Maybe it's too cheesy or too cliché, Meghan McCain admits, but "no one is more surprised than me how much I love motherhood."
On a recent weekday afternoon — even amid a deadly pandemic and historic national unrest and after taping The View where she debates daily controversies for a live audience — McCain beams in for an hourlong Zoom interview about her new life as a mom to 4-month-old daughter Liberty.
Opening up to PEOPLE, the 36-year-old TV host is candid and wry and effacing and seemingly relaxed, all said.
"Something must happen to your body chemically … there must be something primitive that kicks in," she says, "because I don't feel as tired anymore. I get like four hours of sleep and I'm like, "Oh my God, that was like four hours of sleep.' "
Mostly, improbably, the self-described "ice queen workaholic" melts.
"I can't believe how much I like motherhood, honestly," says McCain, who married the commentator and writer Ben Domenech in 2017.
"I was really back and forth about whether or not I was even going to do it," she tells PEOPLE, "and I can't believe how obsessed with it I am."
"I feel like the universe is laughing at me, because I was so scared of having kids and so reluctant and so on the fence about it," McCain says. "Even when I was pregnant I was like, 'I don't know, we'll see how this goes.' "
She adds: "As soon as I feel recovered, I would really love to have more kids."
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It's a lot of love after a lot of loss: Her dad, Sen. John McCain, died of brain cancer in August 2018 — a grief that shadows her still — and in July 2019 Meghan announced that she had miscarried. The worry gnawed at her that perhaps she wasn't meant to be a mom. Around Christmas of that year, she prayed on it.
"I pray to God and I pray to my dad when I'm going through hard times. I do both, which maybe sounds weird, but I just feel like my dad's in heaven and I find comfort in praying and asking him for advice," Meghan says.
"I was like, 'Please make this decision for me,' " she remembers thinking, "'because I'm okay with being able to have kids or not being able to have kids, I just want to have some kind of resolution.' And then I got pregnant really soon after, and I found out I was pregnant right after I had gone home to Arizona for the first time since he [my dad] died."
Liberty Sage was born on Sept. 28, after a 30-hour labor and an emergency cesarean section. The doctor let Meghan choose a soundtrack, so Liberty entered the world to the sounds of The Beach Boys' "Don't Worry Baby."
"The first thing I said to her was, 'You're going to come live with me and Ben,' which is ridiculous," Meghan says now. "But you know, you're just all on adrenaline."
"The hole in my heart where I suffered so much grief and I was so sad and so just wrecked for so long … it's not that that part of your heart is not hurting or it doesn't go away," Meghan says, "but it's filled with something new."
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The ensuing four months-plus included challenges, big and small. Meghan had postpartum preeclampsia after giving birth and stayed in the hospital for a week. She marvels now that she ever thought she'd be back at The View in time for the November election. Instead, she took three months off.
"Giving birth has taken me on my knees, in the sense that I surrender to all things that women have to go through. I just have such respect for all women everywhere who would do this in all ways," she says.
The experience made her an advocate for expanded paid parental leave as well. "I don't mean this to sound insensitive or ignorant in any way, but I just didn't think about it a lot," she says, calling herself "agnostic" about the issue before she had Liberty.
No longer: "If you really believe in the family, then you should believe in women's right to bond and be home with their children and to have — I don't even call it a luxury — the right to take care of their children after they're born," she says.
She has mom opinions, of course: "I wish there were more representation in the media of really tough women and motherhood, because I feel like we categorize women in like — you're a sweet mom or you're a top, career-minded person and not a lot of fusion of the two. So I actually haven't had a ton of great role models for myself, which is probably why I was so scared of it." She does shout out CNN commentator S.E. Cupp, a friend and her "mom role model."
And while there are exhausting nights (and lots of little messes and far too much to learn about breastfeeding) there's also so much joy, at home with her husband and their daughter in their Washington, D.C., area home.
"It makes me feel really connected to my dad in a way, because this pure love that I had for him I thought I was never going to experience it again and I feel it with Liberty, but like on acid," Meghan says. "It's like everything I loved about my dad. But he was imperfect and she's just perfect."
Meghan speaks gratefully for the support she has now, back at work with Liberty at home: They have a nanny and her mother-in-law lives close by. She and Ben, her "wonderful husband," split diaper duty and the rest 50-50.
"I just feel lucky that I have so much help and so many people that love me and are being really supportive," Meghan says. "But it's hard. Any woman who says it's not hard is … I don't know their experience, because it's very, very, very challenging."
"It's like being shot out of a cannon," she says of motherhood. "There's no way to prepare for it. There's nothing, as much as I thought it was ready." Luckily, View co-host Sunny Hostin has been fielding some of her late-night questions, including during a bout of mastitis.
The family has been keeping a small circle because of COVID-19, and Meghan avoided too much nursery shopping as a result — though she gushes about the self-rocking SNOO bassinet. "People who have organized nurseries that are curated, I don't understand," she cracks. "Ours looks like stuff is exploding everywhere all the time."
Meanwhile she's been filming The View from a nearby ABC News bureau, with regular COVID testing. Otherwise it's just more time with Liberty, whom she calls "so smiley" — and "feisty," too.
Mornings start before the sun is up, and Meghan wakes Liberty with her own spin on the Singing in the Rain song "Good Morning." ("I change the lyrics up a little bit if she she slept through the night or not," she says.)
"It's actually really wonderful, with all the chaos in the world … there's something about, as insane as everything is, just focusing on this little person that's so happy to see you and so excited to see you, and she's so smiley and just so excited every morning to be awake," Meghan says.
Not yet a toddler, Liberty is already obsessed with a foot-powered piano toy. And balloons.
"She loves to kick balloons, and we nicknamed her nursery the 'balloon saloon' because we have so many balloons in there," Meghan says. "All I do is I play with balloons with her for like three hours. So my lifestyle has changed a little bit lately."
At night, with some downtime, it's an episode of The Real Housewives and pajamas and a shower. And then all over again.
"There's moments where you're up all night and she's spitting up on me, I'm exhausted and she's crying and it's intense," Meghan says, "but it's so worth it."
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