Kevin Federline and sons Sean Preston, 3, and Jayden James, 2, pose for this week's issue of PEOPLE, with Kevin opening up for the first time about his parenting relationship with popstar Britney Spears, whom he wed in 2004. Although the couple's divorce was finalized in July 2007, custody issues and Britney's battle with and recovery from mental illness keeps the pair in each other lives.
Kevin, who also has two children -- Kori, 6, and Kaleb, 4 -- with ex Shar Jackson, spent the holiday at her home with the boys (he has Kori and Kaleb on weekends). Sitting down with PEOPLE on Saturday, Kevin says he has been enjoying time with his younger boys.
"I've taken that time out to sit back and enjoy having my kids, show them what it's like to have normal, stable lives. The first couple years of their life they were all over the place," he notes. "My main thing for my kids is that they get to live life the way -- or as close to the way -- that most people do. It's going to be hard not to spoil them, but I don't want to."
Why talk now? "I made sure that the kids were okay," he explains. "Now that that's all right, I can breathe."
Do you remember when you first met Britney?
I met her at a club in Hollywood, Joseph's. Our eyes met and that was it. We just hit it off right away. I learned real fast how much of a whirlwind the press and everything was.
What was it like falling in love in a fishbowl and so quickly?
We were aware of it. At times it's tough, but we had each other. We felt like -- or at least I felt like -- we had a little bit of a private life. It's not like they knew everything that we would say to each other or every great moment that we would have. I was madly in love with her. Everything just seemed so right. I didn't see it as too fast or too slow. Just because she's this huge star, I didn't care about that. I don't look at her as "Britney Spears." I look at her as somebody that I fell in love with.
What are your happiest memories of the marriage?
Well, getting married. I never thought I would get married, but it wound up happening. That was a really, really happy, exciting moment. I pretty much realized that I was giving my life to her, and I was doing it without question. It was just something that was meant to happen. And probably my greatest moment with her is having our two sons. It was great, from the time we found out.
What went wrong?
It's hard enough to be in a marriage, and then have a kid, then kids, it changes everything. For me, I'd become more concerned with my children. Not that I ignored Britney, but my kids are always most important.
Britney said in the MTV documentary [which Kevin recorded but as of the time of the interview had not watched], "He started to do things for himself, and I just never saw him anymore."
I was on the road promoting my CD. I was trying to be the working dad. I wanted my kids to look up to me. I'm out there trying to provide for my family. Even if they don't need it, it's not about money, it's about showing your children.
I mean, we were having complications. I didn't give her an ultimatum, but I was trying to work stuff out with her, and she didn't even talk to me or anything and went behind my back and filed [for divorce]. [I was] completely blindsided. It was a huge shock. She'd just had Jayden, and I'd been working for over a year. I did everything that I could to cater around the whole situation: built a recording studio in the house, made sure I could always work at home, try to help out as much as I can. It just ... I don't know, I guess it wasn't enough.
Britney also said she wed for the wrong reasons -- for the idea of it.
I really don't understand it. I can't really tell you how it was for her, but I know for me, I fell in love. And I loved the idea that I was in love and I got married and had two beautiful children. If that's what she's talking about, I don't know, I still don't get it.
A lot of people assumed you fought for custody of the kids because of money.
My first question to [my lawyer] was, "Am I ever going to be able to see my children?" I told him that I would spend every last dime that I had to make sure that my children are okay. That's all that mattered. I didn't know how much power Britney had. That really scared me.
Did you feel you could provide a more stable environment than they had with their mother?
Yes. But at the same time, a reason why we ended up going through the custody battle is because I want my kids to have a mom and love her. I don't want to do this by myself. Part of the whole thing was to get them safe and get her to where she will always be there. Because there are points in time where the whole world didn't know whether she would be around for them.
When things started to unravel for her, what went through your mind?
It was tough. I was definitely worried. There are a lot of people who stepped up to the plate. I know my mom has helped me out a lot with this. I was glad that Britney's parents could come over and see the kids.
What kind of toll did this take on you?
