Jennifer Lopez
Credit: Michelangelo Di Battista

This feature originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of InStyle. For more stories like this, subscribe to InStyle now.

Jennifer Lopez is hurting, though she's not the type to let anyone see. Apparently neither steely glamour nor a hot young boyfriend nor even the most relentless work ethic in the entertainment business can inoculate you against germs. Especially when you have 6-year old twins.

"I was so sick I almost had to pull the plug last night in the middle of a marathon business meeting," she says. "I really felt like I was going to crash." But like many working moms, she doesn't have the luxury of taking a sick day every time she gets the sniffles. Barefoot, wrapped in a fluffywhite terry robe and fully made up for a photo shoot, she tries to explain how she keeps it all together. "I'm figuring it out as I go," says the 44-year-old star, balancing a tiny overloaded plate of salad on her knee as she talks about her kids Emme and Max, American Idol, and life after the split from Marc Anthony. "Kids really focus you—it's primal. You come home and you're tired, and they have no idea if you've had the greatest day or the roughest. 'Mommy, I don't care if your head hurts, I want to sit in your lap and eat and get food in your hair.'"PHOTOS: Jennifer Lopez’s Best Looks, On and Off the Red Carpet

These are good, albeit messy, days for Lopez, and that's the way she likes them—and wills them to be with the sheer force of her personality: organized, packed, thrusting forward. In addition to another season of Idol, she's running her fashion empire (her vast collection for Kohl's includes everything from clothing and accessories to bedding) and doing another fragrance (her 21st scent, Glowing Goddess, is due out this spring). Plus, she's shooting a drama with Viola Davis, called Lila and Eve, about two mothers who join forces to get justice after their children are gunned down in a drive-by shooting. To cap it all off, she is gearing up for the release of her as-yet-untitled 10th studio album, which features collaborations with Chris Brown, DJ Mustard, French Montana, MaxMartin, and Cory Rooney, among others. "This album is tough. I used to be all 'I love you, hearts and flowers,' but now it's 'I love you, but I'm not going to let you take advantage of me.' There's strength but also humor. It's about being smarter about love—and not taking yourself so seriously," says Lopez.

Despite the tornado of activity, Lopez is eager to advance a remarkable claim—that her life has never been more pared down. She also says she has never been more sure of what's truly important. "I've been through a lot of emotional ups and downs," says Lopez, alluding to her 2011 breakup from Marc Anthony (she has been dating Beau "Casper" Smart, a 27-year-old dancer and choreographer, since the split). "But you get to a point in life where it suddenly occurs to you that you don't need all the things you once thought you did—that it's really, well, convoluted. My life feels overblown sometimes, and I don't want it to be. I want it to be streamlined. So I'm living a much more unscripted life now than I have in a long time."

Jennifer Lopez

In large part it's her children who have helped her see that she doesn't have to accept every invitation or add yet another person to her entourage. "The hard part for me is that I love being productive; I love the buzz, but I've been guilty of being too all over the place in the past."

"Emme is obsessed with makeup. She puts blush on her eyes, shadow on her face—it's very artistic. And she loves my shoes. She's been walking around in my heels ever since she was a year old."

One more grounding influence? Her younger sister, Lynda. The 42-year-old broadcast news personality, who has a 6-year-old daughter, currently lives with Jennifer and the twins in the singer's Calabasas, Calif., estate. Both sisters found that being single moms was "a lot of lonely work," says Lynda. So now, even though they both stay at the offices of Lopez's Nuyorican Production Company and on set for long hours, they've figured out a system in which one of them is at home for dinner with the kids virtually every night. Their mother, Guadalupe, comes out from New York every chance she gets, they say, which adds to the cacophony. "I love how I was raised," says Jennifer. "With all my aunts and uncles and grandparents living nearby. All that love and all those people watching out for me—I want that for my kids," she says.

Lynda says their life together has the goofy, noisy rhythm of a sitcom or a reality show. It reminds them both of their younger years, when the three girls (they have an older sister, Leslie, still in New York) "roamed around the neighborhood like a little gang." Now, watching "our kids all over each other and all over us, it's a beautiful, crazy energy," says Lynda. Jennifer, she says, is a "mindful, present" mother, "the sort of person who is always worried about everyone's feelings and is in there making sure everyone is being taken care of."

