Padding downstairs with her 6-week-old daughter, Harlow Winter Kate, in her arms and her boyfriend, Joel Madden, by her side, Nicole Richie apologizes for running behind schedule. “I was joking with Joel today—I think it’s impossible to be on time with a newborn,” says the new mom, barefoot and makeup-free as she settles into the baby-gear-filled living room of their Glendale, Calif., home. Adds Madden: “It takes an hour just to get out of the house. Like, ‘Oops, now she has to eat. Now she has to change!'”
Clearly, Richie, 26, and Madden, who turns 29 on March 11, are adjusting to life in the New Baby Time Zone. The Good Charlotte frontman warms a bottle of breast milk and begins Harlow’s evening feeding—stopping to burp her after every two ounces—while he and Richie reflect on the past year. A onetime Hollywood wild child who underwent rehab at 21, Richie—singer Lionel’s daughter and Paris Hilton‘s former cohort on The Simple Life—is much more settled these days. “I didn’t just wake up one morning and say, ‘Okay, today I’m going to change,'” she says. “It was more of a gradual, day-by-day thing.”
With Harlow settling in for a snooze on her dad’s chest, Madden and Richie talked with PEOPLE’s Lisa Ingrassia and Marisa Laudadio about their new lives.
A year ago, would you have imagined this scene?
JOEL: [Parenthood] was not in the plans. But it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to us. It was a gift from God. It was a big surprise but neither one of us even skipped a beat.
NICOLE: Yeah, it was never like a bad thing. It’s weird—even though we had only been together a few months, we had lightly talked about having a family. I think we always knew.
JOEL: We just get each other. We’re both laid-back people. It’s never been a job to be in this relationship.
How have things changed since Harlow arrived?
NICOLE: It’s crazy. It’s almost like I don’t even remember what life was like before her. She gives life a whole new meaning and a whole new purpose.
How did you first tell Joel you were pregnant?
NICOLE: I picked a really bad time! I couldn’t hold it in. He was flying from Japan to Europe, so right before he gets on a 16-hour flight I was like, “I have to tell you something.”
How was your pregnancy?
NICOLE: I didn’t have morning sickness, and I was waiting for it. I was tired a lot but that was really the only thing. And according to [Joel], my hormones were really bad.
JOEL: Nicole is really laid-back. You can tell her anything and she’s like, “Whatever.” And that was the first time I’d seen her get worked up. I’d be like, “Whoa, this is not the girl that I know.” Like, if I was late—which is usually no big deal—it was like, “Where were you? You know that I’ve been waiting here, you couldn’t even think to call?” It was cute.
Did you have any cravings?
NICOLE: Nothing really crazy. I would eat breakfast for dinner and dinner for breakfast.
JOEL: She never liked chocolate, and now she likes chocolate.
NICOLE: Yeah, I’ve always been a cheese/salt person.
How about now that you’re breastfeeding?
NICOLE: There’s just so much I can’t eat because she’s sensitive. I eat really bland [food]—chicken noodle soup, vegetables, fish. I had to cut out milk, no tomatoes, no lettuce. You think you have to cut everything out when you’re pregnant, but you really have to cut everything out when you’re breast-feeding.
How was the birth?
JOEL: The whole pregnancy—the whole thing was easy. Well, I’m not saying the birth was easy for you.
NICOLE: It actually was!
How did you know it was time?
NICOLE: I just didn’t feel well.
JOEL: She was like, “I think it’s going to be soon, so let’s go while it’s 2 a.m.” So we snuck into the hospital…
NICOLE: And we just settled until I had the baby [on Jan. 11]. It was really mellow.
How long were you in labor?
NICOLE: I don’t know, because I don’t know what time I actually went into labor, but I pushed for 10 minutes. Three pushes and she was out.
JOEL: She came out and she was crying. The doctor goes, “Well, it looks like you got a little girl!”
NICOLE: They put her right on my chest and I breast-fed her. I didn’t know anything about breast-feeding, so I fed her for 35 minutes on one side! And the doctor was like, “You should probably switch sides.”
The experience seems like it was comically easy for you!
NICOLE: Well, right after I had her, I remember saying to Joel, “I need food. Get me apples.”
JOEL: I ordered her a steak.
NICOLE: I don’t know what I was asking for but I felt like I was going to die. [Gesturing to Harlow, who is stirring] She woke up for the story. She likes this story!
JOEL [TO HARLOW]. This is the story of how you were born!
Who was the first to cry?
NICOLE: I cried right away.
JOEL: Right when she came out, you know that cry that’s like an internal cry where you shake a little bit? [To Harlow] You made me cry!
