Every Reason to Smile

10/17/2002 AT 01:00 PM EDT

Bounding into a New York City hotel dining room on a recent morning, Faith Hill apologizes for being late. The country-pop diva has a full day ahead of her: interviews to promote her new CD, Cry, in the morning; a photo shoot in the afternoon; then the dress rehearsal for her Saturday Night Live debut. First, though, she had more important business to tend to: dropping off daughters Gracie, 5, and Maggie, 4, at the makeshift classroom their tutor has set up in another part of the hotel. When Mom tours, the girls get their education on the road, with the tutor guiding them through lessons and field trips. "It's a traveling school circus," says Hill, dressed in purple velour sweats and no makeup, her hair still damp from the shower. "In London they saw every palace and can tell us about all of the queens and which ones got their heads chopped off."

At 35, Hill is a country queen who has her head decidedly screwed on. Following a two-year break, she's back with her first new CD since the multiplatinum Breathe and an NBC concert special airing Thanksgiving Day. Her favorite gig, though, is playing Mom to Gracie, Maggie and, most recently, Audrey Caroline, 10 months. "Faith," says her friend and girlhood idol Reba McEntire, "has the balance down pat. She does a great job with her girls and her career." Says singer Kenny Chesney, another pal: "It's always baffled me how normal that girl is and how big a star she can be. She switches gears very well." It's a skill she learned the hard way. A perfectionist who thrives on being in control, Hill found herself facing some of the most frightening moments of her life last Dec. 6. Seven months pregnant, she had turned up for a routine appointment with her Nashville obstetrician to discover that her amniotic fluid was dangerously low. "He said my fluid had just gone," says Hill. "My placenta had stopped working. I didn't know. The biggest sign would've been if I didn't feel the baby moving. But the baby wasn't still."

The doctor told Hill the baby needed to be delivered immediately by emergency C-section at nearby Baptist Hospital. Hill phoned Tim McGraw, who was Christmas shopping. "He was there in 10 minutes," she says. While the couple headed to the hospital, staffers picked up Gracie and Maggie at school and Faith and Tim's parents came into town to help however they could. "Everybody just took over, rose to the occasion," she says. Having earlier downplayed reports of Audrey's "fight for life," Hill now admits, "It was an emergency. We didn't know what the outcome was going to be. It was frightening; it was alarming. We said a lot of prayers."

At 4:39 p.m. Audrey arrived -- eight weeks early, weighing 3 lbs. 11 oz. "She came out screaming loud," says Hill. "She had this big old mouth on her -- this girl was nothing but mouth because she was so little." McGraw, 35, was in the room for the delivery and held the baby briefly before handing her off to hospital staffers, who whisked her into the neonatal intensive care unit. "The toughest thing was seeing her in her little Isolette," he says. "Not being able to feed her and seeing her lose a little weight." The newborn was 17 in. long -- "That's tiny," says Hill, "when you see that up against a baby who's 21 in." -- and her parents had to wear latex gloves to touch her because of the high risk of infection. "Her lungs were not developed," says Hill. "Her vitals, everything worked, everything was moving, but it was miniaturized. I'd stick my finger in the Isolette and my first knuckle would be her entire hand."

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