What every mom really wants

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The countdown is on: only four more days until Mother's Day. Clocks are ticking as last-minute shoppers search for just the right way to honor the beloved maternal figures in their lives.

What to buy? Newspaper ads offer the standard suggestions, ranging from pearls and watches to handbags, lingerie, and perfume. But this year, it is the headlines in several ads, rather than the specific items they're promoting, that often prove most intriguing. They pose the question: What is the best Mother's Day gift?

Not surprisingly, it may be intangible.

Recommended: Mother's Day gifts: 4 great e-readers for Mom

Perhaps Macy's has the best idea. Under the heading "What mom wants most," the company pictures employees it calls "Top Moms." Each woman lists an intangible wish along with a specific gift she would like.

One mother wants "Successful daughters and a new summer wardrobe." Another, holding her young son, dreams of "Hugs, kisses, and open-toe sandals." A third sums up her ideal gifts this way: "New refrigerator art and a white skirt."

Another ad in the campaign completes the phrase by suggesting that what mom wants most is "a reason to relax."

Now we're getting down to basics! Never mind new earrings or a straw purse, however beautifully wrapped and beribboned. The real wish list for many mothers comes down to a gift that's hard for someone else to give: free time. They long for time to read a book. Time to take a walk in the sunshine. Time to putter in the garden, free from guilt that they should be doing something less pleasurable. Laundry, maybe.

In a similar vein, a Bloomingdale's headline reads, "What mom really wants...." For many new mothers with jobs, the best gift this Sunday would come not from families or friends, but from their employers, in the form of longer and more secure maternity leave. A new study finds that of 164 countries, only five - among them the United States, Australia, Swaziland, and Papua New Guinea - do not offer paid maternity leave. Australia gives women 52 weeks of unpaid leave.

For working mothers in the much-touted "sandwich generation," another answer to the "What mom really wants..." line might be: "more enlightened corporate attitudes on elder care." That growing issue is the elephant in the office - a presence to be reckoned with, but one that many workers find difficult to talk about.

And then there are the grandmothers who also deserve recognition and honor on Mother's Day. They are the invisible, unsung heroes in many families, caring for grandchildren while parents work, or even rearing grandchildren on their own. For them, the retailers' headlines might read, "What grandma really wants...." Some might respond with a one-word answer: "appreciation."

A third eye-catching Mother's Day ad campaign, this one from Henri Bendel, offers "Cool gifts for cool moms." That line raises intriguing questions: How do you define cool when it applies to motherhood? Is it a matter of being youthful? Funny? Stylish? Is it cool to be permissive, or cooler to be a disciplinarian? And is being considered cool requisite for ideal modern moms? The maternal job description grows longer and more demanding.

As 21st-century mothers and grandmothers write new scripts for the age-old roles of caregiving and nurturing, many are finding motherhood simultaneously more complex and more rewarding than ever. On Sunday, as they put aside the complexities for a few hours, cherishing the rewards and basking in richly deserved attention, many know that ultimately, the best gifts are the ones not available in any store, and the ones that have no price tag attached. If only leisure could be boxed, wrapped, and given with love.

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