Actress and speaker MARY STEWARD on life’s ups and downs, her longing for a baby, and how she ultimately found peace…
Photo: Tonya Hester
Mary Steward, 41, was born in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, the younger of two children. She grew up in the farming district of Wartburg and moved to Westville, where she finished school at Westville Girls’ High before completing a degree in drama and English at Pietermaritzburg University. Her career over the years has spanned creative organisational development, retail management and corporate theatre. She now lives between her cottage in Stanford and apartment in Bantry Bay, working as an actress, facilitator and speaker. Here, she talks to CLAIRE STEVENSON about life, love and her decision to freeze her eggs…
‘How on earth did I get here?’ I said to my mother as we sat together in the waiting room of a Cape Town fertility clinic in August 2014. I was about to embark on a procedure that would result in the harvesting, then freezing, of my eggs. I couldn’t understand how I could be in this position. I still couldn’t believe I wasn’t married with children by now. I’d never doubted the sequence of events that would unfold in my life. School, study, travel, marry, 4×4, rose garden… and a baby.
I’d always been a nurturer. At five, my favourite game was dollies and schools. The dolls weren’t as responsive as I’d have liked, so younger friends who came to play got more than they bargained for: flashcards and ‘homework’. Mom had to rein me in when other mothers started complaining that their kids couldn’t cope with the workload! I babied everything from the cat to my cousins, and my poor doll was fed more mashed banana than she could handle. I also took to the stage from a young age, performing for anyone who’d watch me. But in my eyes, and I think the eyes of virtually everyone who knew me, motherhood was the most likely scenario for my life.
In Matric, our Afrikaans teacher went around the class making fun predictions for each girl. When she got to me, she said, ‘Ooh Mary, I can see that name in lights, and you know what else? I see you happily married with lots of kids.’
Most people thought I’d be the first. It made sense to assume that. I was the first of my friends to be in a serious relationship. I met Peter (not his real name), the loveliest, smiley-faced Kearsney boy, at the local beerfest. Soon we fell in love. He would fetch me from school most days with a strawberry Yogisip and a big smile.
Gap year freedom: Mary in Oxford, aged 22 | PHOTO: © Mary Steward
We dated throughout my university years and the post-varsity gap year that I took overseas. During my travels around London and other parts of Europe, I became giddy with the independence and freedom I experienced. Peter waited for me to settle down, but after six years of his patient waiting, our relationship ended.
There were two other significant relationships in my life but I was serious about it needing to be just right before the final commitment. As much as I wanted marriage, it was too serious to take lightly. If the connection wasn’t right, I wasn’t prepared to push through. My last relationship seemed to tick all the boxes and I even sighed, thinking, ‘This makes sense. Now I see why I needed to wait.’ Believing this to be the one, I made a bold decision to move in with him.
Internally, I had always been a seeker of truth. I remember as young as 10 sensing there had to be more than what we saw around us. Teachers and adults around me would have described me as having a vivid imagination. A teacher, Mrs Gething, taught us about Jesus, and at boarding school when the lights went out, I’d speak to him. I also attended church with my granny, Joy. This was all pre-teen. Once I became a teenager, I felt church would cramp my style. Besides, there were far too many parties to attend, outfits to plan and boys to meet.
The gnawing feeling that there was more to life than there appeared on the surface kicked in again at age 20 when I went travelling. I began reading books like The Celestine Prophecy. This was the start of a journey into ‘alternative’ spirituality. The key message I absorbed from it was that all religion was dogma designed to dumb down and control the people. It made sense to me, supporting what my mom had experienced in a legalistic branch of the church early in her life. Deciding that she wanted freedom in her search for meaning, my mother had visited psychics. This produced powerful results initially, leading me to follow suit.
My first visit to a clairvoyant took place because I was battling over whether to stay in my relationship with Peter or not. But that kind of got left behind as I discovered a whole new spiritual dimension. The clairvoyant told me about all my past lives. They were fascinating. I had been everything from a Knight Templar to a witch burnt at the stake. It seemed I’d been even more amazing than I could ever have imagined! I studied meditation, went on Buddhist retreats, and had my numbers, astrological charts, palms, feet and even my tea leaves read. Crystals were big too – their healing properties were ancient, and I learnt how to tap into their ‘energy’.
When my poor dad was dying of cancer in 2002, Mom and I put crystals in his bed. We still chuckle when we remember him saying, ‘Ah girls, these bloody rocks man, they’re uncomfortable,’ as he rolled over them.
The first years of this spiritual path delivered exciting experiences where I felt uplifted by, and almost heady with, the expansive sense of a higher dimension. Interested in psychology and human behaviour, I felt alive with this search into alternative philosophies and modalities of healing. I was like a kid in a candy store and everywhere I turned, there was another path down which to walk.
When Dad died and I moved to Cape Town, my spiritual walk intensified. His death and a destructive relationship in Durban were key triggers that made me take my journey even more seriously. I set up a creative communications business in Cape Town, bought a flat and, before long, the work was rolling in. All this had been predicted by another psychic, even down to the green paint that would be on the walls of the office space I found. I had a great group of friends and my social life was active with parties, book club and lazy days on the beach.
My outer life was probably enviable, and there were days I loved my life too. I needed the spiritual fix, however, at least twice a month and I started regular sessions with a lady I called my spiritual life coach in Muizenberg. She was psychic and had trained as a sangoma, which gave her a teacher status. I took her word as truth. Her voice carried the greatest authority in my life. She encouraged me to explore my sexuality and I did courses on energy healing, colour therapy… you name it! When I dipped, our sessions together helped keep me on track and give me a greater perspective. We delved into childhood, past lives, wounds that led to patterns of behaviour. Some of that was amazingly helpful, especially in the beginning. However, it started to become hard to follow and too fluid in the end. I felt I was at a banquet buffet that was actually a mirage – I’d be eating roast beef, then doughnuts, but then I’d see the cake… I felt insatiable and never at home. Ultimately, peace eluded me.
