Emily Maynard Johnson is cherishing every moment as a wife and mother of four, but there was a time when she wasn’t sure she’d find her happily ever after.
After losing her boyfriend to a plane crash just before she found out she was pregnant at age 18, the reality TV alum experienced two failed relationships: She was first engaged to Brad Womack on season 15 of The Bachelor and later to Jef Holm on her season of The Bachelorette.
“I think back to where I was five years ago, going through another public breakup, and I gave in to the idea that maybe marriage and that life was not for me,” Maynard Johnson tells PEOPLE for this week’s issue, posing for a sweet photo spread with husband Tyler Johnson, their three sons Gatlin Avery, 6 weeks, Gibson Kyle, 15 months, and Jennings Tyler, 2, and the star’s 12-year-old daughter Ricki.
“I really had to come to terms with the fact that maybe it was going to be just Ricki and me forever,” admits Maynard Johnson, 31. “Then I met Tyler, and I knew that was not the plan. Now I couldn’t imagine my life any other way.”
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The author of I Said Yes tells PEOPLE that she was “in such a fog for a lot of” the time in raising Ricki following the tragedy — and that some of the pain even still persists today.
“As a mom you live in fear that the bottom is going to fall out,” she says. “From what I’ve experienced, I’ve lived with that dark cloud over me, like, ‘When is something bad going to happen?’ I have to have faith that we’ll be okay.”
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A lot of that faith, Maynard Johnson says, she owes to her husband. “I try to be so much more grateful for Tyler,” she tells PEOPLE. “He’s such a great dad. Sometimes I’m jealous that the boys, and Ricki, love him so much that I’m like, ‘I wanna be the favorite.’ “
“Whenever he’s around, I don’t have to worry about anything,” Maynard Johnson continues. “He has it handled. [I’m] extra grateful for him and all that he does because I didn’t have that before. And it’s such a huge help.”
Johnson tells PEOPLE that from the very beginning, he took the responsibility of parenting Ricki “very seriously.”
“I was very intentional about trying to guard her heart and make sure that I was not only dating Emily but dating [Ricki] too,” he explains. “And I literally fell in love with her. I’ll get emotional if I talk too much about it.”
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“I’m super honored. I’m blessed to be her dad,” he adds. “I love her as if she was mine biologically … there’s really no difference. And she’s my buddy. She’s literally the best thing that ever happened to me. I love her to death.”
For more details about Emily Maynard Johnson’s beautiful family of six, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.
- With JEN JUNEAU