Science can't prove fathers matter. That doesn't mean we don't.

By Bruce Feiler
Sunday, June 20, 2010

Happy Father's Day, dads! Now please just go away.

Yes, daddy-bashing is suddenly cool. The cover story of the latest Atlantic proclaims "The End of Men: How Women Are Taking Control -- of Everything," while inside the magazine Pamela Paul poses the emasculating question, "Are Fathers Necessary?" Her answer, after sifting through the research: probably not. Social scientists have been unable to prove that dads contribute much, she reports. The effort and quality of parenting are what really matter, not parents' gender.

"The bad news for Dad is that despite common perception, there's nothing objectively essential about his contribution," concludes Paul, the author of "Parenting, Inc."

The bad-dad rap doesn't stop there. A 20-year study of lesbian parents in the journal Pediatrics concludes that teenagers raised by two mothers (read: no dad) had better grades and fewer social problems than other teens. The study's co-author, Nanette Gartrell of the University of California at Los Angeles, explained the difference by saying that lesbian mothers are more committed to child-rearing than heterosexual parents.

So what's a beleaguered dad to do? If science can't prove that we matter, does that mean we don't?

I've had plenty of reason to think about the role of fathers recently. Two years ago, doctors found a seven-inch tumor in my left femur. On the day I learned of my life-threatening illness, my 3-year-old twin daughters came rushing to greet me at home, laughing and falling to the ground.

I crumbled. I kept imagining the recitals I might not see, the graduations I could miss, the aisles I might never walk down. Would they wonder who I was or yearn for my approval, my love, my voice?

Three days later, I awoke with a plan to fill that void. I reached out to six men from all parts of my life and asked them to be there for my daughters at key moments. This group of men -- my oldest friend, my camp counselor, my college roommate, my business partner, my closest confidant and a tortured, romantic poet -- became the Council of Dads. I asked each to convey a different message to my girls: how to live, how to think, how to travel, how to dream.

Talking with these friends, it became clear to me that the men of my generation are often more involved as parents than their fathers were; they're also more communicative and more open to discussing their feelings and their kids. This may reflect shifting family dynamics, with both parents increasingly working outside the home, or new economic realities.

"For the first time in American history," explained Rabbi Harold Kushner, the author of "When Bad Things Happen to Good People," "we have a generation of Americans growing up who cannot look forward confidently to being more successful than their parents." That's a psychological need, he added, especially for men. "So what a lot of people are doing is redefining success: 'Okay, I'm not going to make as much money as my father made, but I'm going to have my priorities straight. I'm not going to be so busy I can't watch my kids at a dance recital.' "

But while many dads are spending more time with their kids, an alarming number are spending less. The Census Bureau reports that in 2009, more than 24 million children lived apart from their biological fathers. That is one out of every three kids in the United States, including 25 percent of white children, 34 percent of Hispanics and 64 percent of African Americans. The percentage of American kids coping with absent fathers has tripled since 1960.

Good thing fathers are unnecessary, one might conclude -- so few are even around.

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