December 06, 2010 12:00 PM

Getting a word in among her five cohosts on The Talk can be tough sometimes for Marissa Jaret Winokur, but that’s nothing compared to convincing her finicky 2-year-old son Zev to finish his lunch. But the actress persists, winning over the headstrong boy with a silly, sing-songy tale about his grilled cheese sandwich. Before long, Zev is laughing, clapping and devouring every bite. Says a beaming Winokur: “I love being a mom now.”

Just a year ago, the same scenario would have caused her to break down in tears. The Tony-winning Hairspray actress, 37, had struggled with postpartum depression ever since Zev arrived via surrogate in 2008. Winokur underwent a radical hysterectomy following her 2001 battle with cervical cancer; doctors had preserved her ovaries, and her egg-fertilized by husband Judah Miller-was transplanted into a surrogate mother’s uterus. “I didn’t feel a connection with Zev. I was so stressed and overwhelmed by the responsibility of taking care of someone other than myself,” she recalls. “I truly thought I was never going to be happy again.”

Even though Winokur had not been pregnant with Zev herself, she discovered that “postpartum depression is not always directly related to giving birth,” explains her doctor Merrill Sparago. “The transition to motherhood is much more complex than the biological act of giving birth. Mothers often face feelings of loss, anxiety, failure and guilt, which can in some women be worsened by surrogacy.”

In Winokur’s case the first 10 months were a never-ending tearfest-for mother and child. “When Zev would start crying, I would start crying,” she says. “The maternal instincts that everyone said would kick in, I didn’t have. I remember sitting on the floor, crying to my parents, going, ‘This is forever!'” Adds TV writer husband Miller, 37: “You take an open, free person like Marissa and put her into the situation of feeling her emotions so heightened … she was all over the place.”

Winokur-who had first visited a therapist during her struggle to conceive-resumed her sessions, but she didn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel until she was dressing Zev, then 10 months, early last year. “I said, ‘Arms up, Zevvy.’ He looked me straight in the eye and put his arms up. I said, ‘That’s it! We made contact with the alien!'” she says. “At that moment, I knew I was going to be okay.” At Miller’s urging, she returned to work soon after to host Oxygen’s weight-loss competition Dance Your Ass Off.

The positive vibes continued last fall, as Winokur dropped 30 lbs. at the Biggest Loser ranch in Utah. “I felt like I was starting to take control,” she says. “I was eating well; I was exercising.” Then last January she was abruptly dropped from Dance. “I totally was depressed getting fired from the show,” says Winokur, who declines to reveal specifics (former Spice Girl Mel B replaced her).

She dyed her hair blonde for a change of pace and soon after landed The Talk, which she says “is such a better fit for me.” As one of the six celebrity cohosts and roving correspondent on the new CBS daytime talk show, Winokur hits malls, parks and grocery stores to collect parenting tips from “real people.”

She’s gained back the weight she lost last fall, but Winokur says she’s never felt better. “Last time I was at this weight, I was miserable,” she says. “But now my priorities are totally different.” That’s all thanks to Zev. “My love for my son is so intense,” says Winokur, who is considering giving him a sibling. “I’m happier when I’m with him.”

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