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

By Bruce Feiler
Sunday, June 20, 2010; B02

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.

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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