Stefani slips off the jacket to reveal a black tee with its sleeves rolled up to the shoulders. The look is satisfyingly strong. She's still blonde-blonde-blonde, of course, scarlet-lipped and sleek-hipped, and with the checkerboard Rude Girl stick-on nails ("It's a new technology—there's no smell, no mess, no drying"), the look harkens back to the belly-baring boho Betty Grable that everyone remembers from No Doubt's early days: always appealing, never tawdry, fists up and feisty. The contrasts between how she lives now and her middle-class upbringing in Anaheim, some 30 miles south of Los Angeles, have never been lost on Stefani, now 42. Even after all these years in the spotlight, the platinum records and magazine covers, she still talks with the wide-eyed incredulity of a newly minted pop star. "I'm just an Orange County girl/living in an extraordinary world" is how she put it on her 2006 solo album, The Sweet Escape; today she whispers, "That someone let me in this place is crazy."
And now, after a decade-long hiatus from No Doubt, during which Stefani notched a formidable solo career and parlayed her daring style into a fashion empire, not to mention the marriage to Bush lead singer Gavin Rossdale and the children who followed, Stefani has reunited with the band for Push And Shove, what she calls "my favorite record. I mean, your favorite record is always the last one you did, but it really is—it's a really great record."
Stefani wrote many of the lyrics with longtime pal and ex-boyfriend Tony Kanal, No Doubt's bass player; nearly two decades ago, their breakup would uncork her creativity. Now with their friendship on solid ground, they again find themselves on the same page, especially with Kanal a new father. "There are a lot of feelings of being overworked, overwhelmed: 'Can't we just slow this down? I can't enjoy everything because I'm doing too many things.'"
The guys in the band, Stefani says, "they all have kids and they all get it"—the demanding tour schedules that keep them from home, the constant push-pull of never wanting to disappoint. The last few years have been particularly grueling. "I was definitely swimming upstream," she says, "trying to balance everything that's been going on with having kids and a family. There's no way to do all these things."
All working moms have battle scars from their barely survived days. Stefani earned hers during the making of Push And Shove. "I would be up all night because my second baby [Zuma, now 4] didn't sleep, and he had a lot of ear infections. Then I'd wake up in the morning and do my workout, which I always felt I had to do, and then meetings for my three clothing lines, and then hang out with my kids, take them to preschool, da-da-da. And then at 4 o'clock, I'd be like, 'All right, I'm out of here, I'm going to go to the studio' and try to write a record. Sit on the couch [with my bandmates] and be like, 'Let's do this now because I'm missing time with the kids; I could be having dinner with them and putting them to bed.' It was really hard."
There's no hint of complaining here. For Stefani, it's a simple litany of what she sees as obligations she wouldn't even consider dispatching to assistants. If anything, her words echo the chorus of so many working parents of young children: There aren't enough hours in the day.
"Every day I fail at something," she laments. "Every day someone is suffering because I'm doing all these things."
So she's downsized a little. Had to. "I've got myself in a lot of trouble by not saying no." The solo career? Buh-bye. Her weight? She's got a new approach: "This last year I kind of stopped working out. I think my body just needed a break. And so I did that, and focused more on feeling good as opposed to beating myself up." She's even eased up her efforts on her L.A.M.B. (Love, Angel, Music, Baby) fashion line. "I have learned to delegate. It still looks awesome, but did I pick out the buttons? No, I didn't. I missed the last two Fashion Weeks because they were when school started; I can't miss the first week of kindergarten."
To read the full story, pick up the October issue of Marie Claire when it hits newsstands September 18!