Zoë Saldana had a lot more than just getting into character on her plate while filming Star Trek Beyond last summer: Her and her husband Marco Perego-Saldana‘s twins Cy Aridio and Bowie Ezio were just 6 months old when she started filming.
“The first week back at work, I think I cried every day in my trailer,” she tells PEOPLE exclusively. “But I remember as soon as they would tell me ‘We’re ready for you on set,’ I would still skip to set. I love what I do.”
The 38-year-old actress acknowledges that she’s not the only one struggling with being separated.
“You do need to rest, you do need to have a moment to yourself, but right now this is my life as I know it. They’re 20 months old, and they’re starting to feel my absence,” she says.
“They still don’t really have an accurate concept of time, but they’re becoming a little anxious. And that’s when you ask people, you ask a therapist ‘Is this normal?’ You read books, you go on Google … But I always explain to them that I come and I go, but Mama has to work.”
She adds, “I also make sure that they see me happy when they come visit me at work — they need me to lead by example.”
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Of course, the effects of motherhood weren’t only psychological for the star. “I remember telling [writers Simon Pegg and Doug Jung] that I did not want to be a part of anything ‘stunt-y’ because my body was still trying to get back into shape and organs were trying to get back into their natural position,” she explains.
“You’re not as sturdy as you believe yourself to be and I wanted to give my body time. I didn’t want to force myself into anything. They were like ‘Oh my God, absolutely.’ ”
Ultimately for Saldana, having pride in her career is paramount — and doesn’t get in the way of being a mom.
“I carry pain like a rock in my chest whenever I’m away from my husband and children, but I love what I do, and I can’t give that up,” she says. “If my boys never see me fight for my dreams, they’ll never fight for theirs.”
For more from Zoë Saldana, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now.
— Catherine Kast