In her own life, Penn, 36, is desperate for nothing more than a little peace and quiet. Since the arrival of Dylan, 11, and Hopper, 9, she's throttled back on her film career—which zoomed from zero to 60 with The Princess Bride and State of Grace (where she met her husband, Sean Penn) but now chugs along at a steady clip of one or two pictures a year.

"My kids are my priority—they just are," she says. "It's like, 'Can you go to Morocco for four months in the middle of the school year?' No. You just can't." She's kept one foot in Hollywood's swinging door with short stints, like White Oleander. "And the fact is, I need to do it," she says. "I start getting cabin fever if I don't work for six or eight months."

But with the kids getting older, Penn seems ready to get back behind the wheel. In the spring she flies to Africa for a three-week shoot, meaning she'll have to hand Sean the keys to the minivan. Given his reputation as a paparazzi-clobbering maverick, it's hard to picture him heading up the local soccer carpool, much less holding a marriage together. To the surprise of many, though, the Wright-Penn union has been going strong since 1996—an eternity in Green-Barrymore years. Their secret, to hear her tell it, is like something out of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: part assembly line, part mystical joint venture. "It's like you're in a factory and you do a quality-control check," she explains. "But when you've been together as long as Sean and I have, there has to be that forethought regarding kids, priorities, morals, and values."

Suddenly, Penn fires off a thundering sneeze—damn cat dander. Sensing what she's unleashed, she says, "The kids'll be waking up any time—sorry. I've gotta go." On cue, there's the sound of feet shuffling on a wooden floor, and another quiet morning gives way to the demands of motherhood: Somebody needs cereal—stat.