From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Backstage at The View, Sherri Shepherd cries almost every week. No, she's not fighting with any of her cohosts. "I love the women I work with," Shepherd says. It's because her dream job as the newest member of daytime's all-girl gabfest comes with one major sacrifice. "By Wednesday," she says, "I'm breaking down in tears because I miss my son so much."

When Shepherd was hired in September, producers wanted her on the set in New York immediately, so the actress and stand-up comic from Los Angeles had to leave Jeffrey, 2, behind with her estranged husband, Jeff Tarpley. Plus Shepherd worried about the little guy's well-being, fearing that East Coast winters could take a toll on his fragile health. Born 15 weeks premature in 2005, Jeffrey has developmental delays and needs physical, speech and occupational therapy regularly. So for now, Shepherd visits him two or three times a month. "Leaving my baby was the hardest thing," she says, "but this is what I have to do to provide for my son."

Sitting backstage after a View taping, the former legal secretary, 40, talks easily—even cracks jokes—about the personal dramas she's weathered: from infertility to infidelity and impending divorce. Says executive producer Barbara Walters: "That's one of the things that attracted us to her—she is so candid and yet has wonderful humor about her life."

She and TV-commercial actor Tarpley, 41, who married in 2001, endured two years of fertility treatments—"shots in my butt, shots in my stomach, a little surgery"—before she got pregnant with two embryos via in vitro fertilization in 2004. "We used our American Express card to pay for the entire thing. Not only did we get a baby, we got double mileage points," Shepherd jokes. She miscarried one twin at 11 weeks but, 14 weeks later, Jeffrey arrived, weighing just 1 lb. 10 oz., with bleeding in his brain, a hole in his intestines and another in an artery near his heart. He remained in the hospital's intensive care unit for three months. "My son was fighting for his life," she says. "I remember saying, 'I will never laugh again.'"

Her son was still in the NICU when, she says, she discovered her husband was having an affair. "I was like, 'Lord. How much more can I take?'" recalls Shepherd. (Tarpley declined to comment for this story.) On the phone, Shepherd confronted the woman, who admitted an affair—and then said she was a huge fan of Shepherd on the sitcom Less then Perfect. "If that don't beat all!" says Shepherd.

A born-again Christian, Shepherd relied on her faith to pull her through—especially when she found out the other woman was pregnant with Tarpley's child. Still, she says, when the baby was born, "I held him and my heart melted. Out of this ugliness, a little boy was born who is as special as my son." The boys now play together. After a brief attempt at reconciliation, Shepherd and Tarpley are headed for divorce but maintain a good relationship. She plans to seek custody of Jeffrey when their divorce moves forward, but she calls Tarpley "a great dad."

Shepherd has always used faith and wit to deal with the dramas in her life. She grew up in Chicago but moved to L.A. at 17 with her mom after her parents' "devastating" divorce. In her 20s she faced evictions and garnished wages—even with a steady job as a legal secretary in Beverly Hills. ("I wasn't good with money," she admits.) In 1990 she decided to pursue a stand-up career after watching Andrew Dice Clay and Eddie Griffin at the Comedy Store. She took the bus to nightclub gigs, paid for groceries with talent-night winnings and cared for her mother, LaVerne, who was dying of diabetes. "If I made people laugh," she says, "I could forget about all that onstage."

Her mom died in 1991, but her father, Lawrence, 60, a church deacon, has watched Shepherd's career take off with roles on TV (Everybody Loves Raymond, Suddenly Susan, 30 Rock) and in film (Beauty School). Her other biggest fan is Jeffrey, who kisses the television set whenever he spots his mom at work. "He runs around saying, 'Mama,' 'Daddy,' 'football,' 'basketball'—and 'hallelujah,'" says Shepherd. "I taught him that one."