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Three's Company

When you look at the big picture, triplets aren't the phenomenon they used to be. The birthrate of "high-order multiples"—triplets or more—has increased fivefold in the past 20 years, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. But when it happens to you—as it did 17 months ago to Kim and Jim Johnson, of Norcross, GA—you face demands on your energy and patience that "phenomenal" hardly describes.

The Johnsons' current expectations are simple: to go slow, make only the most necessary plans, resist raising a voice, talk in shorthand, and be on their feet as long as there's one girl awake. But one of the most important rules is never to go to bed with the house in an uproar. This means putting the toys away, cleaning the counters, straightening up—in short, keeping the chaos under control.

Before the girls were born, Kim, a physician's assistant, ran an ob-gyn clinic for a college health service. Jim, also a P.A., trades 12-hour hospital shifts with colleagues as often as possible. If he works three shifts per week, he gets four days like this one, when he and Kim share the girls for 24 hours.

6:30 AM: The alarm sounds. Before the girls wake up, Kim likes to shower, dress, and—sometimes—dry her hair, "so I don't always feel like I'm on a long camping trip." (On his days off, Jim sleeps until 8. Otherwise, he's off to work by 6.)

7:25 AM: Kim hears the girls chattering with one another—that's her cue. She lifts each from the separate cribs, according to who seems most eager. The girls play for a while before anyone makes a move toward breakfast.

8:15 AM: Like a maestro facing his orchestra, Dad stands before a semicircle of three high chairs, doling out eggs, toast bits, and diced cantaloupe from a communal plate. To his right is Anna, who has a firm chin and springy brown curls, and to his left is her identical match, Erin. Between them sits Ellen, known as Ellie, their more verbal, nonidentical blond sister.

To make mealtimes easier, the Johnsons don't give the girls choices when it comes to food. Everything is cut into bite-size pieces, and the girls use their fingers. Utensils and family meals around the kitchen table are the next step—in the next couple of months, Kim hopes.

8:30 AM: "Ba-ba," calls Ellie, ignoring the cup that's sitting on her tray. (The girls had resumed taking daytime bottles the week before, when they were sick with colds.) "Ba-ba!" says Ellie, and sweeps her cup to the floor. "Once that starts, breakfast is over," says Jim, who lifts her out of the high chair.

8:50 AM: Kim has caught and dressed Ellie and Erin; now the two are tumbling around a plastic playhouse in the playroom. Ellie takes the pacifier out of her mouth and hands it to Erin, who sucks it, then lets it drop. "We used to be so careful about that when they were babies," Kim says. Now that the girls are mobile, it's impossible to police them.

Anna, who's stayed in her chair to finish breakfast, wails to be released. "Can you wait for Daddy to come back?" Kim calls from behind the playhouse, where she's picking up Cheerios from the otherwise spotless rug before the girls eat them.

"Uh-oh," Ellie says, as she looks toward her crying sister. She walks into the kitchen and sticks a Cheerio in Anna's mouth.