to finish.
With the do-not-buy list out of the way, let's launch into some books that might work for your Mother's Day gift, so long as you recognize that at bottom, many of these ask Mom to change. Depending largely on her tolerance for escapism—and bearing in mind that Brad Pitt is allegedly back in play—perhaps the perfect Mother's Day book could remake your mother into one of the following:
The Sex in the City mom: Scores of books feature the ubiquitous chick-lit pink cover and the ubiquitous chick-lit black-line drawings of skinny moms in boots with a clever little line drawing of baby on her hip. If your mom wants to indulge fantasies of being one of a posse of "warrior women ... with chic hair, well-toned triceps in tiny tees" who lunch on salads and serve on charity boards, Living the Posh Mom Life is for her. Ditto The Hot Mom's Handbook.
The Summers in Nantucket mom: If Mom dreams of J. Crew seersucker flapping in an ocean breeze, there are scads of sweet books out there referencing the need for summers on the Cape and trips to a crab shack. She'll enjoy The Fun Book for Moms, even if there are no lobster huts in Denver. Same with Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift From the Sea, still my all-time favorite book about mothering, ever.
The Food Channel mom: Lots o' cookbooks on the Just for Mom tables, I think because the one area of "self-improvement" that still feels like pure porn for most moms is cooking. So I say bring 'em on. Bring 'em, bring 'em, bring 'em. Keep your Brad, Angelina. Real moms heart Jacques Pepin.
The Buddha mamma: Perhaps because they are the only books that don't try to change us (or, to put it as the Buddha might, because they are the only books that acknowledge that everything changes), I'm a sucker for the Zen mothering books. There's a lovely new book called Mommy Mantras that distills—in small read-while-they're-bathing units—great wisdom about the madness and mindfulness of parenting. Same for the wonderful Blessings of a Skinned Knee, as well as Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn's Everyday Blessings. (I confess here that if Jon Kabat-Zinn wrote a book about starting up my own dude ranch, I would read that, too.)
Now, I'm no Buddhist, but it does seem to me that the greatest cliché of motherhood, "I don't need anything but you, my darlings," is also one of its great truths. If I've learned anything from my own mom, it's that 99 percent of Mother's Day is reveling in the clichés: the tea with milk and lemon we'd reverently serve up each May; the weird Taurus necklace we bought one year (she's a Sagittarius), and the Krystle Carrington beaded sweater we got her the next. So, even if you bring us weird sex books or auto-repair books with the soggy cereal and the buttercup, all we really do need is you. But maybe, maybe this year, you'll let us sleep in 'til 8:25 before you do.