There's a lot of shouting happening in Kate Gosselin's house. The mother of eight—twins Mady and Cara, 8, and sextuplets Alexis, Collin, Leah, Hannah, Aaden and Joel, 5—has barely had time to change out of her morning workout clothes before her brood has descended upon her, clinging to her legs and loudly wondering what to do given the rainy weather. "Let's do a project," yells Kate above the clamor. The eight children race to the kitchen table and promptly pull out their construction paper and crayons to make Father's Day cards for their conspicuously absent dad, who'll receive them two days later. "Will you help me draw a heart?" asks a giggling Collin. "I want lots of hearts."
Lately the family has seen lots of heartbreak, culminating with the news that Kate and her husband, Jon, stars of the reality series Jon & Kate Plus 8
, have decided to end their marriage. They each filed for divorce on June 22, the same day that the couple announced the split during a tense, hour-long episode of the show. Issuing a statement shortly after she filed the papers in Montgomery County, Pa., where divorce proceedings are not made public, Kate said, "Jon's activities have left me no choice but to file legal procedures in order to protect myself and our children. While there are reasons why it was appropriate and necessary for me to initiate this proceeding, I do not wish to discuss those reasons at this time, in the hope that all issues will be resolved amicably between Jon and myself. As always, my first priority remains our children."
It was a low point on the roller coaster Kate, 34, says she has been riding for months. And though she took legal action, Kate maintains the decision to part ways was not something she fully wanted. "Jon has been asking for this for a long time," she says. "He does not want to be married to me anymore. No questions asked, he went and hired a lawyer and said, 'You'd better get one.' So I did. I never would've made that step; I never would have done it. But I did, because he told me to do it."
With her kids—who learned of the separation only the day before she sat with PEOPLE—happily playing in the next room, Kate curls up in an armchair and tries to look on the bright side. The couple have agreed to rotate in and out of the house while the children stay put, an arrangement not unlike how they've been living while Kate was traveling for book signings or speaking engagements or while Jon went skiing or to visit friends. "It's technically not that much of a change," she concedes. And yet it's hard for her to fight back some bitterness. "I've only not been here while I was working, and Jon tried to compare that and make it seem like when he was away, it was the same as when I was away, which doesn't add up," she says. "Bottom line: He wasn't here. And he hasn't been here. But now he's going to have to be here more for the kids, and the kids are happy about that. They're thrilled that Daddy is going to be here this weekend. The hard part is that now I have to leave, and not for work. I've got to go find somewhere else to be. I'm not sure where I'll go. But it's good. When I'm wandering around the country alone, I'll just know that they're happy that he's here. So there's that."
After months during which, she says, Jon would barely speak to her (and neither Jon nor Kate have ever mentioned counseling on the show), the breakup is, to some degree, "a relief. I've been living in a pressure cooker for a long time." But, after pausing for a moment, she grows more emotional. "On a good day I feel relief. On a bad day I feel failure," she says, her voice breaking and tears welling in her eyes. "I've never quit anything in my life. It feels like I've failed. It's hard. This is the first war I've fought alone. Really, really alone."
Kate says there was no defining moment that led her to conclude her marriage was broken. "It was event after event after event where I came to realize: This is not the same person I married," she says. "I remember just looking at him and thinking, 'I wouldn't choose to marry that exact person right now . . . so why am I here?' Our goals don't match up anymore, our dreams don't match up, our ideas don't match up."
And yet, when the time came to formalize the separation, Kate was devastated. "I curled up in a ball and I sobbed," she says, shuddering. "I couldn't breathe; I was hyperventilating. I was scaring people who were calling to check on me, because I couldn't even talk. I said, 'I'm done, I'm done, I'm so done. I've held it together, I've been strong long enough, I'm done.' I just sat here and sobbed and sobbed. I'm bracing myself for more days like those; I'm not silly. But I'm determined to get through them."
Making matters worse have been the ever-present paparazzi, who seem to track her with a greater intensity than they do her husband, whose behavior kicked off the media maelstrom. Discussing this perceived injustice is the only time that Kate raises her voice. "They follow me more than they follow him. We were meeting with our lawyers the other day, and Jon said, 'If we leave the house by 9 a.m., we're fine.' And I said, 'You're fine on a daily basis because they're with me! I'll tell you what time is fine to leave, and it's before 7:00 in the morning!'"
She shakes her head sadly. "I don't care. Write all about my alleged plastic surgery, and how I abuse my kids and deny them water," she says ruefully. "But I walk into the grocery store, and my kids see the magazines, and they're like, 'Oh look! There's Daddy! And there's Daddy! And there's Mommy!' I do my motherly duty and turn them all around in the rack, and I don't say anything except, 'Okay, it's all better now.' I don't have any words for it except, 'Get enough already and move on.'"
