"My husband is my North Star, and my kids are my teachers," Mariska Hargitay tells PEOPLE for the latest cover story

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In addition to a busy schedule playing Olivia Benson on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and furthering the work of her Joyful Heart Foundation, Mariska Hargitay is also a hands-on mother of three. And she wouldn’t want it any other way.

The actress, 54, tells PEOPLE for this week’s cover story that there’s nothing better than being a parent to sons Andrew Nicolas, 6½, and August Miklos, 11, plus daughter Amaya Josephine, 7, with her actor husband of 13 years, Peter Hermann.

“The thing that’s made me a better parent is my kids,” says Hargitay, whose eyes well up at the mention of her family. “Because they taught me to really listen. My husband is my North Star, and my kids are my teachers.”

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Mariska Hargitay with husband Peter Hermann and their three children in November 2013

In 2010, years after she gave birth to their first child at age 42, Hargitay and Hermann started the process of adoption, meeting with an adoption lawyer and completing home inspections. In 2011, they became parents again when Amaya joined their family, shortly after she was born in the U.S.

Then, over the span of six months, their joy doubled, much to their surprise, when they got the call that Andrew had been matched with them. Welcoming two infants in less than a year would be daunting for anyone, but Hargitay felt it was just right.

“Our family is so perfect, or at least perfect for me,” she says. “Together we’re just this whole, happy, joyful, chaotic, crazy unit. I’ve never known anything that was more right.”

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Mariska Hargitay and son August in February

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Mariska Hargitay and daughter Amaya in November 2017

Hargitay also says her brood is anything but traditional.

“The beauty is that families are made in so many different ways, and that was my reality as a child,” she says of her two brothers, Miklós and Zoltán, and three half-siblings, Jayne Marie Mansfield and Antonio Cimber (from her mother Jayne Mansfield‘s first and third marriages, respectively), plus Tina Hargitay (from her father Mickey Hargitay‘s first marriage).

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Mariska Hargitay on the cover of PEOPLE

“Growing up, my family was made in such an interesting and unique way, and now I have that with my own family, and so I understand it. It’s been amazing,” the star says.

As for parenting styles, teamwork is how Hargitay and Hermann, 50, make it all work. “Peter and I, we’re so different that it’s been amazing how we complement each other,” she shares. “He knows everything I don’t.”

For more from Mariska Hargitay, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.