Separate Lives?

updated 06/01/2009 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/01/2009 AT 01:00 AM EDT

For Kate Gosselin, reality star, mother of eight and tabloid target, there's a surefire recipe for stress relief: throwing herself into her work. So on May 16 she put the firestorm over her troubled marriage to husband Jon on the back burner, hopped in a black van and drove her brood—8-year-old twins and 5-year-old sextuplets—to Party City in Wyomissing, Pa., to pick out Backyardigans pinatas for the younger kids' belated birthday party. Since the outing was being taped for the May 25 premiere of the family's show on TLC, Jon & Kate Plus 8, producers, a camera crew and a bodyguard followed in two cars. But there was a new addition to the caravan: five automobiles filled with paparazzi, who have been trailing the couple ever since Jon was caught partying with other women in local bars. Not that Kate, who was notably without Jon, paid them much attention. "I've become a pro at compartmentalizing," she told PEOPLE. "When I am filming, nothing else matters." So perhaps she didn't notice that the song blaring on the store stereo was the Don Henley classic "The Heart of the Matter," with its lyrics about "forgiveness ... even if you don't love me anymore."

The bustling Gosselin home in Wernersville, Pa., may be overflowing in many things, but forgiveness currently isn't one of them. Linked to a 23-year-old schoolteacher, Jon has vehemently denied any infidelity; Kate has blasted her husband for his "poor choices" and is contending with rumors of her own, calling reports about a relationship with a bodyguard "disgusting." The tension between the pair has been palpable since Jon & Kate resumed filming a few weeks ago, and some of the struggle will soon be seen onscreen. For the first time since they began airing their family's life in 2006, a network source says the duo taped their "couch chats"—a segment of the show in which they normally sit side-by-side and discuss the day's events—separately before finally consenting to do just one interview together. "He's got a lot of issues," Kate said of Jon. "He won't let me help him. He won't let anyone help him."

Still the couple seem committed to putting their family first. "We're a family like anyone else—trying to survive," Jon told PEOPLE. "We just happen to be on television." The pair put on a united front at the taping of the sextuplets' birthday party at a local park on May 17. "No matter what's happening between Jon and Kate, they are clearly going to rally around the kids," says a source close to the family. The kids themselves, whom Kate has said are "pretty oblivious" to the tabloid attention, appear to be holding up well. Leaving Party City, each of them received a brightly colored balloon, which are only given out to "really good or really cute kids," according to store clerk Tricia Yahn. "They were both."

But when the cameras aren't rolling, Mom and Dad are rarely spotted together, with Jon making solo trips to pick up the kids from preschool, and Kate hitting Target and the local Giant supermarket alone. The couple know their every move is being scrutinized. "Anybody we put on the show gets cross-examined by the world," said Kate. As for Jon, "He has all these people down his back: 'Let me get your picture, let me get your autograph,'" says Brian Sep, an old pal. Adds Joe Farina, another longtime friend: "God forbid he talks to somebody. It gets blown out of proportion." The attention has never been more intense: At the birthday party, the pinata wasn't the only thing dangling from a tree—a photographer tumbled from a perch in some nearby branches.

Those hoping to catch Jon storming off could be waiting a while. "They have their disagreements, but he's a family-oriented guy," friend Dustin Sands says of Jon, adding that "Kate wears the pants. Jon will sit back and take orders." Kate isn't about to stop taking charge now. "I will never quit. I will not stop. I will never give up," Kate told PEOPLE. "I know that whatever comes my way, I can survive it."

Folks in their small town are waiting to see if happier days will come next. "We are really praying for the family and hoping they can work it out," says Tracie Ramos, co-owner of the Lotus Salon. "It would be nice to see this turn around."

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