She'll skip a meal, a shower, even a night's sleep. But one thing Crystal Cornick Williams tries never to miss is the chance to jot down every time her three 4-month-old triplets--Ariel, Tyler and Tyree--eat, nap or get a diaper change.
By keeping tabs on the babies' schedules, Williams finds she has more time to spend with her older children, 2-year-olds Richard, Erin and Iman.
That's right, another set of triplets.
She calls it her "system," a cheat sheet, the one constant in an otherwise chaotic life brought on by her odds-defying delivery of six babies in less than two years.
"It keeps me organized," Williams said as she clutched the crumpled sheet of paper listing her babies' names and needs. "If I can't remember who ate what at what time or who was changed last, I just look at this. It just makes everything easier."
The flurry of attention has faded in the four months since Williams gave birth to her second set of triplets, the chances of which are about 1 in 50 million. Since then, Williams, 19, and her husband, Richard, 22--they were married soon after the second set of triplets was born--have settled into life with their three boys and three girls. Four of them are identical.
In many ways, they're typical new parents--sucked into a vacuum of formula feedings and diaper changes. But the workload is not typical at all. Williams figures that in one week, the family changes 252 diapers and makes 215 bottles of formula. Depending on the babies' spit-up factor, she can do at least 12 loads of laundry. Then there's the cost of raising double sets of triplets.
The couple, who live with Richard's parents in a three-bedroom row house in West Baltimore, get by with the help of family, friends and hand-me-downs. Most of the Williams kids' clothes and toys have been given to them, but the family still spends several hundred dollars a month on diapers and wipes alone.
Crystal Williams stays home with the children, having taken leave from her college studies. Richard works full time and some overtime as a truck driver's assistant.
On a recent morning, Crystal Williams woke up at 7 a.m. to begin her daily routine. About 9:45, when she had finished bathing, dressing and feeding her children with help from friends, she suddenly felt the urge to nap.
She dozed off in her basement bedroom and woke up about 10:30 in a slight panic when she realized she had forgotten one of her morning rituals: braiding Iman's hair.
With a crying Erin clinging to her leg and toddler Richard clamoring for attention, Williams warily climbed the stairs and maneuvered through the narrow hallway.
"Where is she?" Williams yelled. "Iman! Iman!
"There you are," she said, as she spotted the child at the end of the hallway. Then she plopped down on the toddlers' bedroom floor and tugged at the girl's curly black hair with a comb.
In a second bedroom, two friends who occasionally help care for the babies held Ariel and Tyree while Tyler slept in a crib.
"She looks so tired," said Portia Vertreese, one of the friends who had stopped by to help. "I can't imagine doing this. It's so hard."
LaPortia Hawthorne, another friend, agreed.
"If you're running after one, you're running after the other," said Hawthorne, cradling a colicky baby Ariel in her arms. "I mean, how do they do it?"
It's not easy, said Williams, who by now has finished braiding.
The toddlers usually go to day care from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the week. But on this day, they are home because they have a doctor's appointment. Williams leaves them in their room to sing their ABCs and walks back down the hall, tripping over the packs of diapers, potties and various baby gadgets that line the walls.
It's 11:30 a.m., an hour before she has to start loading the toddlers into her car for the ride downtown and the University of Maryland clinic for their checkup.
"The big kids, I can get them loaded in the car in 15 or 20 minutes," says Williams proudly. But she doesn't do it if she doesn't have to. "It's too much work."
She plops down on a comforter-covered mattress in the babies' room and studies her cheat sheet. Soon it will be time to give the babies another bottle. But right now she is happy to just sit for a minute.
The room, with one crib and one dresser, is surrounded by piles of clothes, burp cloths and other baby trappings--a humidifier, two swings, a lamp.
In the back bedroom, the toddlers have grown restless and begun to cry out for Mommy.
Williams sighs, then reaches to open the mini-refrigerator in the babies' bedroom--one of many tactics she has employed around the house to make life simpler. The appliance has helped cut down on trips to the kitchen for formula. And instead of mixing individual bottles of powdered formula as she often did for her first set of triplets, she now takes the time to make up a day's worth.
"This morning I did 30," she says, yawning. "I think that will be enough. I hope it will."
Still sitting on the mattress, Williams leans against the wall and stares blankly. Don't get her wrong. She loves her children, she says.
But often she thinks about where she and her husband would be if things had gone differently. They had always planned to get married, but after college. And after they had established careers.
In fact, Williams, an honor roll student in high school, had been on her way to college out of state. Her husband was a student at Baltimore City Community College when they learned she was pregnant with their first set of triplets.
After giving birth, she enrolled at Goucher College. Then she discovered she was pregnant again.
"When I found out I was pregnant, I said, 'What's wrong with my birth-control pills? What's going on?' "
At first, doctors thought Williams was carrying twins. A sonogram confirmed a third fetus.
Williams says her first thought was not about raising six children.
"I was worried about school and what my mother was going to say," she says. "We had plans for me to be a financial analyst. I'm good with math and economics."
Williams kept her second pregnancy quiet because she said she didn't like to hear people comment about her being so young and having so many children.
"It's not like I planned this," she says. "I was on birth control, and I was that 1 percent where it doesn't work."
She is also among the small percentage of women who tend to be very fertile.
Ira Gewolb, director of neonatology at the University of Maryland Hospital for Children, figured that the chances for a second triplet birth are 1 in 75 million among whites, and 1 in 40 million to 50 million among African Americans.
It's 12:45 p.m. now. Time to load the toddlers in the car for the ride downtown. It's cool outside, so Williams opts for winter coats and hats. Portia Vertreese will drive toddler Richard in her car because Williams's Ford Escort is too small for three car seats. Her father-in-law is watching the babies.
But wait, Iman needs a diaper change. Williams expertly whips out a clean diaper and changes the girl as her siblings look on. Williams drops the soiled diaper on the floor in the back of the car.
Inside the doctor's office, Williams takes the first chair she can find. She is worn out, and the toddlers are beginning to whine and rub their eyes.
A nurse takes the 2-year-olds' vital statistics--weight, height, head circumference and blood pressure--before turning the testy trio over to Dannielle Harwood, a family practitioner.
She asks Williams whether she has any concerns about the toddlers, then fires off a bunch of questions. Have they started using the potty? Sometimes, says Williams. Are they talking? Yes. Can they jump? Yes.
The doctor further examines the children and proclaims them healthy. Williams is too tired to smile.
"She's doing really well," Harwood says of Williams. "She's mature beyond her years. I've just never seen her lose it with all she has to do."
Nearly three hours after she set out for the appointment, Williams is on her way home. It's nearly 4 p.m.
She whips through the drive-through at McDonald's and orders a 20-piece Chicken McNuggets box, fries and a burger. At home, the toddlers climb into their high chairs for a late lunch. Williams eats her burger between sprints upstairs to check on the babies.
Going out, says Williams, can be worse than staying at home day in and out. For one thing, it takes a huge effort. For another, she hates the stares.
She recalls one day when she could not enlist anyone to help her take the infants to the pediatrician. Determined to make the appointment, she squeezed all three babies in their infant carriers in the back seat and slammed the door shut.
Once there, she put one carrier handle in the crease of her arm and held one of the others in each hand.
"Everybody was looking at me gawking," says Williams. "I felt like a freak or something."
Even so, Williams says she'd like to take all of the children out more, to the park or the mall. But she's just not ready.
"I've got to get a system in place for when we go out," she says, back upstairs lounging on a mattress. The toddlers are playing in their gated room, the babies lulled by the swing and their mother's arms.
Williams manages a smile.
"It's all about having that system and getting by the best way you can," she says.