But back to my relationship! Remember, I was thinking, ‘Aah, now it all makes sense.’ I moved in with that guy at the age of 34, believing him to be ‘the one’. We discussed children: although he had kids from a previous marriage, we would have one of our own too. We bought a place and things were going well, I thought. My crystals and buddhas had their place in our place.
So I was beyond devastated when he came home about 18 months later to say, ‘Sorry, I can’t do this.’ The breakup of that relationship in 2010 was the start of a rather rapid internal spiral downwards. Now what? Which book? Which crystal? Which guru?
Bridesmaid: Mary (back row, third from left), at her brother’s wedding in 1999 | Photo: © Mary Steward
I moved into the house we had started to renovate. It had no roof and I had no money. It felt symbolic of…well…me. Then my car just stopped, work dried up and it was as if someone was pulling life-force plugs out of me one by one. Like a Duracell bunny without a battery, I was done. Meditating and incense did little to bring life and hope. Empty, I went to Mom and told her I didn’t have the will to take another breath, let alone wake up for tomorrow and the muddy hardships I’d come to expect every day. Scared, Mom suggested I speak to my life coach, the psychic teacher who had offered direction and encouraged me. I agreed to give her a call. She heard my tearful cry for help and promised to ‘tune in’ and call me back. I sat waiting for hope.
That evening, she called back. ‘Look, Mary, I can see that it feels dark and you’ve no idea what to do.’ ‘Um, yes,’ I said, waiting with pen and paper to write down her valued advice. ‘It’s quite simple and I don’t know how you are going to take this.’ ‘Yes?’ ‘Well… Jesus is calling you.’ ‘Do you mean the ascended masters?’ ‘No, Jesus Christ. He’s waiting at the foot of the cross.’
I put the phone down and thought, ‘That was a bit lame!’ I’d been expecting a past life or childhood issue that ‘spirits’ were directing me to move through, which was how our phone calls usually played out. Not this time. Now at the end of the line, God broke through. I was literally on my knees, and I believe He used the only voice to which I would listen. I closed the door and prayed. I had nothing to lose. Moving between folded hands and a meditation pose, I felt awkward. How does one pray, anyway? Eventually, I collapsed on the bed and said, ‘Ok, Jesus, I’ll make you the Lord of my life. Please make this real for me though. I need to know you’re real.’
And so began the best relationship I’ve ever had. It felt as if Jesus wooed me. Every day, little prayers were answered. My car started. An old client called. A number of things were restored in my world and we spoke a lot, Jesus and me. Well, mostly it was I who spoke! But I felt him.
That evening on the bed I had also prayed, ‘Please can this just be between you and me, don’t send me any Christians!’ Jesus answered that prayer until I was ready, about six months later, for the most surprisingly beautiful friendships with Christians who actually wore nice shoes, not the nasty sandals I was expecting! People of integrity, who were vulnerable, funny and honest about their life with God. People who were accessible and plugged into a source of love and truth I simply couldn’t deny.
I sussed church out from the back for a while. The singing always made me cry. I felt God and knew He was glad. Over time, I started to realise I had ‘come home’. I was still dealing with life and real challenges such as a compromised immune system, renovating a cottage without much money and needing to secure more work. The difference was, I was not alone. I felt safe. I surrendered more and more to God’s plan and will for my life. When praying, I would hear a whisper of ‘trust me’ right into my heart. I found in the Bible, in the books of Jeremiah and Isaiah, that God promises to restore His people. It felt as if He was also answering small prayers that were building my trust and faith. Those little answered prayers meant much, but it was the peace within that was more real than anything else.
The past few years have been a beautiful deepening in my intimacy with Jesus. I go through periods where I want to spend as much time as possible with him and I’ll wake up early to journal and pray and read my bible. Those times are precious and I feel filled up, but there are times when I am preoccupied with the world and work and find myself only quickly chatting to him on the plane or in the car between meetings. That’s OK! I exhale remembering God’s grace.
Today, I have treasured Christian friends and belong to a forum of women that meets once a month. We go through life together and support each other when we need to and hold each other accountable to God’s way. I attend Common Ground Church and am amazed at how God has started using my gifts of performance and speaking at church. Never saw that coming! I have an amazing job and life in Cape Town. I get invited to talk at corporates, schools and gatherings I would never have imagined attending, including ones overseas. My cottage is now renovated and beautiful. It has a roof, the most exquisite views, and even a rose garden! I love my job and have the most enriching and special relationship with my brother and his children, a wonderful relationship with my mother who lives close by, and unbelievably great friends. I am blessed in so many ways. But most importantly of all, my insatiable search for meaning and that all-elusive truth has ended. I really feel I’ve found it in Jesus Christ.
So much has changed, and yet other circumstances have stayed the same. My life still has its challenges. As the Bible says in the book of John, ‘In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.’ I do take heart. This is truth. Christ is present and real to me. I now believe that my main purpose in life is to bring a message of hope to a searching world.
Of course, I still long for a husband and a baby. My hormones were perfectly balanced on that first fertility procedure and a spectacular 12 eggs were harvested. Trust me, that’s a lot of eggs for a 40-year-old! I stand in a place trusting God not because He has fulfilled my every heart’s desire, but because I’m learning that His timing and design are beyond what we can imagine. He’s the Creator, and so uniquely creative in each of our lives. And He brings me a peace I never had before.’