May 11, 2015 12:00 PM

To say it had been an emotional week would be an understatement. The days leading up to Bruce Jenner’s much-anticipated interview with Diane Sawyer were filled with shocking tabloid headlines, rumors of strife with his ex-wife Kris Jenner and an increasingly pervasive paparazzi presence bent on capturing his most private moments on camera. But on April 24, 16.9 million people tuned in to watch the former Olympic decathlete and star of E!’s Keeping Up with the Kardashians as he confirmed what many had long speculated: He is, in fact, transitioning from male to female. “For all intents and purposes, I am a woman,” he said. “My whole life has been getting me ready for this…. I just can’t pull the curtain any longer.” By the very next day, those closest to Jenner said they could see an immediate, marked difference in his demeanor. “He’s relieved,” says a Kardashian source. “This whole thing had been a roller coaster, and it’s like a big weight is off his shoulders. He seems in a better place right now.”

For Jenner it had been a long journey to self-acceptance, but sources say that now, three months after coming out about his transition to his extended family and two months after taping his interview, he is feeling physically and emotionally liberated and finally able to live the authentic life he yearned for over many years. That includes spending as much time as possible living as a woman, mostly in the privacy of his Malibu home, and cherishing small indulgences like nail polish and long hair that made him a tabloid target in the past. (Note: Per Jenner’s request, PEOPLE will continue to use male pronouns until instructed otherwise.) “Every day is a new experience, but Bruce feels more comfortable with who he is than ever before,” says a source close to the Jenner family.

It’s been more than a year since tabloids began buzzing over Jenner’s changing physical appearance—unwanted attention that tormented the former athlete. (After being outed for having had a tracheal surgery to minimize his Adam’s apple in January 2014, Jenner confessed to Sawyer that the resulting spectacle left him contemplating suicide.) Now that he has opened up about his transition, Jenner has continued privately pursuing a variety of surgeries intended to make his appearance more feminine. Multiple sources confirm that the 65-year-old, who has been taking female hormones for nearly two years, has undergone surgeries including a breast augmentation, a third nose job, jaw surgery and changes to his cheekbones and forehead. Says a source close to the family: “He’s looking like the woman he always wanted to be.” As far as full gender-reassignment surgery, Jenner told Sawyer, it’s “down the line.”

Another crucial step? The reality star has slowly begun introducing “her”—as Jenner refers to his female identity—to family and a close circle of friends who join him for “girl parties” at his home. “He’s doing it in stages, but more and more, and certainly in private, Bruce is living as a woman,” says the family source. A well-dressed woman, at that. “He’s so excited about everything female,” says a Jenner insider, who says Bruce has a “full closet” of women’s clothes that he orders online. “He loves wearing high heels, he loves doing his hair. He’s just really having a lot of fun.” The fun will remain behind closed doors until Jenner’s female identity is publicly revealed, which he plans to do in a few months. “Around summertime, ‘Bruce’ will be no more,” says the family source. ” ‘He’ will be ‘she.’ ” And Jenner is heavily involved in the E! series that will document his journey, set to premiere in July. Though his four older children do not fully agree with their dad’s decision and have no plans to participate in the show, Jenner is steadfast in his decision to document the process. “Ultimately he really wants to help people—not just those who are transgender but those who are bullied or face discrimination,” says the Jenner source. “He is on a mission and has a lot to offer.”

Jenner has a new name, one that some friends and family are already using but he is continuing to keep private for the moment. “It’s very much like when parents hold off telling the name of their baby until they are ready. Everyone has an opinion,” says Dr. Mary Andres, an associate professor at the University of Southern California. “It’s like, ‘This is my name, my life, my identity.’ It’s overcoming those hurdles. I like the pacing of what he is doing.”

However gradual and deliberate that pace may be, sources say family members are still navigating the changes. Jenner watched the Sawyer special twice, once at ex-wife Kris Jenner’s Calabasas, Calif., home with stepchildren Kourtney, 36, Kim, 34, Khloé, 30, and Rob, 28, as well as daughters Kendall, 19, and Kylie, 17, and then again with ex-wives Chrystie Crownover and Linda Thompson and his four older children, Burt, 36, Cassandra, 34, Brandon, 33, and Brody, 31. “There was a lot of anticipation,” says the Kardashian source. “The [Kardashian family] learned things about Bruce they never knew before. It was tough but a relief for everyone once it was over and out there.”

But for Kris, who was married to Jenner for 23 years, watching his very public transition—and his brutally honest interview, which addressed topics as intimate as their sex life and her longtime knowledge of his private struggles—has been especially challenging. The former couple began dating after Jenner had done five years of hormone therapy, part of a planned transition he abandoned around the time they met. But the physical remnants of his hormone therapy, including 36B breasts, were obvious, he said, telling Sawyer, “You can’t hide those things!” Jenner also said he told Kris about his affinity for wearing women’s clothing, but sources say the Kardashian matriarch never grasped the implications of what her future husband was saying. “She never knew Bruce wanted to be a woman,” insists the Kardashian source. “She thought he had a little quirk, and he asked her to keep it secret all those years, so she did.”

In fact, even before they wed, the Jenner insider says, Kris reached out to Bruce’s two ex-wives (see box). “Kris assured them that she knew about ‘the issue,’ ” says the source. “She tried to reassure them that this was just a phase and he was over it now. She was aware his body had changed, she knew he [had been] pursuing gender reassignment. But she thought it was just a phase and that she could ‘fix’ him.” It was only after years of marriage that “it started coming to the surface more for Bruce,” says the Kardashian source. “That’s when things started to unravel.”

In the moments after the interview aired, many of the Kardashians and Jenners tweeted their support for their “hero.” Even the famously press-shy Rob Kardashian felt moved to tweet: “You have always been a role model to me and now more than ever, I look up to you.” But as the entire family attempts to adjust to a new normal, “the two sets of kids have a very different relationship with Bruce,” says the Kardashian source. “The whole transition was much harder for the Kardashian kids and Kylie and Kendall. It was hard to grasp. And there was a lot of lying to the kids over the years on Bruce’s part, even as close as they were. It’s going to take some time for the kids to get used to it all.” Adds the family source: “It’s been a process for everyone. Some of the kids are more comfortable than others. But in the end he is, and will continue to be, a better father, better person and human being.”

The road along the way may be rocky, and questions will continue to abound. The family source says for Jenner, who told Sawyer he was currently “asexual,” “dating is the furthest thing from his mind.” There are also lingering, and serious, concerns about the fallout following a Feb. 7 fatal car crash involving Jenner, which happened after the Sawyer interview and which he can’t legally discuss.

Yet some things remain constant. The famous helicopter and sports enthusiast still loves to ride motorcycles and plays golf with gusto. First and foremost, however, Jenner will always be the person six children call Dad. Only now there are no more secrets. “He’s proud and he’s happy, and he’s looking forward to everything,” says the Jenner insider. “He is finally free.”

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