Madonna Opens Up About Life with 6 Kids and Her Emotional Adoption Journey: ‘It’s Complicated — But So Worth It’

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Madonna may be the highest-selling female artist of all time, but at home she’s just Mom — or “Mambo,” as the four youngest of her six kids call her.

For this week’s issue, the pop icon, 59, offered a rare glimpse inside her private world, inviting PEOPLE to join her in Malawi on July 11, when she opened the Mercy James Centre for Pediatric Surgery and Intensive Care, the nation’s first children’s hospital. A month later, at her home in London, she opened up about her emotional adoption journey, why she’s dedicated to helping the children of Malawi — and her busy, rewarding life as mom to Lourdes, 20, Rocco, 17, David, 11, Mercy, 11, and 5-year-old twins Estere and Stella.

Malawi — a beautiful but struggling country in southeast Africa — has become a “second home” for Madonna in recent years. After first visiting in 2006, she founded Raising Malawi, a nonprofit that aims to educate and support health services for countless orphans and children in the country. It’s also where she met four kids who would change her life forever.

Already mom to Lourdes (with former flame Carlos Leon) and Rocco (with ex-husband Guy Ritchie), the singer first saw son David Banda at Home of Hope, an orphanage in Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital city. He was a baby battling pneumonia and malaria at the time, and feeling an instant connection, she began the adoption process.

But when she brought him home to London in 2008, the reception wasn’t anything she’d imagined. “Every newspaper said I kidnapped him,” Madonna says. “In my mind, I was thinking, ‘Wait a minute. I’m trying to save somebody’s life. Why are you all s—-ing on me right now?’ I did everything by the book. That was a real low point for me. I would cry myself to sleep.”

Madonna met Mercy James around the same time as David, and adopting her was even more difficult. Because she had recently divorced Ritchie, Malawian officials told her “I was not capable of raising a child,” she says. “The way I was treated — that sexist behavior — was ridiculous,” adds Madonna, who successfully challenged the refusal in Malawi’s Supreme Court and brought home Mercy in 2009.

“I’ve had some pretty dark moments,” she says, “but I’m a survivor.”

In February, the star brought home Estere and Stella, orphaned twins whom she met at Home of Hope 2½ years ago. Last summer, she again began the adoption process, which she says was just as rigorous: “Because I’m a public figure, people don’t want to be perceived as giving me any kind of special treatment, so I get the hard road.”

Adds the proud mom: “It’s complicated, but it’s so worth it.”

For much more on Madonna, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands everywhere Friday.

After seven months, Estere and Stella are acclimated. “It’s like they’ve always been here,” says Madonna of the precocious pair, who have become the stars of her latest Instagram posts.

Moana and Sing play on loop at her home, but when “Holiday” came on during dinner and David told the twins it was one of Mambo’s hits, “they were like, ‘Huh?’” Madonna says.

Of the fact that their mom is the Queen of Pop: “They don’t have a clue,” she says, “and that’s a good thing. I’m just their mother.”

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