From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Kate Gosselin and her eight kids are supposed to be having a day of fun. Or, as she puts it, "I'm working, they're playing, and everybody's happy." Most of the time, anyway. The family is in Orlando to shoot a TLC special airing June 6-their first since Kate's wildly publicized divorce from husband Jon last December-and things haven't gone entirely smoothly. First, 6-year-old daughter Alexis woke up with a bad stomachache, forcing her to stay behind at the hotel with a friend. Then Kate struggled to get her other seven children into wet suits for the day's activities, which included swimming with the dolphins at Discovery Cove. When staffers toss a "Happy Birthday" buoy into the water to mark the sextuplets' 6th birthday-which was actually three days earlier, on May 10-Kate's daughter Mady, 9, grows tired of the attention given to her siblings and performs some vocal fact-checking. "It's not even their birthday!" she shouts in protest.

Through it all, Kate remains coolly efficient, making sure her kids say thank you to the Discovery Cove staff and trying to stay on schedule: "I want to get the showers done here," she states in her matter-of-fact way. "So they're clean when we go home. 'Cause when they melt down, it's gonna be pfffffftt ..." She makes a sound like a balloon deflating. "Or am I talking about myself?"

She's joking-mostly. But for Kate, 35, meltdowns are a fact of life these days as a single mom to twins Mady and Cara and sextuplets Alexis, Hannah, Leah, Aaden, Collin and Joel. It was one year ago that her 10-year marriage to Jon, 33, began to crack in plain view, with 10 million viewers tuning in to the sextuplets' excruciatingly uncomfortable 5th-birthday party. "That birthday party last year was the beginning of me really realizing that there was no going back," says Kate, taking a breather while her kids rest in between the day's activities. "It was pretty obvious at that party. This year, there's no comparison."

Since the split, the family has coped with divorce, long-distance separations (most recently while Kate competed on Dancing with the Stars), public custody struggles and near-constant emotional upheaval. Life with Jon, says Kate, "feels like 10 years ago."

Much of the change has been painful. Even now Kate acknowledges that things remain far from placid, citing the lack of a set custody schedule with Jon as a major source of stress. "I'm sorry to disappoint you, but it's not any calmer," she says. "It just appears calmer on the surface. Let me rephrase that: Daily life tends to be calmer. What the kids see looks calmer. It's just I've had to internalize and keep quiet the rest of the stress. But it bubbles within me and it spills over, and sometimes they see it." Like just last night at dinner, "the kids saw me upset: 'Mommy, were you crying?' 'No. I'm fine.' They know now not to ask any more questions. They just come hug me."

Yet it's clear the kids sometimes struggle too. "Mady said the other night-which every kid of divorce unfortunately is going to say, and I know to expect this-'I'm always sad. I'm sad when I'm with you because I miss Daddy, and I'm sad when I'm with Daddy because I miss you,' " says Kate, who trades off custody of the kids with Jon at the family's home in rural Pennsylvania. "I said, 'Well, first of all, you see me a lot, so when you're with Daddy, please enjoy and have a good time and don't miss me. When you're with me and you miss Daddy, call him.' And she does." She sighs deeply. "I feel bad that they're torn that way. But at the same time, I still know that it's really better overall. I've actually overheard them admit, a time or two, that yes, home is more peaceful now. And that's a good thing."

Finding her own peace has been more challenging. "I don't think I really know how to even relax anymore," she says. "Any little shred I had of that is gone." Still, the famously type A personality says she's beginning to go with the flow-a little. "I like stability, and it's funny, because my life isn't stable. I travel on a moment's notice; I'm home when I'm home. I'm learning to roll."

But there have been days when the fractured family's new reality has been a lot to bear. Especially difficult was the sextuplets' actual birthday on May 10, when Jon took the kids for part of the day. "That hit me hard," she says. "Sitting there, thinking, 'Six years ago I gave birth to these babies. I was probably in the NICU right now. And where are they?' That was so hard." But, she adds, "I was glad that Jon made himself available. I would never want them to not have that relationship. I would hope that it would never come to that."

Looking ahead, Kate alternates between resignation to her strained relationship with Jon and optimism that things will improve. "I'm trying to move toward that place, but I'm realizing that this could be the pattern I live in for most of the rest of my life: nonsolutions in every aspect," she says. "But there are moments when I do see glimpses of what a normal life might be. And I mean normal in the sense of getting used to this, feeling like I can manage this change. I'm not there yet." With what would have been her 11th wedding anniversary approaching on June 12, "I'll probably feel relief, really," says Kate.

Kate is also relieved to be returning to reality television-the very thing some critics feel tore apart the family in the first place. Not so, says Kate, noting that the kids "missed our crew bitterly," as little Alexis runs to one crew member and bumps fists with him, announcing, "I have a secret handshake with my buddy!" (Last year Jon withdrew his consent for the kids to appear on TV but has since come to terms with the network and has said he is working things out with Kate "privately and amicably.") In addition to a new TLC show, Twist of Kate, she and the kids will appear in several Kate Plus 8 specials. Kate knows more scrutiny is inevitable but says, "If we stop filming, we're missing the paycheck but not the frenzy [of paparazzi]. You've still got the negative."

She's also steeling herself for the onset of the twins' tween years. "You just never know what to expect," she says of Mady and Cara's moods. "I remember my mom when I was growing up saying, 'I don't know what to say, because I'm afraid to say anything.' And that's pretty much where I am." While Mady is generally more emotional, Cara also has had her moments. "She was upset with me because I forgot to sign them up for something at school," Kate recalls. "I said, 'Cara, I had a really rough year. This is a new year. You've got to give me that. Let's start over.' So I've really worked to keep my word with them." In general, Kate says, they've weathered the storm well: "They're just amazing, resilient, loving kids."

And kids with a birthday to celebrate. Soon the family-even Mady-are focusing on the festivities at a nearby park, taking turns holding an alligator, diving into a dolphin-decorated cake and whacking a pinata. Kate knows exactly what she'd wish for if it were her turn to blow out the candles. "I say it every day," she says. "I want happiness, peace and good things. Childhood memories. You only get to be a kid once."