While they may have been shielded from the checkout-stand headlines, the kids heard the news of the break-up from Jon and Kate themselves. "That was the hardest part," Kate says. "With Cara and Mady, we'd told them earlier in the day that we needed to talk to them later. But as soon as we said that, they kept asking, 'Is it good or bad? Good or bad?' and trying to guess it out of us. So finally I said, 'It's bad, but it will turn out good.' So later when we told them, they were being so adorable right beforehand, pressing their faces together and being so cute. I realize now, looking back, it was because they saw Jon and me at peace, sitting together in their room, and it brought them some strange comfort, though they didn't know what was coming."
The couple were careful in how they delivered the news. "We didn't use the D-word or the S-word"—divorce or separation—"we just said it's not going to be much different than how it is now, but we do need to tell you this," Kate explains. "Mady was something. She said, 'I can't say this comes as much of a surprise. I could've guessed.' But Cara just crumpled into tears. She was crying, and I was holding her in my arms like a baby, but then she looked up and said, 'You said it was bad but it would turn out good.' And I said, 'Because it is bad. But it will turn out good. You'll see. I promise you that.'"
Kate wipes away a tear and takes a deep breath. The sextuplets had an easier time dealing with the news. "We kept it light and airy," she explains. "We just said, 'Daddy's not going to live here sometimes, but he'll come back half the time, and we'll trade on and off.' I told them, 'This weekend I'm going away, and during that time Daddy will be here,' and they were like, 'Oh, okay,' and then they wanted to know what was for snack."
But Kate doesn't have any delusions that there won't be a massive impact on her children. "You hear kids who grew up with divorced parents, they have these horror stories," she says. "I'm not naive. I know that my kids will come out of this, to a degree, with some sort of dysfunction. I'm not stupid." Already there have been a few telltale signs of stress taking its toll: "Collin is more quiet and shy these days," she notes. "And Aaden is very sensitive. He's regressed a little bit in some ways, which is to be expected, but it still breaks my heart. It's passing, I know, and I've seen very little of it. And I think they're also feeling some relief now. I'm hoping we'll get into a good situation with a good schedule set up, and it will start to fade away."
In the meantime Kate is cherishing a regular routine with her kids. "We sit in this one big green chair, and they each choose a book, and I read to them," she says. "The other day we made Ziploc-bag ice cream, which they thought was so exciting. I don't know how much time would be enough, but there's just not enough of it. Every day they're a day older, and it's coming to an end. I hate it."
Certainly Kate feels her children—"they're eight of the best kids ever in the world," she says, beaming—can handle whatever comes their way. "They're just very resilient, adjustable kids. They're social and happy, and so forgiving. I feel guilty because I look at them and I beat myself up because I don't have enough time in the day to give to them. But they love me; they love hugging me while I'm doing laundry. Jon's changed before their very eyes, but they love him, they just love him, because he's Daddy."
Kate herself hasn't fully come to terms with no longer being a wife; she still wears her wedding band, which she fiddles with whenever talk turns to Jon. "I haven't thought the 'single mom' thought," she says. "I haven't taken off my ring. It would devastate my kids. It's not necessary. I was looking at it while I was in the shower this morning, and I thought, I'm not taking it off. I'm not ready."
Nor is she ready to even consider the prospect of finding love with someone new. "Yeah, right," she says with a guffaw. "The tabloids are already saying there's a member of the crew who is supposedly 'good eye candy' for me. I guess I'm supposed to be with him by now." But for all the media glare, she is quick to point out that televising her family's life is not what caused her marriage to collapse. "This is a situation that absolutely would have happened whether the cameras were here or not," she says adamantly. "I don't want people thinking we traded our marriage for fame. Ever. It's not a fair assumption."
To hear Kate tell it, her marriage might have been flawed from the start. "I think that for the past 10 years, I was operating under the belief that marriage is forever. So I exhausted myself trying to do everything and make everything be okay, when maybe it just couldn't," she says with a sigh. "I don't hate Jon. He's lost, he's confused. I don't look at him 100 percent of the time with horrible anger and animosity. He's the father of my children. My dream and my hope is that we can share holidays and birthdays and, for the kids, have it be peaceful. All of those times that we can pull together and drop our issues at the door, it just benefits our kids."
There's already an opportunity for a truce on the horizon. "I was very encouraged when we did our schedules the other day, because Jon pointed to the July 4 holiday and said, 'What are we going to do about that'" Kate says. "I absolutely cannot imagine not spending every single holiday with my kids. I don't care what it takes. I will be there. So I said, 'I don't know,' and he looked at me and said, 'Together'" Kate mimics her reaction, raising her eyebrows in shock. "I said, 'Yeah? We can have a cookout and fireworks'" she recalls. For the first time, her voice has a note of giddy, if cautious, enthusiasm. "He said, 'Sure.' That's something. We'll see."