It's been an emotional rollercoaster. For the longest time, I didn't know that I was depressed. You act like everything's going to be okay. I was trying to be this strong person for the kids. Meanwhile I'm spending four to five hours a day in my bedroom just sitting there depressed. My nanny brought it up to me. I was in denial, but then I realized it. So I'd go golfing and get out with my friends a little bit more and trudge my way through it.
How did you react in January when Britney locked herself in the bathroom with Jayden and was later taken to the hospital on a gurney?
That whole night is a blur. You want to talk about one of my lowest points of depression, that was probably one of them. I was very, very worried for her 'cause I care about her. That's the mother of my children. Just because I'm not in love with her doesn't mean that I don't love her. I'm definitely rooting for her. There's nothing more that I want than for her to be in the best health and doing what she loves to do.
In the aftermath she was hospitalized and didn't see the kids for seven weeks. How did you remind them of her?
I talked to the kids all the time about their mom. And I had pictures of her and us and the kids in the house. Sometimes we'll go to bed and Preston will point to a picture and say, "Baby and Mama and Dada." I don't know how they came through it, but thank God they have.
Are things getting better?
Oh, man, it's totally turning around. It works out that [the kids] get to see her. There's structure over there, there's structure at my house. We're trying to keep the same type of schedule. It doesn't have to be completely perfect, but the foundation is there.
But Preston and Jayden spend most of the time with you. What's their life life?
Pretty much everything at my house is catered to the kids. In the dining room there's a train we got them last Christmas that they can actually ride on. On one of their days off from preschool, I try to make sure I get them out of the house, to the zoo or the aquarium. I've been fortunate enough not to have the paparazzi follow us. If I let them swim in the pool all year round, they'd be in it every day. I try not to let them watch too much TV. Anything from SpongeBob to Sesame Street. Preston will also watch NASCAR. The kid wants to be a race-car driver. He gets in his car seat and says, "Daddy, go faster!" They're really into cars, both of them. They also like to jump off the couches and try to land on a beanbag. They're boys' boys.
What are their personalities like?
Preston's sensitive; his feelings get hurt real easy. He is the one that is always under my wing; he doesn't want to go anywhere without Daddy. If his shirt gets dirty, he wants to change it. He'll also tell you whether or not he's going to wear an outfit you pick out for him. "No, I want those shoes, Dada."
And Jayden [laughs] -- Jayden is a little terror. If Preston is picking on him -- well, usually it's not Preston that's picking on him -- he'll just go and terrorize the whole house. For no reason at all.
Britney is an awesome mom. That's one thing I never really have to worry about. I'm strict when I have to be, playful when I have to be and sensitive when I have to be. I'll make brownies or cookies with them. They love any kind of noodles.
Britney recently said Preston says the F word and she seemed to blame it on you. Do you use that kind of language around the boys?
Not at all. So many people are around the kids, who's to say who taught them to say the F word? The first couple times that you hear it, you're just in shock. I'm not okay with it. I tell him that's a bad word and give him a time-out. He says, "I'm not bad. I'm not bad. I not say bad word." He doesn't like it when you tell him something's bad.
How often do you and Britney talk to or see each other?
I see her when I drop the kids off. Every now and then we have conference calls to discuss scheduling. After her dad got conservatorship of her, he had me over and I sat with her for a couple hours. I let her know I care and that I wasn't out to get her. I was making sure she's okay.
What's going on with your career?
I've been working on a clothing line, Otzi. We're starting out with young boys' clothes. For the last two years, picking out clothes for my kids has been my life. Hopefully we'll have it in stores by schooltime next year. I also have a reality show in the works. What I'm trying to do is let people into my life a little bit. But it's not something where you're going to see the kids.
Do you still have feelings for Britney?
It's good for the kids to see that Daddy does care about Mommy, and Mommy does care about Daddy. Because no matter what happens, there is only going to be one mother and one father to these children.
What about a reconciliation?
I'm one to never say never. I mean, I'm not going to sit here and say I'm geared up to go that route, but who knows what the future holds. You try to do the right thing, and hopefully everything will turn out right.