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Three's Company

3:45 PM:The girls are assigned their minivan seats according to need: Anna, the happiest rider, sits farthest from the driver, in the back row; Ellie sits in the opposite corner. Erin, who fusses the most in the car, gets the single seat in the middle of the van, closest to the driver. Since there are two adults, Kim climbs into the middle seat of the back row.

4:05 PM: Kim spreads a blanket on the grass and starts to make flowering clover chains for the girls' heads and wrists. Babbling, the girls show off their jewelry to one another. Jim rides them on his back and rolls them down the slightest of hills. Peace and happiness, and then it's time to head home.

5:05 PM: Jim lifts Anna out of her car seat. "One potato," he says, kissing her neck. From the pavement below, Ellie says, "Two."

5:35 PM: Jim and the girls have been hanging out in the garage, and Kim has come from the kitchen to remind Jim the girls need to eat soon if they're going to hit tonight's bedtime target.

"If they can't wind down, your life is hellish the next day," she says. "Because no matter what time they go to bed, they always wake up the same time in the morning."

6:15 PM: Kim's come back outside: "Jim," she prompts. But Jim was just about to put Anna in the backpack. "Let's go for one quick walk," he says.

So they set off down the block, with Erin and Ellie in the stroller enjoying the breeze on their bare toes.

6:30 PM: Jim has pulled the high chairs back into formation, and now he's putting pita, pork, and melon into the communal dish. Anna starts yanking boxes off the bottom pantry shelf—one of several unlocked cabinets filled with unbreakables that the girls are allowed to touch.

7 PM: After dinner, Jim fills the tub, Kim folds the forgotten laundry, and Erin empties the toy box—Tigger, stuffed turtle, unidentified plastic flotsam. Ellie is rolling on the carpet with a blanket as Anna runs toward her. "Oh Anna, Anna, Anna," Kim calls. "It's not nice to kiss Ellie and then yank away her blanket."

7:10 PM: Three girls in a tub. Jim pours a pitcher of water into the middle. The girls bat at the drops and laugh breathlessly.

7:30 PM: As Kim maneuvers Erin, then Anna, into pajamas on the bedroom floor, Ellie, wearing just her diaper, wanders into the living room and starts pulling books from a basket.

Kim and all three girls then do their nightly pick-up, a ritual she hopes is building good habits. Mom offers praise for Ellie—"There you go!"—who puts one turtle in the toy box.

7:45 PM: Usually the girls play and read quietly for an hour before bed, but tonight the schedule's been compressed because dinner was delayed. They move quickly from cleanup to rocking with Kim and their nighttime bottles in their bedroom. Each girl gets a favorite book or two in her crib to wake up to.

7:50 PM: While Jim carries Ellie to her crib downstairs, Kim leaves Erin and Anna, awake but cooing along to their lullaby tape, in their cribs.

7:55 PM: Lights out, all's quiet. Kim heads back to the kitchen to start the grown-ups' dinner.

8:05 PM: Ellie shrieks from below. "Man, is she mad," Kim says, as Jim runs down to console her. "They're very sensitive to being a little off schedule."

8:15 PM: Now Erin is crying. Kim waits to see if she continues, then goes in to rub her back. After a few moments, all's quiet again.

10:30 PM: After dinner, Kim stands in the silent, dark living room as Jim carries a sleeping Ellie up the stairs and into the bedroom with her sisters. The toys have been put away, the dishes done. Kim flips on a light and starts to repack the diaper bag. "You have to be a step ahead," she says. Before she goes to sleep, she'll unwind by reading for 20 minutes or so.

Next day, 7 AM: Mom's immobilized in a web of tiny limbs: She holds Erin, Ellie lies across her leg and Anna hugs her shoulder. "So, who needs a diaper first?" she asks.


Susan Brenna has written for New York magazine and other publications.