August 24, 2009 12:00 PM

After months of tabloid headlines, paparazzi swarms and bitter marital discord, Kate Gosselin finally reached her breaking point—and grabbed a gun.

Desperate to get away from the photographers who surround her home in Wernersville, Pa., and follow her every move with twins Cara and Mady, 8, and sextuplets Aaden, Alexis, Collin, Hannah, Joel and Leah, 5, last month Kate took her sons on a trip to a working dude ranch in Wyoming. It was there that she discovered some unexpected stress relief at the ranch’s shooting range. Showing off a photo of herself aiming a rifle, Kate cannot help but laugh. “Everyone was saying, ‘Gee, I wonder what you’re picturing as the target?’ We were joking that we should’ve taped up the tabloids,” she says. “It was the most amazing place in the whole wide world. It was 25,000 acres. I don’t care who you are or how long your lens was, you could not find me. The whole time we were there, I could not wipe the smile off my face.”

Of course, back home, smiling has been difficult ever since she filed for divorce on June 22 from Jon, her husband of 10 years and costar of the family’s TLC reality hit Jon & Kate Plus 8. Though at the time she hoped that the official split would bring some normalcy back to her life, the resulting months have hardly been uneventful. Less than three weeks after their separation was announced, Jon, 32, declared his love for 22-year-old Hailey Glassman, the daughter of Kate’s tummy-tuck surgeon. Even more startling, Jon was soon linked with tabloid reporter Kate Major, with whom he lasted less than a week. Now back with Hailey, he recently suggested in the press that his wife is largely to blame for his marriage’s demise.

Today, as she settles into a Manhattan hotel suite, Kate, 34, is unable to explain her estranged husband’s actions. “I don’t say much about him, because he’s speaking for himself,” she says with a sigh, twisting the wedding band that remains on her finger. “My friends come to me and scream about him, so I don’t need to. It’s just so distasteful. It only really upsets me when the people he’s choosing to bring to the house and let, ahem, stay overnight”—she says the words through clenched teeth—”affect our kids. That’s not the sort of example that I will ever set for them, and that’s where it really kills me. There’s no amount of excuses in the whole world not to do your best for your kids, and I just don’t understand it. I don’t understand him.”

Her children have also been puzzled by their new life, much to Kate’s dismay. Her daughter Alexis, usually the family’s upbeat extrovert, recently had a heartbreaking question at bedtime. “She said, ‘You know how when Daddy’s here, then Mommy’s not here, and when Mommy’s here, Daddy’s not here? Why? Why did you choose that? I want you both here together.’ It just killed me,” Kate says, looking down. “I just did what I could. I explained that it’s more peaceful now, that we both love her, it’s not her fault. But just to hear those questions, those are the times that are very difficult, those are the times I question why it had to be like this.”

But Jon’s giddy plunge into the dating pool has convinced Kate their marriage was long past repair. “In my mind it’s obvious now that it couldn’t be any other way,” Kate says of the split. “If it wasn’t obvious before, it is blatantly obvious now. All doubt has been erased.”

She takes a sip of water and adds, “You’re seeing his antics play out on the Internet, but I’m living the fallout, the aftermath of that. It’s certainly not ideal for any of us. I feel very strongly that when pressed into hard times, you truly see what a person is made of and … you’re seeing what you’re seeing. I’m not going to play that game. I’m not going to stoop to that level. I need my kids to see one parent who is doing her best to set an example, and that’s got to be me.”

Kate, who honored a 45-day agreement with Jon not to speak to the press, has struggled to keep a lid on her emotions publicly. “I cry all the time, in numerous airports, in airplanes—it seems like I’m always in an airport or an airplane when something happens, when I hear about the latest …” She rolls her eyes and flutters her hands, suggesting general turmoil. “It’s the worst time too because our security guy is always saying, ‘Cry later, cry later!’ But when your daughter is calling you, telling you this and that, in the middle of the airport, what do you do? It’s not like I can just put the tears on hold. So I try to cry very incognito, behind my sunglasses. And after those tears, there’s always that feeling of ‘how did I get here?'”

That “here” is a life in which Kate no longer recognizes the man she married. “I am stuck with one question: How can a person who you thought you knew, so drastically and in a matter of months, turn into somebody completely different? It boggles my mind,” she says. “Almost overnight I now couldn’t tell you the first thing about him. He tells me this is the real Jon, that this is the person who he is. And the longer this goes on, the more inclined I am to believe it. The erratic behavior continues and continues. I’ve learned not to say ‘How can it get worse?’ because just when I think he’s pulled out the craziest trick, it gets crazier.”

While she ponders the total transformation of her ex, Kate does hold out hope that there will be a moment of reckoning for Jon at some point in the future. “I hope he’ll wake up someday, that the real person comes back, and he’ll realize …” she stops for a moment, searching for the right word. “I hope that he is haunted by the decisions he has made. However it plays out, I hope that someday he is able to regret. And whatever that reflection brings about, I hope it will be for the good of our kids.”

In the meantime Kate isn’t wasting time wishing for her circumstances to change. Instead, she says she has turned over a new leaf—”Does that mean I’m old?” she says with a laugh—and is embracing a new life as “Can-Do Kate,” tackling new challenges. “I’m starting over, and my new motto is ‘It doesn’t hurt to dream.’ I used to limit myself, but that’s not an option anymore. I have to be able to do things like use a grill. I’d never done that before this summer, but the kids wanted to cook out, and I thought, well, we can live the rest of our lives without grilling, or I can do this.”

Kate isn’t restricting herself to mere barbecue adventures. “I didn’t realize it, but my fears were limiting my kids. So in Wyoming I got up on my horse before they did, and then they followed me,” she says. “I want to collect all the experiences I can. I want to be capable.” She pauses for a moment. “I guess I was always capable, but not very adventurous. Now I know: I’m capable of being adventurous. So, it’s like, shooting a gun? Why not? And as it turned out, I stayed there a lot longer and used a lot more ammunition than I ever would have imagined.”

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