While Lynda considers herself the "nerdy bookish one in a family of brilliant performers," Jennifer is gregarious and prefers a house full of friends and relatives. So comfortable is La Lopez with a crowd that she may indeed be one of the rare celebrities who seems to take even a scrum of paparazzi in stride, never showing a touch of irritation (even when she's out for a stroll in a sweat suit and sneakers). "She likes company, period," says Lynda. "She loves to be surrounded by bodies."

Lopez's favorite crowd remains the home crowd. It's been 12 years since she released her hit song "Jenny from the Block," but her new album ("I thought we'd whip it out in a couple of months, but it wound up being a year") makes it clear again that no matter how far she has come from the gritty Castle Hill neighborhood where she grew up, Lopez has not changed, at least deep down. The perfect example of how her time in the Bronx still looms large, she says, is the odyssey of making the video for "Same Girl."

Much of it was shot during Christmas vacation, almost on a whim, she says. Her clan had been gathered at her place on Long Island, and she found herself with a free weekend. "I had always pictured the video being back in the old neighborhood. Beau and I just took a camera, called some friends of ours in New York who are photographers, and said, 'Do you want to do this with us tomorrow?' My cousin Darci came along, and she brought a little beat box so I could sing and feel the music."

The widely retweeted pic taken that day of Lopez on the subway platform in tight ripped jeans, a parka, stiletto ankle boots, and a Yankees cap? The one that showed the world she was still the ultimate fly girl? It was no setup: The candid shot was taken by the lawyer husband of her producing partner, who happened to be in New York for the holidays and tagged along with the merry band. "We all just hopped on the subway. It was 100 percent real and 100 percent unplanned."

Unplanned too is her future with Smart, it seems. Lopez, ever the girl who likes company, concedes she has had a history of "rushing into a lot of things, or looking for comfort when things go wrong." Asked how long it's been since she was single, she admits to a couple of decades. She once said she rushed into marriage with dancer Cris Judd in 2001 on the rebound from the Sean Combs breakup because Judd "was such a nice, solid guy." She started dating Marc Anthony only weeks after her broken engagement with Ben Affleck.

But she declines to draw parallels to her current situation. "Look, I don't love being alone. I don't. I can't beat myself up for that. What I have to do is figure out why I don't like it. Why am I not OK being alone? And can I be OK facing that?"

Ever a romantic, she is no longer in a rush to the altar. "In the past, love for me has always meant forever, and sure, you still nurse some of those fantasies, but I don't try to force it anymore. I hung on to my fairy-tale ideals for a long time. But where I am now, what I've been through, there are no rules. There are lots of ways it can turn out instead of just one. There are so many different kinds of happiness, not just the one you learned about when you were 5 years old." In some ways, she says with a rueful laugh, divorce has made things easier—there's one less person to worry about. "Yeah, I guess if there's any advantage to it, that's it."

One thing Lopez doesn't spend too much time fretting about: getting older. Sweating the wrinkles is for amateurs, it seems. To begin with, she thinks the entertainment business is—finally, thankfully—a bit less youth-obsessed. "The turning point was a couple of years ago, when the September issue of women's magazines had cover girls who were all over 40—Jennifer Aniston, Halle Berry, Sandra Bullock, Julia Roberts, me. It was hard to not be happy. That says something about our society. People used to believe their life—or at least their life as a performer—was over at 28 or some ungodly age! God, when I think of myself back then, I had no idea who I was. I think I'm barely getting that under control now."

It helps that she's still as limber as ever, as evidenced by her red-hot performance at the 2013 American Music Awards. At one point during her tribute to legendary Cuban singer Celia Cruz, which was punctuated by multiple onstage costume changes and salsa dancing, she did a complete flip over the head of one of hertwo partners, landing on her feet to continue singing. "I feel like I felt when I was 28. My bones don't hurt, I feel great. I actually feel better, more confident. Of course I still have the nerves, but now I know how to control them. When I was in my 20s I wasn't sure of myself. Now I can really stretch. I don't have to stay in the box. At this point I can say to myself, So what if I fall, so what? I'm going to get back up."