Having spent more than 15 years battling it out in the ring, former WWE superstar Nikki Bella has faced down more than her share of threats.
But none have felt quite as terrifying as parenting a toddler. Matteo, her 2-year-old son with husband Artem Chigvintsev, "has got his daddy's sweet soul—I have a sweet boy," the athlete raved to E! News in an exclusive interview, noting she's also seen "a feistiness to him, which I love."
And, yet, she continued, "the toddler stage, I'm not gonna lie, has rocked me a lot. I feel like I've been exhausted for almost three years, and I'm like, 'Brie, when do I get my life back?'"
Of course Brie Bella—who like her twin sister, officially dropped her Bella personality when they announced their WWE retirement this past March—is also in the thick of it with daughter Birdie, 6, and son Buddy, who will turn 3 August 1, just one day after his hours-older cousin.
As Nikki, now going by her birth name Nikki Garcia, surmised, "You go from teething to then just getting him in preschool and dealing with sickness, and there's always something. And Matteo also had a speech delay, so just even dealing with that and doing therapy—so toddler stage has definitely rocked me."
Even through all that, though, she's acutely aware of how all-too-brief even the tough stages are. "I will say that I wish I could freeze this age because seeing him have his own personality but also having him be all about mommy—and daddy too, but really a lot about mommy—I just want to freeze it," she said, "and I want to keep him like this forever."
"He loves being with mommy and daddy," noted the Napa Valley-based star. "He literally every morning has to come in the bed with Artem and I and be between us, and it's just such a special thing for our family that we do. And I know it's going to be such a core memory for him." (Another moment they're hoping to store in that bank: An upcoming trip to Lake Tahoe for his and Buddy's birthday celebration that's "going to be everything Matteo loves for four days—swimming, trains, sand.")
And it helps that she and Artem, 41, have fully found their footing in parenting their little math whiz. "He's a very intelligent boy, like, crazy smart," Nikki, 39, noted. "We've already worked with specialists because how he is with numbers and letters, he's just very advanced."
As for Mom and Dad, it took them a few beats to figure out how to add together their specific skill sets.
"I would say motherhood and parenthood is definitely so much harder than I would have ever imagined just because you have two different people," she explained, "like, you're already trying to make a marriage work, we're already merging that. But then Artem and I, we did things a little different, we had the kid first and then marriage, so trying to be on the same page with everything, it's difficult, and definitely something we work on."
Referencing their pre-wedding fight over the Russian-born Dancing With the Stars pro taking Matteo to Turkey to meet his parents as something of a low point, she noted, "Artem and I just realized—we were communicating, but we weren't communicating like where we were understanding each other. And I think I just had to learn that I have to approach things differently when it comes to Artem and Artem realizes that with me. We totally have a language barrier, so things that I say, he thinks I'm saying something way different and things he says to me, he just learned words wrong, and I was like, 'What?'"
Since that argument, she continued, "We really have gotten on the same page with Matteo. Is it still hard? Definitely, 'cause I'm a very strong-minded woman and I like things a certain way, so I have to at times learn to let go, and know that his daddy has his best interest and I have to follow the lead. It's very hard. This was me on the dance floor with him too, he was like, 'let me lead,' and I wanted to lead. It's just my personality so I realize I have to let go."
She's held tight to that competitive edge in her professional life, though, chatting with E! News just before besting country singer Tyler Hubbard to make it to the finals at the Johnsonville SuperHole IV celebrity American Cornhole League event.
"I'm here to show my stuff on the cornhole court, 'cause I think when you're the host of Barmageddon, they know that you got good game, right?" she explained, referencing one of her latest gigs as the host of USA's pub games competition.
Because while the WWE Hall of Famer has stepped out of the ring for good, she plans to be celebrating several more wins in the future.
"I am really excited to be in this next chapter of my life as Nikki Garcia," she shared. "Nikki Bella made history for two decades and being 40 in November, Nikki Garcia is about to make history in this next decade, and I'm so excited about it."
Topping her list of career goals, says the star of E!'s Total Bellas, is becoming "a bigger TV personality in the mainstream world," as the host of Barmageddon and Prime Video's Twin Love, a dating experiment that splits 10 sets of twins into two separate houses for dueling Love Island-style experiences.
Eventually, added Nikki, she and Brie, who will join her as a host on Twin Love, hope to transform their podcast, The Nikki & Brie Show, into a talk show as well.
"Brie and I have so many things that we want to do," she explained. "I'm at the point in my life that anything I do is 'cause I love it so much, and now I have control of it. And it feels so liberating to walk into this next chapter of my life, owning me and getting to do things I want."
But she'll always make time for trains, swimming and sand.