THERE IS A CREEPING SENSE of bitterness in our society - an ugly cynicism that says that fathers are no longer necessary.

I'd seen hints of this viewpoint over the years, and I couldn't blame those who espoused it. It sometimes came from women who'd been abandoned by men whom they were better off without. It came from grown children who'd never known their fathers and blamed their failures on that.

I heard it from the addicted and the imprisoned, from the unemployed and embittered. I heard it, quite frankly, from people who could've blamed their shortcomings on any number of unfortunate circumstances.

I heard it in rehabs and on street corners. I heard it in soup kitchens and in shelters. I heard it in places where people too often end up after life's mistakes.

In those places - places where I found myself after experiencing struggles of my own - the stories were achingly similar. A father abandoned the family. A divorce split parents apart. The father was a faded memory who didn't seem real anymore. He was a missing piece of someone's childhood; the impetus for failure; the precursor to heartbreak; a convenient target for rage.

In the years since I righted my own ship and began my journey back from the desolate places where falling down was the norm, I've noticed that the story line of the missing father has evolved. It has moved into segments of our society where successful people reside.

In the week since I wrote in this column about the difference between fathering as a noncustodial parent and fathering as a married man, I've noticed it even more.

In places where one wouldn't expect it, a man in the home is seen as a luxury that has little to do with rearing successful children. And in my view, that's a wrongheaded shift that's driven by hurt and pain.

Ironically, that emotional hurt has taken up residence in corner offices and in posh communities. Some people who've experienced material success without fathers have come to see fatherhood as an unnecessary extra. But fatherhood is much more than that, and the research to prove it is clear.

"When fathers are involved in the lives of their children, especially their education, their children learn more, perform better in school, and exhibit healthier behavior," says research from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "Even when fathers do not share a home with their children, their active involvement can have a lasting and positive impact."

I know that to be true. In my experience, however, fatherhood works best when it is paired with motherhood and sealed by marriage. Is that always possible? No. But that doesn't mean we should no longer aspire to work together, to support one another, to love ourselves and our children enough to try.

Yes, there are scores of people whose inspirational success stories belie statistics that predict poverty and prison for fatherless children. Yes, there are countless examples of those who made it without the guidance of a man in the home.

Still, fatherhood is more than some outmoded ideal. It is a key piece of the puzzle that makes us human.

And although it's possible to succeed materially without a man in the home to tell us he's proud of us, to work and provide for us, and to show us love in ways that complement motherhood, success is bigger than acquiring things.

Success is about the emotional stability that comes from a father's love. Success is about the relational skills that come from watching a father's example. Success comes from the self-control that a father's discipline can teach.

But more than any of those things, success is about knowing we can't give up on fatherhood, because while some of us can succeed despite the absence of a father, many of us won't succeed without his presence.