Mothers hold a special place in our lives whether or not we want them in ours or they want us in theirs, and Mother’s Day is fraught with potential gift guffaws that can say too much or too little. Striking the right balance is critical to hatchet-burying, reaffirming admiration or just getting past the day smoothly. Books are a perfect option because making the correct choice not only demonstrates thoughtfulness, it also reflects neatly on your erudition; and that would make any mother proud.

There are of course too many maternal archetypes to cover here, but I dare offer suggestions for three of the most difficult (to shop for!) types of mother.

The Tiger

You can’t help wondering if you would be the success you are today if your mother hadn’t cracked the booksmart whip, pushed hard on your athleticism and demanded all that scholarship-inducing charity work. From an early age you begrudgingly racked up merit badges, trophies and cum laudes. Meanwhile your friends seemed to skate along so carefree! Was it a tough-love support regimen or the vicarious projection of a future she couldn’t have? Now facing parenthood yourself, you see Mum through a new lens, but it remains tinted by the history of female empowerment, ongoing gender struggles, heated sexual politics, and the tension between tradition and emancipation.

Get her The Great Mother: Women, Maternity, and Power in Art and Visual Culture, 1900-2015 by Massimiliano Gioni from Skira Publications. Showcasing 80 international artists, The Great Mother analyzes the iconography of motherhood in art and visual culture during the 20th and 21st centuries, from early avant-garde movements to the present. The volume juxtaposes contemporary art with historical works and also mixes in examples from film and literature. Artists include Abakanowicz, Applebroog, Boccioni, Bourgeois, Brancusi, Carrington, Dalí, and many, many more.

She is sure to recognize herself in the varied portrayals of mothers through the ages from mother-goddess and artist’s muse to the badass of a post-feminism era. As a bonus, by flipping through the book’s powerful imagery and informative text before you wrap it, you just might clear up the ambivalence about your own upbringing.

The Philosopher

Never seeming to run out of bon mots, biblical admonitions or corny advice ranging from “Marriage is not a reform school,” to “Be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger,” (James 1:19), your mom is an endless font of well meaning but mostly tone deaf opinion. Her repetition is also unavoidably contagious. You nearly broke up with your fiancé when in reference to your recent binge drinking she said, “Marriage is not a reform school.”

Get this mom Mother Said from the Finnish video and installation artist Niina Lehtonen Braun.  A collection of motherly advice, ranging from loving and concerned to cold and cynical, Mother Said offers the artist’s multimedia collages along with maternal recommendations. You can present your gift as a celebration of her wisdom, but hopefully your mom will get the hint that you are desperate for some new material.

The Jock

To your mother’s not so hidden disappointment, you were a “mathlete.” The only score you could run up was your SAT. You tried to hold your own in paddle tennis during the mother-daughter doubles tournament at the club, you really did make an effort to follow in her wake on the high school swim team and even now, you struggle to keep up with her on a bike ride despite her being 28 years your senior. In her defense, she did proudly display your Stanford Math Tournament Blue ribbon on the fridge, albeit crowded out by the photo-magnet collage of your brothers in each season’s uniforms.

Jacques Henri Lartigue

Get her Jacques Henri Lartigue: A Sporting Life from Actes Sud/Hermès. Most famous for his photographs of France’s upper classes at leisure in the early 20th century, Lartigue’s A Sporting Life showcases the joys of sportscar racing, skiing, tennis, gymnastics, and the wild popularity of such activities in the first half of the 20th century. Lartigue captures the human form as it contorts in the heat of competition, in 120 photographs accompanied by handwritten captions and excerpts from his enchanting diaries. The photos and text add up to a strong affirmation that an active life is one worth living. She’ll do the math. Happy Mother’s Day!

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