1. "My wine-of-the-month club needs you."
A good compliment should be like a good gift: thoughtful, easy and specific to the recipient. So tell her: "You chose the best Bordeaux the last time we went to dinner" or "You have a way of getting everyone to get along." Whatever it is, remind her of the non-mom-related wonderful thing about her that makes your wine-tasting club (and/or the world) a better place for her presence.
2. "Your husband throws the best tea parties."
Every mother knows her co-parent's weaknesses: child-hair-brushing, remembering parent/teacher conferences, keeping his temper in check at Little League games. What a mom will always welcome is a reminder of a specific aspect of parenting that her husband is great at, one of those magic Daddy tricks he has that makes them a terrific team (even if they sometimes forget it).
3. "Your bake sale cupcakes had the cutest icing."
When you're a mother, every day is an adventure in multimedia art. You are called upon to be a food stylist (teddy bear faces on the breakfast toast), a draftswomen (chore charts that are both convincing and fun), a poet (lunch bag notes), a juggler (scrambling an egg while calling about your carpool while signing a permission slip while feeding the cat), not to mention a director and producer of the whole day's performance. And the kids are sure to be extremely appreciative...in about three decades. Noticing some small, specific thing that a mom obviously put work into—whether it's stripy icing on a carrot cupcake or the handmade scarf her kid's blowing his nose into—is a beautiful way to appreciate the work of art that is her everyday life.
4. "If I could pick my own mother, I would want her to be like you."
I once had a college professor who was as insightful about people as he was entirely lacking in that filter that tells you what is okay to say in polite company. One day he told a student (not me!): "Even though you are 30 years younger than me, if I could pick my own mother, I would want her to be like you." We laughed, but we also got it. This sweet, smart, generous girl—we all kind of wanted her to be our mother. And though she blushed to her ears, you could see her face transform at the odd, amazing compliment. Now, imagine the joy these words would bring to an actual mother.
5. "My kids love your kids."
Parents have finely honed B.S.-detectors, so there is no sense in lobbing out an "I love your outfit!" at a woman wearing yoga pants and the nutritious half of her child's lunch. But telling a mother that your kids love her kids is one of those wonderful sneaky compliments disguised as a fact—a fact she can feel glowy about. There is, snuck in there, praise for her parenting, love for her children and a promise of friendship.
"The birthday party is drop-off."
An offer of free babysitting is all well and good but hard not to feel guilty about. But a drop-off birthday party? That's two hours of free time for a mama on a Saturday, no strings attached. Well, except for balloon strings attached to their happy kids' hands on the way home.
7. "Can you make me a playlist?"
Even the coolest mom you know feels like she's not that cool now that she finds out about new bands from the Super Music Friends Show rather than, say, SXSW. Let her know that you still admire her taste—and that you want a piece of it.
8. "The same thing happened to me."
If there's one thing to be learned from the preponderance of mom blogs, it's that surviving motherhood with your sanity intact involves connecting with other women who are going through the same thing. Nothing can make a mother feel any better about her kid's ballet-recital freak-out or the way she lost it at the twins when they were horsing around in the mall parking lot—nothing, that is, except another mother saying, "I know, I get it; we've all been there." And, most of all: "It's not your fault."
"Your kid has your earlobes..."
Even if he has daddy's eyes, nose, lips, neck and forehead.
10. "It gets easier."
When my kids were 1 and 3 and both screaming their heads off at the park one day, a mother chasing her kids on scooters sashayed by and called out, "Don't worry! You're at the hardest part right now!" My heart swelled with love for her. Lady, whoever you are: a thousand thanks! We all know, of course, that being a mom never actually gets easy. But it really helps to know that those eternal difficult afternoons your kids put you through (at every age) are normal, are not your fault, are worth every second. Which is why every mother should get a guardian angel who whispers in her ear (at every stage): "It gets easier. Soon."
Next: 8 life skills mom forgot to teach me