February 08, 2010 12:00 PM

The red carpet is an unusual spot to hang out with your ex—unless you’re Rosie O’Donnell. At the Jan. 19 Manhattan premiere of her HBO documentary A Family Is a Family Is a Family (debuting Jan. 31), the comedian happily posed for photos alongside her four children—and Kelli Carpenter, her partner of 10 years whom O’Donnell only recently revealed she’d separated from in 2007. “What makes a family is love, and we all love each other,” she says. “We’re gonna stay together and take care of each other as a family unit.”

Despite all the smiles, the split hasn’t been easy for the former TV talk show host. “It was the most difficult part of my adult life,” says O’Donnell, 47, kicking back in her at-home studio in Nyack, N.Y., where she hosts Rosie Radio, her Sirius XM talk show. “I would love to tell you that there was no fighting or tears. That’s a lie.” But there’s also been a happy ending. O’Donnell says she is now in what “appears to be a long-term, committed” relationship with Texas-based painter and fellow adoptive mom Tracy Kachtick-Anders, 45. They met when Kachtick-Anders e-mailed Rosie.com asking to trade art. O’Donnell then did a Google search and found an article about the mother of six. (“I am awed by her,” she gushes.) As for life these days, O’Donnell says, “I’m pretty content. I feel calmer than I have in a long time.”

It was during one of O’Donnell’s first radio shows in November that she went public with the news that she and Carpenter, 42, were no longer living together. (The pair were one of thousands of same-sex couples who married in San Francisco in early 2004; nearly six months later the marriages were annulled by a California court.) They had called it quits for good last spring. “It was a slow process, and we did it that way on purpose,” O’Donnell says. “You try everything you can.”

O’Donnell remains guarded about what caused the split. “We were both missing out on a lot of joy,” she says, and admits things changed after she left her eponymous talk show in 2002 to become a stay-at-home mom. “When you’re working full-time, there’s a lot of distraction. When you’re home, there’s a lot of introspection.” There were also lifestyle differences: O’Donnell is at her happiest painting, visiting her Miami home and spending hours on the water. “It took me a long time to realize that the things I like to do and the way I want to live is not necessarily the way everyone else does.” Although she has remained out of the spotlight for years (save for an ill-fated 2006-2007 stint on The View, which she says “wasn’t the right fit for me”), she hints that her fame also was an issue: “I cast a big shadow. Everyone deserves the sun.”

Of course the split has been hardest on their children Parker, 14, Chelsea, 12, Blake, 10, and Vivienne, 7. “The kids said, ‘You promised that you would never break up,'” she recalls. “‘You broke your promise.'” Parker, she says, “understands it the most,” while “it’s confusing” for Chelsea, and even more difficult for the younger kids—especially Blake, who was diagnosed with auditory processing disorder (a learning disability) two years ago. “It’s hard for him to understand change,” says O’Donnell. (Speech-language therapy, she notes, has transformed him from “a closed bud” into “a huge flower.”)

Custody arrangements remain private, but O’Donnell and Carpenter—who runs R Family Vacations; lives in Nyack and New York City; and has not met Kachtick-Anders—are raising the kids “equally.” Online rumors that Carpenter has primary custody of her biological daughter, Vivi, are not true, says O’Donnell. “All four children are together. We’re not separating the kids.”

In fact more children may be on their way. Not only is O’Donnell thinking of taking in orphans from Haiti, but Kachtick-Anders and her six kids, ages 6 to 18, are “hopefully moving to Nyack,” she says. (The families spent time together over the holidays.) “Our group of kids together is like the Brady Bunch on steroids,” O’Donnell jokes. “Or the Gay-dy Bunch.”

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