By People Staff
September 04, 2003 01:00 PM

By the time Brooke Shields gets to her 9:30 breakfast meeting, she’s already been up nearly five hours, thanks to Rowan, her 3 1/2-month-old daughter, who awoke at 4:45 a.m., ready to feed a full two hours ahead of schedule. “She changed her routine this morning,” Shields says with a sigh as she arrives at the W Hotel in Los Angeles. Though Shields, 38, sounds like any new mom – fatigued, sleep-deprived and bemused by the baby paraphernalia, “all the just-in-case stuff” she totes everywhere – she’s still very much Brooke: courteous, well-organized, slyly funny. “I have to nurse in 45 minutes,” she warns as she slides into her chair, looking gorgeous in a pale brown blouse and jeans. Precisely three-quarters of an hour later, she asks a waiter to find the woman who’s minding Rowan. “Tell her I’m ready,” she deadpans. “If you can’t find her, just tell all the babies you see that I’m ready to nurse.”

But don’t let Shields’s ready humor and infectious joy fool you. She has achieved her giddy happiness the old-fashioned way: She earned it. The birth of Rowan Francis Henchy, who weighed in at 7 lbs. 5 oz. after a cesarean delivery on May 15, followed a difficult period that began in 1999 with the breakup of the actress’s two-year marriage to Andre Agassi and continued with the suicide of her close friend and Suddenly Susan costar David Strickland and the cancellation of the show. Even after Shields found new love with sitcom writer Chris Henchy (Spin City), whom she married in April 2001, heartache persisted on two fronts. There was her father Frank’s protracted battle with cancer – and Shields’s own struggle with infertility. Frank, 61, passed away in April, shortly before Rowan was born. Now, Shields and Henchy take no minute of parenthood for granted. “I’m amazed every day, watching Brooke and the baby,” says Henchy, 39. “It’s amazing to see a living soul that has come from this marriage.”

At the time of their wedding, Shields and Henchy already knew that attaining parenthood might be tricky. Nine months earlier Shields had been diagnosed with cervical dysplasia, a condition involving abnormal cells that, if left untreated, can lead to cancer. “The treatment wreaked havoc on my cervix, creating scar tissue,” she says. “It’s like jumping in a pool with no water. There’s nothing to help the little guys swim through.” But the complication actually strengthened the couple’s bond. “Knowing we wanted children helped us decide we wanted to be married,” she says.

With that understanding, Shields and Henchy tried to get pregnant right away. After six months without success, they turned to in vitro fertilization, a method that would join his sperm and her eggs in a petri dish, then return them to her uterus as embryos. In late 2001, after Shields finished a starring run on Broadway in Cabaret, they took their first swing at IVF, and seemed to hit a home run. But three months later, Shields suffered a miscarriage. “We were crushed,” she says. “Up till then, I thought simply because it was time and I wanted to have a baby, it would work out.”

Soon, Shields found herself confronting several hard truths. Beyond the shock of realizing that the most natural thing in the world was not going to be so natural in her case, Shields had to acknowledge her own limitations. “Being a type A personality, I’ve always believed that if I did my homework, if I worked hard enough, I’d get the results I wanted,” she says. “But you can’t ensure success unless you’re God – and you’re not. Neither are the doctors.” Like many women in similar circumstances, Shields searched for deeper meaning, and came up empty. “Maybe I’ll never know why it happened,” she says. “But it made me understand the difference between wanting to have a baby and truly wanting to be a mother.”

Over the next eight months, Shields attempted six more IVFs. Henchy helped by injecting her three times a day with ovulation stimulants. “The first time, I kneeled down, carefully put the needle in her butt and almost passed out,” says Henchy. “Three weeks later I was doing it with a coffee cup in one hand, not thinking about it.” During those long months, they fell back on humor to help keep perspective. “Chris has a way of looking on the lighter side,” says Shields. There was, for example, the day she burst into tears in a grocery store. “I just felt pathetic,” she says. “I looked around and said, ‘I’m crying in the canned food section.’ So, he says, ‘would you prefer to go cry in dairy?’ ” (Such moments inspire hope for the new ABC sitcom I’m with Her, which is based on executive producer Henchy’s experiences as the husband of a celebrity.)

The couple’s ability to talk openly also helped Shields endure the physical and emotional turmoil of fertility treatments. “The frustration went back and forth between us,” she says. “Sometimes he would have to rally. Sometimes I would.” Henchy downplays his own suffering. “If it was difficult on me,” he says, “it was because of the frustration and despair Brooke felt when it didn’t work out.” Shields counters, “It’s really hard on the husbands. They watch their wives follow instructions, try to do everything right – and not always end up successful.”

In hindsight Shields thinks the miscarriage helped gird her for the hardship that followed. “In a way, it was a blessing that I’d started with a positive result,” she says. “I told myself it happened once, it can happen again.” She also derived comfort from other women she met who had gone on to have children following miscarriages. “It was encouraging in a sad but positive way,” she says. “I realized how not alone I was.”

Still, by August 2002, Shields was so hardened to disappointment that she held her hopes in check as she returned to an L.A. clinic for the seventh transfer of embryos to her uterus. Until then she’d been vigilant after each implant, maintaining healthy habits just in case the procedure took. This time, she says, she and Henchy were so sure there would be no pregnancy that two weeks later, on the night before Shields was to go in for tests, the couple “got a little self-destructive” and went pub-crawling with friends.

When the doctor called later that day with good news, a stunned Shields woke up Henchy and handed him the phone. “He said, ‘Oh. Oh boy. Oh. Thank you!’ ” Shields recalls, deftly mimicking Henchy’s transformation from hungover hubby to happy dad-to-be. As for Shields, it took just seconds for her imagination to drift from ecstatic to full-blown maternal freak-out. “I had one thought: fetal alcohol syndrome!” she says. Panicked, she phoned the doctor back and began to babble about “the possibility I did brain damage,” she recalls, laughing. “He was like, ‘Oh God, it’s starting . . .’ ”

This is an online excerpt of PEOPLE magazine’s cover package.

– TODD GOLD in Los Angeles