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Dads aren't interchangeable, substitute moms or even all the same. In the changing landscape of the American family, the role of the father has also changed in the last few decades. How best to define that role depends on who you ask, a fact clearly demonstrated by the New York Time's "Room for Debate" discussion on fatherhood.

Brad Harrington points to what he thinks got missed in recent coverage of a Pew Research Center study that said 40 percent of families with children have a woman as the primary breadwinner. While much of the report's coverage celebrated women's gains, it missed the "dirty little secret" that in five of eight of the those homes, she was not just the primary breadwinner, but the only one, said Harrington, executive director of the Boston Center for Work and Family and a research professor in the Carroll School of Management.

"That’s not the 'end of men,' and it’s certainly not an economic victory for American women," he wrote. "When unmarried women are the breadwinners, which is now the case in 25 percent of U.S. households, the family’s average income is only $23,000 a year. More than half of the children in these homes are living in poverty. Glossing over this fact ignores the importance of having fathers in the picture. The female breadwinners who are making more than their working husbands are in a whole different income bracket; their median household income is $80,000."

Family life, said Harrington, is not a competition between the genders: "The progress that really matters is whether all American families are doing better."

In a half century, American society "has gone from 'father knows best' to 'father knows nothing' to 'who needs a father?' " laments Juli Slattery, co-founder of Authentic Intimacy, a nonprofit group, and author of "Finding the Hero in Your Husband." "While some may view this as a modern advancement, I see it as a disastrous erosion of how family best operates," she wrote.

Slattery credits dad with providing a sense of security and passing down the blessing of validation to his children. Children who don't get that may "unconsciously spend a lifetime searching for it." Fathers, she said, are worth fighting for, on a child's behalf.

The "Room for Debate" discussion is a vivid and many-faceted set of small essays that feature various views, from Singe Mothers by Choice founder Jane Mattes' piece that declares dads are "valuable but not indispensable" to a piece on how much fathers need their children, written by Hanna Rosin, a senior editor at The Atlantic and at Slate, who is the author of "The End of Men: And the Rise of Women."

Other essayists are National Marriage Project Director W. Bradford Wilcox on the fact that dads are not superfluous; Michele Weldon, assistant professor of journalism at Northwestern University, who writes that sometimes children are better off without their fathers; and Terrance Heath, activist and writer for The Republic of T and The Campaign for America's Future, who notes that family need not be one man, one woman.

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