From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
IT IS A WONDERFUL TIME FOR A woman, that moment when she realizes a new life is within her, stirring, growing, forcing her to think about eventually removing her gold belly-button ring. For Madonna, that revelation came in Buenos Aires last March during the shoot for the musical Evita, when she learned that, after years of talking on the Late Show with David Letterman and in similar intimate venues about trying to get pregnant, she was finally tangoing for two.

Delighted but already feeling protective of her unborn child, she at first spoke of the situation only to her sister, her personal trainer and, of course, to the baby's father, Carlos Leon. But secrets about Madonna seldom stay kept. By the time she checked into Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles last week, there were tofu merchants in Bali who knew she was leaning away from a C-section, and the paparazzi, like contractions, were arriving every few minutes.

It was not an easy birth. Madonna's labor began at 3:30 a.m. last Monday morning. Leon and the singer's sister Melanie Henry, a musicians' manager in Los Angeles, were with her through the night. But by noon the next day the only thing that had arrived was an intense hunger. "Ugh," said Madonna, 38, from her bed in the labor room. "I just want some french fries from McDonald's."

Her Plan A had been to have natural childbirth with the soundtrack of a romantic 1988 Alan Rudolph film called The Moderns playing. By 3:30 Monday afternoon, however, Madonna was still in pain but showing no signs of progress, and her doctor suggested a cesarean. She reluctantly agreed and soon found herself heavily sedated and being wheeled toward the delivery room. "Goodbye, everyone," she said. "I'm going to get my nose job now."

From that point on, things proceeded smoothly. Her daughter, weighing 6 lbs. 9 ozs. and sporting a full head of black hair just like her father's, was born at 4:01 p.m. No, the baby's name is not Lola—one of the many false rumors preceding the birth. Madonna had said she needed to see her child before coming up with a proper name—and after taking one look, she pronounced the girl Lourdes Maria Ciccone Leon. No hyphen, no worries, no doubt about it. "This is," Madonna told PEOPLE, "the greatest miracle of my life."

Leon, meanwhile, seemed just as ecstatic when he stepped out of the delivery room moments after the birth. "She's the most beautiful baby!" he said, grinning broadly, to a group that included Madonna's manager Caresse Norman, publicist Liz Rosenberg and several friends and personal security guards. Later, Leon was seen blissfully wandering the corridors in a T-shirt reading, "I Got My First Hug at Good Samaritan Hospital."

For a woman who once published a picture book called Sex and scandalized millions by simulating masturbation onstage, Madonna has segued into this current stage of her life quite smoothly. Over the last few months, photos of her showed a face that was fuller and more serene. She had been sonogrammed (It's a girl!), steeped in Dr. Spock et al ("Which baby book haven't I read?"), and baby-showered by Rosie O'Donnell and their mutual pals ("The whole world wants to give me advice"). True, in what seemed a classic Madonna touch, her pediatrician turned out to be Paul Fleiss, father of Hollywood madam Heidi. Yet Madonna herself has lately exuded a maternal glow, and the idea of her executing pelvic thrusts anywhere outside a Lamaze class seemed, for the moment, unthinkable.

Certainly she approached maternity in mature fashion. "We talked about having children while we were making A League of Their Own," says Rosie O'Donnell. "Both of us lost our mothers at an early age, and so being a mom was important to us." After Evita wrapped in May, Madonna, who was 5 when her mother died, put her pink Hollywood Hills mansion on the market and bought a more baby-friendly, single-story house in lower profile Los Feliz. For a while, the nursery has been ready for its raison d'être. The room, decorated in soft florals, has a crib and a changing table piled high with stuffed animals—some given to her, some purchased, then tossed on the heap. Says Madonna's younger brother, video director Christopher Ciccone: "There's a certain serenity in her newfound chaos."

There has also been much joy. "She's been in a great mood," says her trainer Ray Kybartas. The first time she felt the baby kick, in May, Madonna says, "I felt like laughing out loud." During the amniocentesis that same month, "she was very emotional," says manager Norman. "When Madonna watched the monitor and saw the needle go in, there may have even been a tear on her cheek."

Until labor started, Madonna says, she had a relatively easy nine months. She never had morning sickness, and except for a craving for poached eggs in her fourth month, she didn't have much trouble adhering to her usual low-fat diet. As for working out, she did an almost daily hour of aerobics and some weight training with Kybartas, who adds that "we also did a lot of stretching, especially leg work that would help her in the delivery room." In her last month, she cut back from six sessions a week to three.

One part of her life she hasn't phased out is Leon, 30, the handsome personal trainer and aspiring actor she met while running in Central Park two years ago. Despite reports of their breakup, the pair are living together, though Madonna dodges the question of how involved Leon will be in raising their child. "He is definitely in the picture," says publicist Rosenberg.

Madonna lately has displayed a strong sense of family. Two weeks ago she had dinner at her home with Leon, Christopher, sister Melanie and her 6-year-old son Levon. Afterward she did something that one relative says he hasn't seen her do in years: the dishes. Now that she's a mother, she has no plans beyond doting on her baby. Because of problems with a stalker last year, Madonna says she won't be releasing a baby picture soon and "I won't be doing anything in public with my daughter until she's much older."

Rosie O'Donnell assured her life will be different. "I told her," she says, "it's going to change her in the best possible way." With Lourdes Maria on her hip, Madonna's wants are few. "I just can't wait," she says laughingly, "to wear anything with a waistline."

TODD GOLD in Los Angeles