Family First

updated 01/19/2009 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/19/2009 AT 01:00 AM EST

Since the birth of Sarah Palin's first grandchild on Dec. 27, life at the Alaska governor's four-bedroom Wasilla home has gotten a lot busier—and a bit more crowded. Not only has tiny Tripp moved in with mom Bristol, but dad Levi Johnston has been staying over too. "Levi is hands-on," says his mother, Sherry Johnston, who lives nearby. "He's already bought Tripp a hockey stick." Such eagerness is in keeping with the couple's excited response to the prospect of parenthood: Two weeks after learning that she was pregnant, Bristol and Levi, both 18, who have dated for three years, "went out and bought the car seat and a crib," says Sherry.

Gov. Palin has been frank about the fact that she and husband Todd were not as initially enthusiastic. "We all at first looked at the situation with some fear and a bit of despair," said the governor in a statement. But the birth of this 7-lb. 7-oz. boy appears to have transformed her from worried mom to thrilled grandma. "We are over the moon with the arrival of this healthy, beautiful baby," she wrote. "The road ahead for this young couple will not be easy, but nothing worthwhile is ever easy. Bristol and Levi are committed ... to provide a loving and secure environment for their child."

By all accounts, they will have lots of help. After making a solo appearance at a New Year's Eve party, Todd cut out early, saying "now he had a couple of babies at home," recalls host Martin Buser, referring not only to Todd's new grandson but to Tripp's 9-month-old uncle Trig. Sarah's mother, Sally Heath, meanwhile, told a friend that she plans on "a lot of babysitting." Sherry's stepfather, Tim Zimbrich, says, "Whatever help they need, they get." Adds Curtis Menard, a friend and mayor of Matanuska-Susitna borough: "As Alaskans, we rise to the occasion. Bristol will do great."

Bristol actually may be better prepared for parenthood than most. As the second in the Palin lineup (after Track, 19, who is serving in the Army in Iraq, and before Willow, 14; Piper 7; and Trig), Bristol is a veteran babysitter. Having helped with Piper and Trig, "she knows what it's all about," Palin, 44, told PEOPLE shortly after becoming the GOP candidate for vice president. That's not just praise from a proud mom. "She was exceptional with my daughter," says Trudi Gittlein, a Wasilla homemaker who hired Bristol as a sitter for her 7-year-old, who used to play with Piper. "Bristol didn't just sit them down in front of a TV; she played with them." Among her most popular diversions: baking sugar cookies and fixing the girls' hair.

Levi's mom says that Bristol isn't the only one with experience. After the birth of Trig, who has Down syndrome, "Levi would help out," says Sherry, 42, who is savoring Tripp's birth even as she faces charges of selling OxyContin (see box).

In their first week as parents, Levi and Bristol shared parenting duties. By day, says Sherry, they tended to Tripp and sorted through gifts from well-wishers; by night they traded off diaper detail and the task of soothing a crying baby.

Levi had intended to return to work as an electrical apprentice with the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation on Jan. 4. But public questions about his eligibility—the program requires a high school diploma or equivalency—caused him to stay home and, as his father, Keith, told the Anchorage Daily News, continue his education.

Palin, who has been home with her family before the three-month legislative term begins in Juneau, initially declined to mention Tripp's birth, despite a handful of appearances last week. But finally, Palin was compelled to speak out after seeing media reports that her daughter and future son-in-law had dropped out of high school. Palin contacted reporters directly, twice phoning PEOPLE to say, "Levi and Bristol are working their butts off to parent and going to school and working at the same time." She then issued a statement that stressed Bristol is in her last semester of high school (via correspondence courses) and "Levi is continuing his online high school work." (According to Sherry Johnston, who homeschooled her son for a few years, Levi was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and has long had problems in school.) Both Bristol and Levi, Palin said, "have faith they've made the right decision in setting aside their own interests to make this child their highest priority."

Among the plans on the back burner may have been a professional goal of caring for babies. In a December note to Joy of Pregnancy author Tori Kropp, who sent Bristol her book, the expectant mom wrote, "You have my dream job! I have always been interested in ped[iatric] nursing."

Bristol was also quoted in the statement from the governor's office, saying, "Teenagers need to prevent pregnancy to begin with—this isn't ideal. But I'm fortunate to have a supportive family." The careful cobbling of sentiments reflected the awkward line Palin has walked as an advocate of premarital abstinence and limited sex education, an opponent of abortion and a mother of an unwed teenaged parent.

Palin hopes that last part will change—soon. Asked to confirm reports of a summer wedding, she told PEOPLE, "Hopefully before that." Sherry Johnston says plans for nuptials "this year" continue apace. For now, however, it is less about being a bride and groom and more about being mom and dad. As Bristol said of her baby son, "I can't imagine life without him."

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