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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.

9:15 AM: Jim loads the dishwasher. Kim sits cross-legged on the carpet, and soon all three girls are on her lap. As Kim gently tries to remove Erin's blanket from Anna's fist, Erin leans in, grasping for a piece of Kim's shirt, and the human pyramid topples into an eight-legged pile.

9:20 AM: Kim puts Erin in the jump seat that hangs between the living room and playroom.

9:21 AM:Erin's rump is about to come down on Anna's shoulder. Throwing herself across the floor on her stomach, Kim pulls Anna—who bleats in shock—out of the way with one arm.

Ellie trips on Kim's outstretched foot, and begins to cry. Turning from Anna, Kim hugs Ellie. "You try to stay very calm," she says in her soothing play-by-play voice, a constant running commentary that she directs partly to herself, partly to the girls. Of course, it's early in the day. And when Jim is at work, she's "barely hanging on by her fingernails by dinnertime," she says.

9:45 AM: While Anna and Erin are happily absorbed kicking beach balls, Kim is easing shoes onto Ellie's feet.

10:05 AM: The girls are set—each with a third of a cookie and a juice cup—for a ride around their cul-de-sac in an oversize wagon.

11 AM: "They're getting hungry and cranky," says Jim, who's been amusing the girls after their walk by letting them play in the van. Ellie and Anna follow Jim to the deck just off the kitchen, where they kiss and pet the family's two golden retrievers.

Back in the kitchen, Kim cuddles a weeping Erin. "People ask me, 'How do you go places? How do you get them all fed?' " says Kim. "None of that's the hard part. When one of them is cranky or sick, and I'm alone and can't give her 100 percent, that's when I feel so inadequate."

With Erin balanced on her hip, Kim takes a dish of cooked turkey from the fridge to make a very early lunch. Immediately upon arriving home from the grocery store, she saves time by cooking a few things—like the turkey, which went directly from the grocery bag to the skillet.

11:35 AM: Lunch over, Erin is the first one down for her nap. Usually the girls eat at noon and then sleep at the same time. But the Johnsons don't hold to the schedule when one daughter's needs don't line up with the plan.

11:50 AM: "Ellie, are you getting sleepy?" asks Kim. Hardly. Ellie, the most sleep-resistant of the triplets, sometimes won't even nap at all. To prevent her from keeping her sisters awake, she's been assigned a separate room downstairs, with its own crib, for naptimes.

Noon: After washing down the high chairs, Jim checks the phone messages while Kim puts Anna to bed.

12:20 PM: "Who's getting tired?" Kim asks Ellie. "No, Mommy doesn't need any help changing your diaper. That's right, start thinking sleepy thoughts. Mommy has to mop the kitchen."

1 PM: Ellie finally sleeps. Kim takes bites from her sandwich and mops the floor. Jim has disappeared downstairs to tackle bills.

2:05 PM: Kim gets midway through folding her second load of wash—she does three a day—when she hears a voice. "Look who's found her happiness," she says, reappearing with Erin, who's refreshed by an extra half-hour's nap. (The toddlers usually log in a total of 13 1/2 hours of sleep, and 11 1/2 of those are at night.)

Mom and Erin build block towers, and, giggling, Erin knocks them down. Time alone with each girl happens when it happens, or when one really needs it (and the other parent is available to take over).

3:05 PM: Everyone's now awake—and everyone's slept extra long. Jim suggests they seize the moment, and they decide to head out to the park.

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.

 

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