At 41, Vanessa Williams seems to have her career right where she wants it: This month the actress and singer releases her second Christmas album, Silver and Gold; will perform at New York’s famed Palace Theatre; and is in talks with NBC about getting her own daytime show. They’re all projects she’ll tell you she wants to do, not has to do—a coup in an industry that marginalizes mature women and is still clearly a place where blondes have more fun. But for Williams, some of the toughest struggles have been personal. We recently spoke with the mother of four about juggling family and career, dealing with racism, and surviving a divorce.

There is no balance between family and career. It’s impossible to achieve, and people who try will never be happy because they’ll always be struggling. It’s easier to surrender to your choices and take each day and project as it comes.

Motherhood affects every decision I make, whether it’s not being able to work because I have to be at my daughter’s Christmas show or staying home to cook my children’s favorite meals. When I found out that my daughter’s confirmation was scheduled at the same time as a show I was doing in Japan, I immediately called the manager and said whatever it takes I had to be back home for her. I said either we don’t do the show, or I’ll have to fly back for that day. That’s part of being a mother.

I haven’t gotten used to my life being an open book. But I don’t read every article out there about me. I just live my life, which is relatively normal. People love to think that because you’re famous you’re making goo gobs of money and have servants. I drive my kids to school, and I drive myself to work, and I do normal motherly things.

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Going through a divorce was one of the hardest things I had to deal with. Currently Rick and I are not divorced, and that’s all I have to say about that. But I did go through one before in 1997. My ex-husband and I were married for ten years. It was an incredibly hard decision for both of us, but we’ve put our three children in the forefront by creating a balanced parenting schedule. We make them the priority.

Dealing with racial issues has been really painful for me, but they’re everywhere: When one of my daughter’s was in kindergarten, a classmate said she didn’t want to play with her because her skin was dirty. In a mother, the lioness comes out immediately and you’re ready to roar. A mother defending her kids is the fiercest thing on the planet. But once you calm down you have to figure out a way to deal with it that won’t get you in trouble and eventually you have that difficult talk with your child.

My personal motto is something a great writer once said: “First you feel, then you fall.” Anything worth doing is going to be scary, but once you let go you can fall into what your destiny is. If you try to motor through the hardships and push through the pain, you’ll never appreciate the goodness that’s awaiting you after the storm.

When all is said and done, I hope my legacy will be that I was a survivor, a woman who was her own person and persevered time and time again.