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

But if social science has not proved that having dads present is helpful, it has demonstrated that not having them around is dreadful for the kids. Such children are five times more likely to be poor, the Census Bureau says, and show higher tendencies toward obesity, dropping out of high school and crime. Researchers at Columbia University found that even children living with two parents who display a poor relationship with their fathers are 68 percent more likely to smoke, drink or use drugs compared with all teens in such households.

Paul notes such "ominous statistics" in her Atlantic article but emphasizes that we don't know if dads themselves make the difference. Maybe it's just the income a dad provides that matters, or the presence of a second parent, regardless of gender.

But Vincent DiCaro, senior director of public affairs for the National Fatherhood Initiative, said Paul's article didn't consider the realities most parents and kids face.

"In the real world, parents don't get to choose between having their child raised by two women, two men, or a man and a woman," he told me. "The decision most people face is whether a child would be better raised by a single mom or a two-parent family. And since the mom-dad, two-parent family has been proven to be the better environment in which to raise children, we need to encourage fathers to be involved."

On June 8, the National Fatherhood Initiative gave out its Military Fatherhood Award. I attended the event in Washington and watched the military fathers who spoke break down as they talked about their kids' struggles during their absences. More than half a million dads are in active service, affecting 1.8 million children.

The winner this year was Master Sgt. Rick Marston of McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey. At the ceremony, his 10-year-old son, Jake, said that when his father is deployed, he feels he must be more responsible and help with his younger brothers.

Tim Red, who served active duty in the National Guard for 20 years and now works for the fatherhood initiative, said his 15-year-old son told him that the day he was deployed to Iraq, he "stopped praying," because his dad would no longer see him play baseball. It's clear that when fathers are serving, their families are hurting.

Articles and arguments like "Are Fathers Necessary?" grate because they put men into the same trap that women have been clambering out of for years. It reduces us to our biology (give us your sperm, and we'll take care of the rest) and our stereotypes (fathers roughhouse, but mothers nurture). Maybe those researchers who can't find evidence that fathers matter should visit Fort Stewart, Quantico or McGuire.

A few days before the Military Fatherhood event, I went to my daughters' first ballet recital. The auditorium was brimming with mothers and fathers. As I stood among them, I thought back to the day I learned of my illness. Ballet recitals were one of life's pleasures I had most feared missing. Tears streamed down my face.

Today, I am cancer-free, but even better, the six men in my Council of Dads are committed to being father figures to my daughters. Whether or not we're necessary, we are present. And though I may not be able to prove it, my daughters seem to like having us around.

Bruce Feiler is the author of "The Council of Dads: My Daughters, My Illness, and the Men Who Could Be Me."

From the archives: Bruce Feiler's most recent Outlook essay was "Moses: Biblical prophet, American icon" (Oct. 18). Additional Outlook coverage of parenting includes " 'Chemo' shouldn't be part of his vocabulary" by Philip Lerman (Oct. 11) and "Nowhere to go but home alone" by Brigid Schulte (Sept. 27).

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