"I'm the one who says no," the famous mom tells PEOPLE. "I accept that role. I'm not the popular parent."

By Jeff Nelson
September 06, 2017 02:35 PM
Credit: Madonna/Instagram

Madonna opens up about her life as a mom — and how she’s saving lives in Africa with her charity Raising Malawi. Subscribe now for an exclusive look into the megastar’s life — only in PEOPLE!

When it comes to coparenting, Madonna‘s philosophy is simple: “I’m in charge!” she says, laughing. “I’m the boss!”

In the new issue of PEOPLE, the pop icon reveals her private world, opening up about her emotional adoption journey, why she’s dedicated to helping the children of Malawi — and her busy, rewarding life as mom to Lourdes, 20, Rocco, 17, David, 11, Mercy, 11, and 5-year-old twins Estere and Stella.

Madonna, 59, admits family life can be “complicated” at times, but the challenges are “so worth it.”

“Lola has a different father than Rocco, and I have four adopted kids, so there’s a lot of outside influences,” says the entertainer. “I’m trying to make sure I impart the same wisdom and love to everyone.”

Madonna adopted her youngest children from the southeast African country of Malawi: first David in 2008, Mercy a year later, then the twins in February. Even though four of her kids are still under the age of 12, the star has already experienced some empty-nest anxiety: Lourdes (her daughter with former flame Carlos Leon) is a senior at the University of Michigan, and Rocco is living primarily in London with his dad Guy Ritchie after Madonna and her ex waged a headline-making custody battle last year.

“I had this funny notion that when your children get older, they learn to take care of themselves and it gets easier,” Madonna says. “But actually, the older they get, the more challenging it gets — because now they’re becoming adults, and they really need guidance.”

At home (the family splits time between New York, London and now Lisbon), “I’m bad-cop, I’m the one that says no,” she adds, noting David and Mercy don’t have cellphones yet (even though “their friends all do”). “I accept that role. I’m not the popular parent.”

Maybe so, but she’s a proud one — and “I try to set a good example,” she says.

Indeed, she’s doing just that with her charity, Raising Malawi, which aims to educate and support health services for children in the impoverished nation. In July, the family returned to Malawi to open the Mercy James Centre for Pediatric Surgery and Intensive Care, the country’s first children’s hospital.

For much more on Madonna, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands everywhere Friday.

“I want my kids to be loving, decent, compassionate human beings,” adds Madonna. “But it’s been a rollercoaster ride.”

For more information on Raising Malawi, or to donate, click here.