Every 12 months our inboxes groan with lists of “unique” gifts “mom would love for Mother’s Day.” Maybe it’s just me, but you know what moms don’t love? Lists that urge our kids to spend money they don’t have for stuff that has little to do with the bond between mom and child.

I can’t remember, for example, ever pining for a temperature-controlled ceramic mug, a cashmere wrap or wine glasses that say “Keep Calm & Drink Wine” and “Mommy’s Little Sippy Cup.”

The best gifts, of course, aren’t things. And the perfect gift for a mom depends on which stage of parenthood she currently inhabits. Here’s a guide to help you get started.

Stage I: Sleep-deprived and overwhelmed

The Stage I Mom is so exhausted that inpatient surgery sounds like a tempting vacation. Her offspring rarely sleep, and her rare “breaks” — when a partner, relative or friend takes the kids to the park — are euphemisms for more housework: throw in a load, empty the dishwasher and start a frozen pizza while downing a glass of wine because — as she tells herself — “Hey, it’s 3:30 somewhere.”

If the kids are too little to create “Mother’s Day,” the bearer-of-breaks should step in. Because here’s what a Stage I mom really wants: a day to herself (meaning nobody home). Stash delicious food in the fridge for her. Suggest that she watch favorite shows or read a good book or take a bath (key hint: Clean the tub and set out gorgeous lotion next to clean towels that you washed and dried). Suggest that she take a nap on sheets that you also cleaned.

She will try to thank you profusely. Raise your hand and say, “Stop right there. No thank you necessary today. This is your day — the kids and I are . . . gone.”

Then don’t come back. For, like, the entire day. 6 p.m. would be good, 8 p.m. would be even better. (She’ll need to wander the house like a zombie for an hour or two because she’s not used to this much quiet.)

Stage II: Underappreciated, and still sleep-deprived

The Stage II Mom doesn’t see her tweens or teens enough; at least, she doesn’t see them when they’re being nice to her. She’s at the office or asleep (because sleep deprivation is part of her now, like dealing with an overactive bladder after childbirth). The kids are usually in school, on the soccer field or holed up in their bedrooms. Stage II moms know the kids still live at home because they emerge to tell her how old/lame/unfair she’s being at least once — maybe twice — a week.

The Stage II Mom would love a gift that focuses on spending a yesteryear-like day with her family: no squabbling, no video games and no grunting noises that pass for conversation. Go out for a beautiful brunch with everyone showered, nicely dressed and smiling; or take a long hike at her favorite spot (her daughter would keep up and point out her favorite wildflower and smile); or dig into takeout Thai at home while watching an old family-favorite movie together (and laughing at the jokes). The key component is smiles, because Stage II moms want to spend time with people who seem pleased to be with them.

Stage II moms also appreciate a fully washed car. We’re talking cleaning inside and out using old-fashioned elbow grease, paper towels and a vacuum. To go the extra mile, fill the gas tank and get the oil changed. Other cool ideas for Stage II? One kid alphabetized her mom’s spices as a gift. Another created a play list for her iPod. And one teen boy arranged to take his mother out to dinner.

She may be too choked up to respond to these gifts, but she will remember them forever. Expect tears and hugs.

Stage III: Well-rested, but pining for the days of yore

This woman has been through it all. She survived pregnancies and miscarriages (possibly a stillbirth), newborns, children with special needs, puberty and entire years of worrying about her ducklings living so far away at college.

That initial swath of time when her kids moved on? Brutal. At this point a long nap, a beautifully scented bath or a good book won’t cut it. Very little soothes the grief that’s descended upon a Stage III Mom. She smiles (gently) at the exhaustion of Stage I or the exasperation of Stage II; she’d happily trade her grief for bloodshot eyes or gritted teeth.

The Stage III Mom misses the endless bickering that rumbled like thunder upstairs. She misses having to pull dinner out of her (um) hat every evening. For years. For a family who wouldn’t (couldn’t?) agree on a meal. (The preschool teacher warned her about becoming a short-order cook. Turns out, Yoda is disguised as a preschool teacher. “Short order cook you will be.”) She misses being a short-order cook. She misses chauffeuring grumpy kids. She even misses long vacation car rides where she once turned to her husband and hissed, “Next time, you drive with them. I’m taking the plane.”

Then one day the clouds clear over her empty nest, the sun shines on a sparkling landscape, and we find the Stage III Mom trying to decide between a cruise to Greece or Alaska. This cruise will have zero animated characters, no five-story waterslides and not a single bumper car. She settles on Greece, where she can’t wait to see the ruins up close; stunning remains of an ancient culture. Beauty and life survive — even after the treasured architects of that world have moved on.

So what to get this mom? She’d love a card detailing what’s new with you — the good and the not-so-hot. It tickles her to know that her little ducks are flying and crashing and getting up again and gliding over the water (while kicking for all they’re worth underneath). She’d love to hear that she’ll see you in November or December, or maybe even New Year’s. Knowing when she’ll see you next is surefire balm for that small, but permanent, ache in her heart.

And there you have it, what moms would love on the big day: Get out of her hair (if the kids are little), spend time with her (if you’re a teen, but be sure to smile), and track her down in Greece (if you’re an adult). Moms are forged through the bubbling lava of no sleep, kindergarten graduations, slammed doors and 2 a.m. calls that begin, “I crashed the car, but I’m okay.”

Don’t forget her on Mother’s Day. Because she never forgets you every day.

Wendy Irvine is a Stage II Mom who writes the Jellyfish in July blog that details vital tips, tricks and hacks for those of us braving kid-travel.  Find her at JellyfishinJuly.com or on Twitter @WendyIrvine or @JellyfishinJuly.

Follow On Parenting on Facebook and join our discussion group here to talk about parenting and work. Sign up here for our weekly newsletter.

More reading: