updated 05/22/2013 AT 9:40 PM ET
•originally published 05/25/2013 AT 3:20 PM ET
Like other busy young families, the Jolie-Pitt clan has weekends of comforting domestic frenzy. On a recent balmy spring Saturday, Mom busied herself returning phone calls and correspondence while her young children got underfoot. Meanwhile Dad tried to stay on top of mounting work projects as the older kids enjoyed a raucous playdate with pals in the yard. That afternoon Brad, Angelina and their bright, beautiful and sometimes exasperating crew – plus one family dog – piled into a van for an outing.
“Nothing seemed different,” says a family source of the scene at the couple’s compound in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles on May 18. “The kids were all laughing. Angie seems like she always does – very happy and just focused on her kids.”
Only four days before, Jolie, 37, told the world that she had undergone a preventive double mastectomy after learning she carried a mutated BRCA1 gene predisposing her to cancer. But nothing about her was going to slow down. Through three operations to remove and reconstruct her breasts in as many months, her stamina and spirits matched the energy level of her six-kid household.
And just three weeks after her last procedure, she’d turned in a New York Times op-ed piece about the experience, adding the title of women’s-health advocate to a globally intimidating résumé. How she pulled it off has much to do with the unflagging support of her fiancé.
“In my mind, he’s already married,” says Pitt’s friend and furniture-design partner Frank Pollaro. “This is an admirable person, a man with a deep love for his family.”
According to Jolie’s doctor, Kristi Funk, Pitt was at Jolie’s side for every surgery. They even “managed to find moments to laugh together,” as Jolie put it in her Times piece. At home “Brad did everything he could to keep things secret and protect Angie,” says the family insider. Using early-morning appointments and rental cars to avoid discovery, “they really wanted Angie to be able to recover and rest before they shared the story.”