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Popular wisdom holds that we don't matter all that much. We fathers, I mean. Popular wisdom contends that, although it's certainly better to have us in the home and pitching in, it's not crucial. Not a handicap too difficult to overcome.

This wisdom survives in the face of past studies indicating that kids reared without fathers are more likely to do poorly in school, live in poverty, go to jail. It will probably also survive the latest study, released a few days ago by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

This report says that a teen-ager from a two-parent household who doesn't get along with dad is far more likely to abuse drugs than one reared by a single mother with whom the kid gets along. In other words, a bad dad is even worse than no dad at all.

And you wonder: If all these things are true, how can popular wisdom continue to spread the lie that fathers don't matter? Maybe it's because we need to believe it. Maybe that's the only way to forgive fatherhood its recent failures.

In his 1995 book, "Fatherless America," David Blankenhorn calls it the "shrinking" of the American father. During the 18th century, he says, a father defined himself by four roles: "irreplaceable caregiver, moral educator, head of family and family breadwinner."

But that was before we moved off the farm, and the need to earn a living began to separate fathers from the home. It was before feminism upended traditional gender roles, and the sexual revolution popularized the notion of intercourse without obligation. And it was before the Me years, when selfishness became respectable.

Now a father is . . . what? Just a planter, it sometimes seems. Just a guy who seeds a garden -- maybe seeds a few -- then leaves it to the woman to tend the resulting flowers and protect them from encroaching weeds. One need not feel a desire to turn back the clock on progress to feel a wrongness there. Or to marvel at how we've struggled to make the wrongness right, how we've rerouted our mores and deconstructed our stigmas so that it becomes possible to be an absent or uninvolved father and suffer no social cost.

Think about it: Do we admire Julius Erving less today than we did before discovering that he has a daughter he barely knows? The answer, of course, is no. Which explains why many men find it easy to plant without gardening. Easy to work late every night, getting home after the kids are in bed. Easy to drop babies all over town and become little more than a visitor in their lives. Easy to disappear.

And families say, good riddance. Indeed, it has become cliche, the heroic single mom, abandoned by the feckless father, who successfully raises up a family on nothing but guts and determination. And the child who praises her for it, saying he didn't miss the man who wasn't there, because she filled both roles so capably.

You have to step carefully here. You don't want to denigrate the achievement of mother or child. Heck, you celebrate what they've done in the face of adversity. Still, this much must be acknowledged . . . there will always be a hole where that man should have been.

Men bring to the table different strengths, experiences and perceptions than women do, and the child reared without access to those things will feel their absence, even if he can't give the feeling a name.

I need no survey to know this for truth. I've been speaking on this topic for a good part of the last year at book signings. And it's seldom that I'm not approached afterward by some ashen-faced man, some weeping woman -- childhood long behind them now, working, productive, maybe with kids of their own and yet, wondering still . . . How could he leave me behind? Why didn't he take the time to know me?

The wound is 20 years old, maybe 30, but it still bleeds. It makes me angry with the men who inflict cuts so easily. And impatient with popular wisdom for the forgiving lie it tells.

Miami Herald

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