October 20, 2008 12:00 PM

I wasn’t at the point where I was ready to be a mother,” says Nicole Richie, who learned last year that she and boyfriend Joel Madden were expecting after only four months of dating. Just two years ago on The Simple Life, Richie read a mother’s list of chores and announced, “I don’t know how to do 99 percent of these things. Is that okay?”

Look at her now. She purees her own green beans. She records her daughter’s every smile and burble in a journal. “She’s the best mom I’ve ever seen,” raves Madden, 29. The couple just moved into a new L.A. home, after spending the summer touring with Madden’s band, Good Charlotte. And their life is full in other ways. Last month Madden threw Richie a 27th-birthday surprise party. Next up, their children’s charity will sponsor an Oct. 19 walk in L.A. to help end family homelessness. Yet with everything going on in their busy careers (see box, page 104), when Richie and Madden took time out to speak with PEOPLE at a Washington, D.C., cafe, what they really enjoyed talking about was 9-month-old Harlow.

Joel: She smiles all the time.

Nicole: She appreciates every single thing. It’s awesome. She’s very carefree, very independent. In the car, she’s in the back talking to herself.

Joel: She likes to have her own time.

Nicole: Harlow’s a delicate soul. She studies people. She’s very coy. People say that she and I make the same expressions. But everyone says she looks like Joel.

Joel: I’m cool with it, as long as she doesn’t look like me in a wig when she’s 16. I like that she looks like me—it’s my get-out-of-jail-free card.

Nicole: I tell Joel, “Even when I’m really mad at you, I could never really hate you, because you look like Harlow.” So it’s saving you. [Laughs]

Ever miss your pre-baby lives?

Joel: I can’t imagine life without her. It was never a moment where it was like, “This is inconvenient for us.” We’re very blessed to have it happen the way it did.

What’s a typical day for her?

Joel: She’s up at 7, eats at 8 . . .

Nicole: No, she eats at 7.

Joel: Eats at 7. I get up a little later. And we hang out, play . . .

Nicole: Play until 9, then she takes a 45-minute nap. She breast-feeds at 10:30 and eats real food at 11. Naps from 12 to 2. Eats again at 2:30 and again at 6. We do a family bath, maybe every other day; everyone piles in. She goes to bed at 7. That’s my chance to do adult things. It’s a healthy balance.

And when you were on the road?

Joel: We had a crib on the bus. These days on a Good Charlotte tour, there’s no partying on the bus.

Nicole: I shipped everything Harlow needs in containers, labeled.

Have you always been so organized?

Nicole: Never. Now I’m all about the schedule. I think Joel’s kind of annoyed about it. He’s like, “Stop talking about the schedule!”

Joel: She’s got a whole system of trying food. We have a puree-er. We do green beans, peas, bananas, apples, carrots . . .

Nicole: . . . sweet potatoes, squash.

So word is you’re kind of obsessive about writing down all of Harlow’s daily activities.

Joel: She has notebooks and notebooks full of the first time she rolled over, the first time she laughed, the first time she . . .

Nicole: . . . screamed . . .

Joel: Everything she’s ever done is in that book. It’s pretty cool. I really appreciate that because I come home and I can look through it.

Nicole: My friend asked me what I wanted for my birthday, and I told her I wanted a notebook. She said, “You need to calm down!” [Laughs]

Do you have celeb playdates?

Nicole: No! [Laughs] My mom friends are people that I grew up with. Her godparents will be our best friends Mark and Masha.

Joel: They’re “civilians.” We are friends with Pete [Wentz] and Ashlee [Simpson-Wentz]. We’re excited for them to soon be parents.

What are Harlow’s days like?

Nicole: I’m just now starting to get her into a music class. I’m going to put her in everything. I’m going to put her in ballet when she can start walking.

Joel: I can’t wait till she starts playing sports.

Nicole: Sports?

Joel: Tennis.

Nicole: Tennis?

Joel: It’s cute. A little tennis player?

Nicole: No, she’s going to be a dancer. Or whatever she wants to do.

Joel: I just want to give her the option to try whatever she wants. I have a feeling she’s going to be musical because she loves instruments.

Nicole: She loves to play the piano.

Joel: She has a little piano that I took the legs off of and put on the floor. She lays there and just bangs on it.

Was Harlow your inspiration for your Children’s Foundation?

Joel: The charity stuff is emotional—every kid becomes your child. Every little baby deserves to be held and fawned over. I’m happy that my daughter has been born into an easy life. I always thought I didn’t want that—I had a thing with people who didn’t have to work, because I had to work so hard for everything I had. Hopefully by example from us, she’ll learn to do the right thing and to be a good person.

Joel, how does your fatherly side show closer to home?

Nicole: He’s really protective of us; it’s cute.

Joel: A couple weeks ago they fell asleep on the plane, and there was this guy, and his two teenage daughters wanted to take pictures of her. I was like, “Hey, she’s asleep now. Maybe when we get off the plane, you guys can take a picture.” The guy just stood up, turned around and started taking pictures of her, and I kind of got into it with him. I was like, “I can’t believe you’re arguing with me. This is my newborn daughter and my girlfriend.”

Nicole, do you ever have time to pamper yourself—go to a spa, say?

Nicole: Do I look like I’m pampering myself? I don’t wear nail polish because she sucks on my fingers. I wear my hair up with her. I don’t really shop. And I only wear heels after 7 p.m. No, I don’t miss it.

Joel: Nicole is completely dedicated. I do whatever she tells me to do. I’m cool with that. She’s really good with the baby. I’m really good with finances. All of Harlow’s education and all that stuff, I already have planned.

Has motherhood changed how you view yourself?

Nicole: I think my sense of self is still the same. But I don’t do things, we do things. I work around her. When I was like 2 or 3, my mom and I would get our nails and hair done together. That was so fun. And I want her and I to do that when she’s older.

Do you have any immediate goals for her or the family in general?

Nicole: I don’t think you can plan anything about having a child. It’s something completely new, so you just have to go with whatever works for you. There’s a million different ways to be a mom.

Joel: Our baby’s healthy. She’s growing, so everything’s working.

Is a wedding in the plans?

Nicole: When we get married, everyone will know. It will happen when it happens.

More kids?

Joel: If it could be as easy as Harlow, sure.

Nicole: Right now? Oh my God, I need a nap first.

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