NICOLE: She came out, and I just knew she looked like me, and I was holding her, and it was something that was so much bigger than me. Now she looks a little more like Joel, but when she was born, it looked like Joel had nothing to do with it.
JOEL: Thank God she looks like Nicole!
How did you pick the name?
NICOLE: We couldn’t agree. I wanted a hippie name and he wanted a more Biblical name.
JOEL: I really like Jean Harlow the actress, and she likes Shalom Harlow the model. Harlow’s cool because it feels like a classic name.
NICOLE: And no one has it.
JOEL: Winter was so serene and quiet and that’s how she is.
NICOLE: I always liked the name Kate, but I knew I’d never name my kid that because it was just too plain.
Are you enjoying being curvier on top?
NICOLE: He’s enjoying it! I don’t really like it. It doesn’t really fit with my wardrobe; it’s not who I am. I never had to think about wearing a bra, so it’s a whole new world. But you know, whatever.
JOEL: I like you both ways.
Do you have help at home?
JOEL: We don’t have a nanny. We have our moms. They’ve helped us a lot.
NICOLE: And we have to give credit to Benji [Joel’s twin brother]. He lives six houses down. He babysits, like really babysits.
JOEL: There was a day when I’d been at work all day and Nicole hadn’t left the house for 48 hours, and I was like, “Let’s go to a restaurant down the street,” and Benj was with the baby. Then someone said they read somewhere we were out all the time. It’s crazy. You leave the house for one hour and everyone’s like, “She’s out! She’s leaving the baby!”
How is Lionel as a grandfather?
JOEL: He’s a great granddad. He’s the best. She loves him. You have to be around Lionel to see how he is. He’s just happy.
NICOLE: I just think without even consciously talking about it, the family has gotten closer. [Harlow] is really the focus, and everyone has the same goal: to love her and to make her happy. When Joel and I got together, he was always like, “Let’s go to your dad’s, let’s go to your mom’s,” so we started going over there more. My dad always says Joel really brought the family together. [Joel blushes.]
Have you talked about how you want to raise Harlow?
NICOLE: Joel joked my whole pregnancy that he thought he would be the strict parent because I’m so laid-back and free-spirited.
JOEL: She’s the strict one!
NICOLE: And since she was born, I’ve been so protective. Now Joel’s like, “I’m going to be the fun parent!”
JOEL: Nicole can tell the difference between a whine and a cry. I’m like, “Oh, she’s making a noise, I gotta go in there.” And Nicole’s like, “Let her self-soothe for a minute and see how she does.”
NICOLE: I’m with her all the time. And she was a part of me for so long. I know when something’s wrong.
What was the experience of going to jail like when you were pregnant? [Richie served 82 minutes of a four-day sentence last August for DUI.]
JOEL: For her and for me, it was just, “Let’s just get this over with.” Nicole was just doing what she had to do, doing the right thing, going in and facing it and taking care of it. We wanted to close that chapter.
NICOLE: And move on.
Do you feel healed? You’ve said getting pregnant saved your life.
NICOLE: Did I?
JOEL: So dramatic.
You said it to Diane Sawyer!
NICOLE: Now that I look back on it, I was a different person last year than I am now. And listen, sometimes I’ll be here and I’ll think to myself, “I used to be fun! What if I’m not fun anymore?” I have all those feelings. But you know what? I am who I am. I’m still fun, just not in that way.
JOEL: People have this perception that Nicole was, like, in an opium den.
NICOLE: And I wasn’t.
JOEL: She made some mistakes. But look at where we’re from: I’m in a rock and roll band. Nicole is who she is. It’s not like we had to give so much up because of the baby. It’s just time to be parents.
Do you plan to go back to work anytime soon?
JOEL: She’s working on a perfume, she’s working on a clothing line.
NICOLE: A maternity line and a children’s line. And a jewelry line. I’m doing it with Mouawad.
Has Harlow met Paris Hilton?
NICOLE: Yeah. They went to the Ivy. Just kidding. I have to say, all of my friends, their demeanor completely changes when they’re around the baby. When they come in the house they’re really mellow and careful and sweet with her. And when you’re with a baby, you don’t think, like, “Oh, I’m this person.” She spits up on you and throws up on you or goes to the bathroom or passes gas.
Who got the first smile?
NICOLE: Well, actually Benji did.
JOEL: Now it happens all the time. We live for her smiles. When she smiles…
NICOLE: We feel so good. I don’t know if it was this morning—my days are blended—but I was watching her in her crib and she happened to wake up and I was like, “Good morning!” And she smiled and it was the cutest thing ever.
How has Harlow changed your perspective on life?
NICOLE: Everything I do, I think about how it will benefit her or hurt her. She’s never out of my mind. I stop doing things for me anymore. Everything is for her.